For years a family story haunted Jhumpa Lahiri. A cousin of her father's was in a train wreck in India, and was given up for dead until a rescuer happened to spot something. Perhaps it was sunlight glinting off his watch--the details varied depending on who was telling the tale. But the essence of the story captured Lahiri's imagination: what happens to a person whose very life depends on a random act?
That question provoked her much-anticipated new novel, "The Namesake," in which an Indian father decides to move to Boston after a similarly improbable rescue. But Lahiri, 36, has another reason to be obsessed with near miracles and sudden reversals of fortune. When her debut short-story collection, "Interpreter of Maladies," was published in 1999, she morphed almost overnight from unknown grad student to best-selling writer. "Interpreter" got rave reviews and prestigious awards, topped off with the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The young, gifted and photogenic Lahiri became a literary celebrity both in this country and in India, her parents' homeland, where her 2001 Calcutta wedding to journalist Alberto Vourvoulias was breathlessly reported.
Now that her second book is about to be released, Lahiri jokes, her friends and family are full of helpful comments--like "This is the acid test for you." But her fans won't be disappointed. "The Namesake" hits many of her now familiar themes: the uneasy status of the immigrant, the tension between India and the United States--and between family tradition and individual freedom. Lahiri says she sees it as a kind of coming-of-age novel, although not in the traditional sense. A whole family, rather than a single protagonist, must come to terms with a new identity. The parents are young adults when they arrive in Boston, but confronting a new country means reinventing themselves. And they have a hard time connecting with their American-born children--who must figure out their own ways of being both Indian and American.
Lahiri says that when she began writing "The Namesake," she wasn't sure whether it would be a short story or a novel. "I just wanted to write something focusing on the experiences of a Bengali-American kid," she says. The main character came to her before she had even sold her first book. "I knew that he would be this person who had real trouble with his name." The father has named his son Gogol in honor of the Russian writer, but at 18, Gogol wants to become his own person and change his name to Nikhil. When he makes his announcement, there is an uneasy silence at the dinner table. At last the father says, "In America anything is possible. Do as you wish."
Lahiri concedes some parallels between Gogol's journey and her own. Born in London to Bengali parents, she grew up in Rhode Island, where her father became head of the cataloging department at the University of Rhode Island library. She decided to go to Barnard because she'd become obsessed with New York City when she was growing up. "I felt that here was a place that was so dynamic and diverse," she says. "I felt that there was this climate of tolerance." She knew she wanted to write fiction, but didn't think she'd ever be able to make a living at it.
So after Barnard, she headed for graduate school at Boston University, where she earned a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies. To say the least, her dissertation topic was abstruse: the use of Italian architecture as a setting in English drama of the Jacobean period. This seems about as far as possible from the struggle of immigrant Indians in New England. But Lahiri now sees the connection to her own experience. "There was a strange ambivalence among the English about Italy," she says. "There was the lure of Italy, but also the danger. I think it was a very removed way for me to investigate some issues."
You can see vestiges of her scholarship--and of her ambivalence about being a scholar--in "The Namesake" when Gogol, in an act of measured rebellion against his engineer father, becomes an architect. "Architecture is one of those careers that a lot of people choose because they feel torn between doing something creative and expressive," Lahiri says, "but don't want to be completely out there, like a painter." Lahiri had thought that being an academic would be a satisfactory compromise with her artistic impulses, but the success of "Interpreter" made it unnecessary. Except for a bit of teaching, she now works full time on her fiction--or as full time as the mother of a 14-month-old son can manage.
Some of the most memorable scenes in "The Namesake" take place in Calcutta, when Gogol's family makes periodic visits home. Lahiri says they were modeled on her own childhood trips back to India, where she was surrounded by a vast extended family and got to see her parents in a setting where they were not foreigners, and could just be themselves. But those trips to India also proved unsettling. "I've often felt," she says, "that I am somehow illegitimate in both cultures. A true Indian doesn't accept me as an Indian and a true American doesn't accept me as an American." The few negative reviews of "Interpreter" came from Indians who didn't like the way she portrayed their culture. "Some Indians were sensitive to the fact that the characters I wrote about were not very positive," she says. But, she adds, "art is selective. Those were the characters and situations I felt I should write about."
So she's ready for the critics of her second act--and she's already working on her third. "I have all these ideas that are percolating," she says. "The more I write, the more I'm learning about how very strange the experience is. It's so difficult, so exasperating, so mysterious." And no matter what the critics may say, it's more "out there" than Renaissance scholarship: a life spent transforming simple stories of family into the surprises, reversals and near miracles of art.