After crisscrossing the country on a book tour, Jhumpa Lahiri came home to New York City — and a roomful of eager fans. All seats were taken at Lahiri’s recent reading at the Polytechnic Preparatory School, just two blocks from her home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The school opened its heavy oak doors to the Pulitzer Prize winning author and let the crowd spill into the front hallway and up the front staircase.
The demure Lahiri took her seat at the front of the room and began to read from her book, “The Namesake.” Her black hair shone under the lights and her large, dark eyes peeked out from behind the top of the book.
“The book is really about accepting who you are,” said Lahiri, who was born in London but raised in the United States. “There was a time when I felt confusion and conflicting loyalties between being American and Bengali. But now I think I understand it more.”
“The Namesake,” Lahiri’s first novel, has received rave reviews from such publications as The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. Booklist magazine called it an “avidly descriptive, and luxuriously paced first novel.”
Lahiri eased on to the literary scene in 1999 with her debut collection of short stories, “The Interpreter of Maladies.” Back then her publisher, Mariner, simply released the book without sending her out on a book tour. The collection ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000 when Lahiri was 32.
Now, crowds at her readings are huge, with some people coming with not only books to sign but old copies of the New Yorker, where her stories had appeared years ago.
What's in a name?
“The Namesake” is the story of Gogal, a Bengali boy who is named on a whim after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. In Bengali culture, it is traditional to have two names, a “good” name, or a name for which you’re known outside the home and appears on official documents, as well as a “pet” name used only by family and close friends.
Gogol was supposed to have a different name that was to come in a letter from his grandmother in Calcutta. However, the letter got lost in the mail, the grandmother fell ill and died and Gogol’s parents have to give the hospital a name for their baby before they are discharged.
“The letter is key to the story,” Lahiri said with a laugh at the reading. “Without it I wouldn’t have a plot.”
Gogol grows to loathe his name, mostly because of its lack of a link to anything either American or Bengali.
Lahiri insists that “The Namesake” is not an autobiographical novel.
“I decided to write about my own Gogol,” she told her fans. “The bedrock of the story is autobiographical, such as living in the suburbs and going to Bengali parties. But I imagined all the specifics to Gogol’s life.”
The idea for the novel came from a boy Lahiri had heard about while growing up; the boy’s name was Gogol. It got her thinking about what names mean and how that can shape your identity.
In “The Namesake,” Gogol is confused because he not only has just one name — unlike all his Bengali friends and family — but his name is Russian and has no connection to his ancestry. While most Americans also only have one name, Gogol finds his name all the more disturbing once he learns in school about the oddball yet brilliant writer with whom he shares the name.
“From the little he knows about Russian writers, it dismays him that his parents chose the weirdest namesake,” Lahiri writes in her book. “Leo or Anton, he could have lived with that. Alexander, shortened to Alex, he would have greatly preferred. But Gogol sounds ludicrous to his ears, lacking dignity or gravity. What dismays him most is the irrelevance of it all. Gogol, he’s been tempted to tell his father on more than one occasion, was his father’s favorite author, not his.”
Importance of books
“The Namesake” is about books and how they can transport a person. Lahiri’s Gogol got his name because of the book that saved his father from being left for dead during a train wreck in India. It is also books that serve as an escape for Gogol when he feels displaced growing up in America. Throughout his life, Gogol immerses himself in study, ends up going to Yale University and then becomes an architect, shrouding himself in the study of structure.
Books have served Lahiri well. Winning the Pulitzer was an interesting turn of events for a woman who had been turned down by all the creative writing programs to which she had applied as an undergraduate.
But instead of giving up the writing life, Lahiri spent the year after college working and crafting stories in her spare time. She was accepted by Boston University, where she not only earned a masters degree in English but a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies as well. She went on to write “Interpreter of Maladies,” won the Pulitzer as well as the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Like Gogol, Lahiri has accepted who she is and where she is going in life, including having a son who is part Bengali and part Hispanic, like her husband. She said there was a time when her parents would have preferred that she marry a Bengali man. In the end, though, she felt that wasn’t the best choice for her.
“Parents want for their children what seems safe, because that is what they know,” she said. “But that can seem restrictive. I accept what I am. I don’t compartmentalize. I am aware of the contradictions.”