British Poetry Seminar I(2019)

 Jhumpa Lahiri


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In 2000 Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her first book, the short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999). At 32, she was the youngest writer ever to win the award. Exploring the intersection of Indian and American culture, the book's nine short stories probe the immigrant's experience of alienation and displacement. The theme of assimilation recurs in Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake , published in 2003 to general critical acclaim.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London in 1967, the daughter of Bengali parents who emigrated from Calcutta. When Lahiri was three, her family moved to South Kingston, Rhode Island, where her father, Amar, was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island and her mother, Tia, was a teacher's aide at an elementary school. Lahiri has one sister, seven years younger. Throughout her childhood, Lahiri made regular visits to see her extended family in Calcutta, staying for weeks and sometimes months. 'It was important to my mother to raise her children as Indian, thinking and doing things in an Indian way, for whatever that means,' Lahiri recalled in a New York Times interview. Aware of her racial and cultural distinctiveness, Lahiri was a shy girl who tended to retreat into the world of books. In elementary school, she often spent her lunchtimes conceiving miniature 'novels' with friends, an activity that allowed her to observe and analyse the world around her from a safe distance, without having to enter it.
           Lahiri graduated from South Kingston High School and went on to study English literature at Barnard College in New York City. After completing her BA degree, she continued her education at Boston University, where she received three master's degrees -- in English literature, creative writing, and comparative literature and the arts -- as well as a PhD in Renaissance studies. During these years, she won the Henfield Prize from Transatlantic Review in 1993 and the fiction prize from Louisville Review in 1997 for her short stories. By 1997 Lahiri had begun to tire of academia. While she interned at Boston magazine and finished her dissertation, she began to shift her ambition towards creative writing. The following year, Lahiri published three short stories in the New Yorker and was named by the magazine as one of the 20 best young writers in America.
           Lahiri's reputation was further enhanced when her story 'Interpreter of Maladies' was included in the Best American Fiction anthology of 1999, edited by Amy Tan . The phrase 'interpreter of maladies' had occurred to Lahiri after a friend mentioned that he was working as an interpreter for a Boston-area doctor, translating Russian patients' complaints into English. After a four-year gestation, Lahiri conceived the title story of her acclaimed collection. Set in India, it revolves around Mr Kapasi, who works as a translator for an Indian doctor and also as a tour guide. During the course of the story, he is showing local tourist attractions to Mr and Mrs Das, first-generation Americans whose parents emigrated from India. When Mrs Das learns of his skill as an interpreter, she confides a secret she has kept for years, which causes her great pain. 'I was hoping you could help me feel better,' Mrs Das says, 'say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.' Lahiri addressed the question of remedies in another story, 'Mrs Sen', about an Indian immigrant in the US who goes to great lengths to buy fresh fish as a way of staying connected to her native culture. 'Lahiri ingeniously finds a story about the ferocity of desire in what this indefatigable wife will do for the sake of halibut,' wrote Caleb Crain in the New York Times Book Review .
           Together with the challenges of cultural assimilation, issues of love and marriage are also prevalent in the collection. Lahiri depicted love as an essential antidote to the problem of isolation or, alternatively, as the ultimate source of the problem. As Crain described it, the collection 'features marriages that have been arranged, rushed into, betrayed, invaded, and exhausted. Her subject is not love's failure, however, but the opportunity that an artful spouse (like an artful writer) can make of failure -- the rebirth possible in a relationship when you discover how little of the other person you know. In Lahiri's sympathetic tales, the pang of disappointment turns into a sudden hunger to know more.' While she has maintained that the characters in the collection are fictional, Lahiri also acknowledged that many are inspired by her family. 'Mrs Sen', for example is based on her mother, while the protagonist in the collection's final story, 'The Third and Final Continent', was suggested by her father. Lahiri was immensely gratified when her father said, 'My whole life is in that story'.
           Although some critics of Interpreter of Maladies questioned the authenticity of the three stories set in India and charged that the author lapsed at times into stereotype, most reviewers praised the collection for its elegance and insight. According to Publishers' Weekly , 'Lahiri's touch in these nine tales is delicate, but her observations remain damningly accurate, and her bittersweet stories are unhampered by nostalgia.' Similarly, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times Book Review called the book 'a precocious debut'. She wrote: 'Ms. Lahiri chronicles her characters' lives with both objectivity and compassion while charting the emotional temperature of their lives with tactile precision. She is a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.'
           Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, appeared in 2003. The protagonist is Gogol Ganguli, a child of Indian parents who is coming to terms with his identity as a first-generation American. He bears the name of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol after his pet name accidentally appears on his birth certificate. Inheriting all the promise of his American birthright, Gogol attends Yale University and becomes an accomplished architect. Still, he struggles with intense shame over his unusual name and longs to shed the burden of his Indian heritage. 'In so many ways, [Gogol's] family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another,' Lahiri wrote. 'And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is. They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.' After a failed attempt at blending into the picture-perfect milieu of Manhattan WASP society, Gogol meets Moushumi, the daughter of Bengali parents. Moushumi's conflict with her Indian American identity resonates with Gogol, and their allegiance offers him a form of resolution.
           A Publisher's Weekly reviewer said that The Namesake didn't live up to the standards of Lahiri's fist book, stating: 'By any other writer, this would be hailed as a promising debut, but it fails to clear the exceedingly high bar set by her previous work.' But a number of critics disagreed. Among them, the influential Kakutani maintained that the novel 'more than fulfils the promise of Ms Lahiri's debut collection of stories', noting, 'Ms Lahiri has not only given us a wonderfully intimate and knowing family portrait, she has also taken the haunting chamber music of her first collection of stories and re-orchestrated its themes of exile and identity to create a symphonic work, a debut novel that is as assured and eloquent as the work of a long-time master of the craft.'
           Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias, a journalist, in 2001 in a wedding that was performed according to Hindu tradition at Singhi Palace outside of Calcutta, and they currently live in New York City.


The New Yorker's interview with Jhumpa Lahiri





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