Tag-Archive for ◊ Bengali literature ◊

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• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London in 1967 but moved to Rhode Island USA with her parents at the age of two. She received a B.A. in English literature from Barnard College, an M.A. in English from Boston University as well as an M.A. in Creative Writing, in comparative studies in literature and arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies. She taught creative writing at Boston university and the Rhode Island school of design.

Jhumpa Lahiri has written only two books to date: her short stories “Interpreter of Maladies” published in 1999. It became a best-seller in no time, was translated into 29 languages, and won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the first time to have been won by an Indian. She also won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Her second book “The Namesake”, published in 2003, is her first novel. The New Yorker has published two of her stories: “Nobody’s Business” in 2001 and “Hell and Heaven” in 2004. The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40.

Jhumpa Lahiri lives and works in Brooklyn with her Guatemalan American husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, who works as a deputy editor for the Time Latin America and their son Octavio. She was married in 2001. Her parents live three hours away from her home. Her father is a librarian and her mother a professor of Bengali. She also has a younger sister.

Her real name is Nilanjana Svdeshna. Jhumpa is her nick-name. “The Namesake” is being filmed and is to be released in 2006.

“The Namesake”, J.L.’s first novel, deals with more than one theme: the difficulty for immigrants to adapt to a new life far away from home, the clash between different cultures and the problem of integration. Ashoke and Ashima, newly married in Calcutta, move to Cambridge Massachusetts for Ashoke to continue his studies and obtain an MIT engineering degree. Ashoke is more supple and open-minded vis-à-vis the American way of life than his wife, Ashima who will never be able to accept this new culture thrust on her. During the 32 years from 1968 to 2000 we come across the struggle of the Bengali second generation immigrants and their search for identity.

Jhumpa Lahiri says in one of her interviews: “The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially so for those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, as is the case for their children. The older I get, the more I am aware that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even though in many ways I am so much more American than they are. In fact, it is still very hard to think of myself as an American. (This is of course complicated by the fact that I was born in London.) I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienantion, the knowledge of, and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children. On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants – those with strong ties to their country of origin – is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. This has been my experience in any case.”

When asked which country was her motherland, JL replied: “None”, “No country is my motherland. I always find myself in exile in whichever country I travel to. That’s why I was always tempted to write something about those living their lives in exile”, she said.

Reading this would explain her deeply moving way of describing her characters and their various conflicts, especially the main character, Gogol, who had been given a nick-name – a Bengali tradition – which is neither Indian, nor American, and not even a first name but a Russian surname. He was named after the Russian writer, Nicolaï Gogol, his father’s favourite author and also rescuer from the train accident in India. People saw the father in the train’s wreckage thanks to the father holding Gogol’s collection of short stories. Gogol hated his nickname, which became his official name, and felt relieved to go and have it changed to Nikhil.

Jhumpa Lahiri says: “The original spark for the book was the fact that a friend of my cousin’s in India had the pet name, Gogol. I wanted to write about the pet name, good name distinction for a long time, and I know I needed the space of a novel to explore the idea.” The idea has been very well explored in depth in addition to the immigration/assimilation problem.

The description of the characters is quite detailed and charming, like Ashima’s examining her future husband’s shoes in the lobby of her parents’ house before walking into the sitting room.

Gogol grows up to be an intelligent, well educated man, but feels helplessly lost. He has a good, promising job and yet can’t find his way in life. He was born and grew up in America from Benghali parents with an odd name that he didn’t appreciate and which became his real name. He had a bad experience with an American young lady and a hurtful one from his Benghali wife, which led to divorce.

He is the main character in the book and the very touching one. Through Gogol we live the trials and tribulations of the Ganguli family. The style of the narration is elegant and so is the prose. All the events are described in great detail. Even the description of the different Indian dishes are mouth watering. It’s all very endearing and very life like.

Full circle is reached when Nikhil discovers among the books his mother piled in a box to give away to the library, the long forgotten volume that his father once gave him as a birthday present and which he never even looked at. Suddenly Nikhil felt the urge to discover “The Collection of Short Stories” by Nikolaï Gogol. Like his grandfather and his father before him, Nikhil has embarked on a new discovery.

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