Her’s was sort of a quiet but explosive arrival onto the literary scene. In an interview with India-West, Lahiri admits: “I’m lucky that I’m between two worlds…I don’t really know what a distinct South Asian identity means. I don’t think about that when I write, I just try to bring a person to life”. And that is exactly what she does through her characters. Writer Nalini Iyer feels, “Lahiri’s strength as a storyteller is characterization. The people she creates are real, alive, complicated, and individual. She never descends into stereotypes nor does she engage in grand generalizations about social and political relationships. Instead, she sweeps her reader through a range of emotions and experiences and lets her characters speak for themselves”.
Admirably longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri’s magnificent latest novel The Lowland tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, coming of age in Calcutta in the 1960s. “Subhash was thirteen, older by fifteen months. But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there,” writes Lahiri. The novel captures such a period when the infamous Naxalite movement struck across Bengal and became synonymous with mass mayhem of bright young students by the police in an attempt to suppress the upheaval. The two brothers pursue completely different paths in their lives. The daring Udayan becomes involved in revolutionary politics. The older brother Subhash takes a ‘safer’ way and goes to America for a degree. Lahiri herself admits that she takes inspiration for this filial relationship from that between her own two children. As the novel progresses, the grim reality lurking behind the different relationships gets revealed. The characters moving back and forth in occurrences and recollections between India and the US are Lahiri’s own characters whose experiences are resonant of their individual immigrant experiences, in her own words, “stories of Indians in what for them is a strange land”.
As Nilanjana Roy says in her blog that in The Lowland that it is the contemporary Bengal serving as background that commands the novel all through, rather than the more oft seen experiences of alienation and middle-aged discontentment and crises displayed by the immigrant characters residing in America. The prose Lahiri uses here is formalistic rather than scintillating, but then, “The Lowland is not and was never about the glamour of the revolution, nor does it gain its moral force from the artistic depiction of war, bloodshed, violence.” [To read the entire review article on The Lowland by Nilanjana Roy, please visit: http://nilanjanaroy.com/2013/09/10/booklove-the-lowland-by-jhumpa-lahiri/ ]
Born in 1967 in London but raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri had a love for writing since a very early age. She earned her B.A. degree from Barnard College in English literature. She went on to earn an M.A. in English, also an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, later an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Boston University. Her debut work, Interpreter of Maladies, was highly acclaimed and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. Her second work, The Namesake, was her first novel and featured for several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In addition, she has also received a PEN/Hemingway Award, an O. Henry Award, The New Yorker’s best debut of the year award, and an Addison Metcalf award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Lahiri’s first collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), was an instant success. All the nine stories in this collection deal with the inability of the central characters to communicate with the people who hold significance in their lives. Time applauded the collection for “illuminating the full meaning of brief relationships —with lovers, family friends, those met in travel”. The immigrant selves are transformed which results in their broken identities. The stories show the diasporic struggle of the characters to keep hold of their indigenous cultures while creating new lives for themselves in the newly adopted cultures. In the story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, we find Lilia, a young Hindu girl, praying for Mr. Pirzada, a Muslim man from erstwhile East Pakistan, as she munches on each piece of candy she received from him. But this is not in the context of any particular religion nor is Lilia ever taught to pray. One may surmise that Lahiri intends the reader to establish his/her own subjective notion of religion.
There is a connection between The Namesake (2003), Lahiri’s first novel, and The Interpreter of Maladies in terms of their theme. The Namesake has an immigrant storyline as well where one finds two different cultures colliding into each other. The importance of a namesake and identity is brought up throughout the story and becomes a concept that is central to the novel. Throughout his life Gogol suffers from the distinctiveness of his name. In Bengali families “…individual names are sacred, inviolable. They are not meant to be inherited or shared”. Gogol eventually learns that the answer does not lie in completely shunning or attempting to denigrate either culture, but to knit the two together. Gogol is not fully in harmony with his identity until he realizes that it is guided by both cultures. Both the identities go into his making, and instead of weakening his pride is strengthened by this. He is no longer ashamed of his dual identity. He is proud to be what and who he is and where he belongs to. Most important, he feels proud of his name and all that it stands for.
The Unaccustomed Earth (2008) is Lahiri’s second collection of short stories whereas in much of her previous work she scrutinizes the lives of Indian American characters and how they negotiate with their hybridized cultural habitat. It featured as number one on the New York Times Book Review list of “100 Best Books of 2008”. It was also awarded the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The eight stories which comprise this collection are quite lengthy. The title story begins with the arrival of a father at his daughter’s home. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Ruma, newly arrived in a grimly upscale Seattle suburb because of her husband Adam’s high-profile job, and of her father, supposedly segregated after her mother’s death, but in reality already embarked on a relationship with a widow he met on holiday. Ruma’s father leaves for a different future from the solitariness and the dependence on her that Ruma had imagined. The story comes to an end when she gets to perceive that “her mother no longer existed”.
In 2001, Lahiri got married to Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then Deputy Editor of Time Latin America, and who is now Senior Editor of Time Latin America. Lahiri presently lives in Rome, Italy with her husband and their two children, Octavio and Noor. In 2010, Lahiri was appointed a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Short story collections
- The Interpreter of Maladies
- The Unaccustomed Earth
- The Namesake
- The Lowland
- 1993 – Trans Atlantic Award from the Henfield Foundation
- 1999 – O. Henry Award for short story “Interpreter of Maladies”
- 1999 – PEN/Hemingway Award (Best Fiction Debut of the Year) for “Interpreter of Maladies”
- 1999 – “Interpreter of Maladies” selected as one of Best American Short Stories
- 2000 – Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 2000 – “The Third and Final Continent” selected as one of Best American Short Stories
- 2000 – The New Yorker’s Best Debut of the Year for “Interpreter of Maladies”
- 2000 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut “Interpreter of Maladies”
- 2000 – James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for “Indian Takeout” in Food and Wine magazine
- 2002 – Guggenheim Fellowship
- 2002 – “Nobody’s Business” selected as one of Best American Short Stories
- 2008 – Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for “Unaccustomed Earth”
- 2009 – Asian American Literary Award for “Unaccustomed Earth”