Magazine article Newsweek

Who Says There's No Second Act? Jhumpa Lahiri's First Book Made Her an Overnight Literary Celebrity. Now She's about to Publish a Novel That Even Her Family Says Will Be Her 'Acid Test.'

Magazine article Newsweek

Who Says There's No Second Act? Jhumpa Lahiri's First Book Made Her an Overnight Literary Celebrity. Now She's about to Publish a Novel That Even Her Family Says Will Be Her 'Acid Test.'

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz

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. …

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