Naming names

With The Namesake opening today in movie theaters across the country, I found my interview in The Dallas Morning News with author Jhumpa Lahiri from when the novel first came out. Consider it a necessary primer to read before you see the film.

September 20, 2003
by Jerome Weeks

"Oh, yes," says Jhumpa Lahiri with a wry smile, "the name thing."

A writer named Jhumpa Lahiri (ZHUM-pa La-HEER-ee) might well be sensitive to names. Her own Indian name, Jhumpa, doesn't really mean anything. It's a pet name that her mother, unable to decide between two other names, simply entered on Ms. Lahiri's first school registration.

"It's the most passive thing in the world," Ms. Lahiri notes. "You don't take part in being named."

"The name thing" is a major thread that runs through Ms. Lahiri's well-received new novel, The Namesake. Ms. Lahiri, 36, was the first Indian-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, when her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won in 2000. The prize shot her to the front of a group of trailblazing Indian writers in North America, including Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu) and Canadian Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance).

The lead character in The Namesake is an American child of Indian immigrants -- much like Ms. Lahiri. Gogol feels burdened in suburbia, not only with his Indian background but also with this oddity, his name, a legacy from a train wreck his father literally survived because of his copy of Nikolai Gogol stories. Yet even as Gogol succeeds in America, he never feels fully American. Or Indian.

Much like Ms. Lahiri.

"There aren't many groups where I don't figure on the outside," Ms. Lahiri says. "I don't feel fully anything."

Slender and elegant with dark, lustrous eyes, Ms. Lahiri says this is in a cool but friendly manner. It's not a complaint; it's an observation. She has gotten the reputation of being distant, aloof, but it only seems part of a natural, graceful formality. As she says of groups,"I always remove myself -- to observe."

As an Indian-American, Ms. Lahiri is well situated to observe the different meanings in a single name: On the whole, Indian immigrants have not changed their names when they've come here.

"There are Indians who do, of course," Ms. Lahiri says, "but it's mostly not the case, not like earlier immigrant groups, many of whom changed theirs to fit in or who were forced to change them."

In fact, Ms. Lahiri says, "'Gogol' is a common pet name in Bengal. I even had a cousin named Gogol."

Born in London in 1967 but raised in Rhode Island, Ms. Lahiri was well on her way to an academic career like her parents (her father is a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, her mother teaches). She had earned a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies at Boston University when she walked away from academia. She tried journalism and then moved to short stories. She started winning notice for the vivid clarity of her prose, her feel for divided characters.

The "name thing," Part 2: Properly speaking, Ms. Lahiri is not only Indian-American, she is Bengali. First declared a province by the British (to designate the land of Bengali speakers), the original area is now divided between western India and Bangladesh.

"Many people are not aware of how diffferent Bengalis are [from other Indians]," Ms. Lahiri says. "But if you're from India, you're totally aware. The language is different, the food is different."

There is even a Bengali stereotype: intellectual, artistic, political. An old joke says if you hear one Bengali speaking, it's a poet. Two Bengalis, they're politicians. Three, it's an election.

There is, however, another name for people such as Ms. Lahiri or Gogol, an acronym that appears in The Namesake: ABCD. It stands for "American-Born Confused Desi" -- "desi" meaning Indian.

"It's basically an insulting term," Ms. Lahiri explains. It was created by Indian nationals to designate second-generation immigrants, children of the high-tech diaspora from India that has filled America's silicon valleys and sweatshops.

The ABCDs, Ms. Lahiri says, "get it from both sides" -- from Americans who don't accept them and Indians who feel they've lost their culture. In short, it's a classic, American tug-of-war over identity, a fertile field for Ms. Lahiri.

It's also a community to which Ms. Lahiri and her husband, a Time editor, have added one: their son, Octavian, born May 8, 2002.

Ms. Lahiri now has a new loyalty. Having a child is a "transforming experience," she says. "I'm part of a group now, albeit a small one. A family of my own.

"I'm never outside that unit."

copyright, The Dallas Morning News

March 9, 2007 6:11 AM |



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