Jhumpa Lahiri has had quite a run in her short writing career. Her very first published work, a collection of stories called "Interpreter of Maladies," won her the Pulitzer in 2000. Not too shabby for a first time out. Her next effort, "The Namesake," was just released as a feature film starring Kal Penn (taking a crack at serious drama after more trivial fare such as "Harold & Kumar" and "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj").
A major award and a Hollywood movie - that's the sort of one-two literary punch most writers spend their careers only dreaming about. Her success can at least partially be explained by her choice to concentrate on reality and real life experience - a departure from what we've seen from Salman Rushdie and other Indian writers, whose styles tend to embrace the magical. "The Namesake" richly chronicles the difficult realities Indian immigrants face in America, but it's the sort of material anyone familiar with loneliness, alienation, displacement and isolation can relate to.
"The Namesake" begins with the story of Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who leave their native Calcutta for Massachusetts shortly after their arranged marriage is finalized. Ashoke has wanderlust, and he welcomes a new life in a strange land. But for the now house-bound and pregnant Ashima, every day in her new country is a painful reminder that she's a stranger in a really strange land. She describes the feeling as a sort of "lifelong pregnancy - a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts."
While the loneliness of being a foreigner continues to be an underlying theme, the story soon shifts to focus on the Ganguli's son, Gogol. If you think that name doesn't quite sound Indian, you'd be right. It's taken from his father's favorite writer, a fact Gogol isn't made aware of for years. To Gogol, the name doesn't really seem to belong to any particular culture, or hold any particular meaning to him. He doesn't understand why his father would forever mark him with such a name.
As a teen who wants what all teens seem to desperately want - to fly under the radar - the name is more than a mere annoyance. It feeds into the powerful sense of weirdness Gogol feels about his family, his culture, and therefore himself. He becomes rebellious, surly and sullen (sound familiar to any of you parents out there?), and tries desperately to carve out an identity for himself separate from his family and ethnicity.
Gogol gets older, changes his name, smokes pot, has girlfriends, engages in sex, and in general does the sorts of things lots of young adults do when they're trying to "find themselves." He hits his 30s, and tries to find happiness with an Indian girl. While Gogol never wholly embraces his background, he does finally reach a place where he can feel more or less comfortable as an Indian-American.
In the end, "The Namesake" is not really an "Indian" book at all. Lahiri's wide appeal is largely due to her work's universal themes, and the quality of her rich, detailed, fluid writing style. While it may not make for groundbreaking literature, it sure does make for a good read.
- Diane Lewis is a library technician at the Lake Tahoe Community College Library. Please share any of your comments, criticisms or deep-dish pie recipes by e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.