"I just tried really hard to not let that interfere with my writing," says Lahiri, who's just published her first novel, The Namesake. "I don't write to win prizes. I write because that's what I love to do...I just wanted to write a decent first novel and see what that was like, rather than satisfy the expectations of the outside world."
It's not surprising that The Namesake is much more than decent. The engrossing novel focuses on Gogol Ganguli, the American-born son of Indian parents who moved to Boston in the late '60s. Through Gogol's story, Lahiri explores themes of immigration, assimilation, loss, family and identity.
Lahiri got the initial idea for The Namesake after hearing about a Bengali boy named Gogol. "The idea stuck in my head," says Lahiri. "It got me thinking about having unexpected names or unusual names and led me to think about what it's like to grow up in a culture or society where your name doesn't make sense in an obvious way. The idea for the book grew out of the name."
In the novel, Gogol hates his name, which stems from a traumatic experience from his father's past. On a trip to visit an uncle in Jamshedpur, his father, Ashoke, happens to be up late reading The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol when his train crashes. He survives the accident; rescuers might have passed him over for dead if he hadn't been clutching a single page of the book.
In homage to that incident, Ashoke gives his son the pet name Gogol. According to Indian tradition, children are given both a pet name and a "good" name -- one for use with the family behind closed doors, the other for use in public. But through a series of mishaps, Gogol's pet name also becomes his good one. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, Lahiri also goes by her pet name, Jhumpa.)
The protagonist grows up in the dark about why his parents called him Gogol. When asked why Ashoke withholds this information, Lahiri says, "My sense is that for many immigrants it's like a death and a rebirth to leave your native country and come to another world -- especially one that's so different...so I think that part of the reason that he's reluctant to talk about that is literally sort of not wanting to deal with that stuff."
Lahiri is careful to point out that she herself didn't experience a move from India to the United States first-hand (she was born in London, grew up in Providence and lives in Brooklyn). But like Gogol, she's taken many a trip to Calcutta.
"There were moments when I never felt more American than when I was in India," she says. "But there were certain things about being in India as a child that were incredibly comforting to me. I liked that people could say my name, and that people generally looked like me. I didn't stick out in the way that I stuck out in the U.S. And I loved that people shared my last name. I thought that was wild."
Jhumpa Lahiri reads from The Namesake at 7:30 p.m. Monday, September 22. Presented by the Inprint Brown Reading Series. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-521-2026 or visit www.inprint-inc.org. $5; free for students and seniors.