Monday, November 06, 2006


The four of us were sitting in the lounge of the beach cottage last Saturday night each totally engrossed in what we were reading when Rob decided it was time for a cup of tea.
When she returned she suggested each of us should introduce the book we were reading and read aloud an excerpt. This proved to be quite fun and an idea I would recommend.

The books being read were:

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards - Penguin

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - Picador

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl - Penguin

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri - Flamingo UK,Harper Perennial US

Having listened to each other we decided we all wanted to read the other three titles.

"The Namesake" is the title I was reading and which I finished later that evening.

One day last week I was in the Auckland suburb of Remuera for a meeting and having arrived somewhat early I went to the long-established Poppies bookshop to spend my spare time browsing. Rarely do I leave a bookshop without making a purchase and this day was no exception.

I hate remainders but the remainder table outside Poppies also carried new stock so I stopped to look and there amongst the new and the old was a copy of "The Namesake".
Over the years I have been hugely a attracted to Indian writers; one immediately thinks of Vikram Seth,Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie, R.K.Narayan, Amit Chaudhuri, Arundhati Roy,Rohinton Mistry and there are many many more. I have often wondered how it is that these writers can write so brilliantly in English when it is not their first language,not the language of their parents, not the language that was used in their homes as they grew up.

"The Namesake" immediately caught my attention because of the name of the author and so after a quick read of the author information and the back cover blurb I was striding to my meeting clutching the one copy of the book that had been lying on the remainder table.

Having now read the novel I wonder how it is that I could have not known about Jhumpa Lahiri previously because she won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize with her first book, a short-story collection entitled "Interpreter of Maladies", a book by the way I now have on order.

As a result of that win her first novel must have been much anticipated.
"The Namesake" was published in 2003 and without going overboard I must say it is a knockout. I was captivated from the opening sentences - "On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima had been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India".

The story begins in 1968, Ashima and her husband Ashoke, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at MIT, are living in Cambridge, Massachusetts following their arranged marriage.For Ashima it is a time of utter wretchedness and homesickness, she is pregnant and far from home and family, while for Ashoke it is a time of promise and liberation as he studies in one of the world's great educationbal institutions. So it initially it is a story of exile, displacement, loneliness, language difficulties and cultural shock.

But as time passes the Gangulis have two children, they adjust to the American way of life, they prosper and move to their own home in the suburbs,and of course their two childern grow up American not Bengali.

Their first born, a son, is named Gogol, this name coming about almost accidentally because the hospital needed a name for the birth certificate and without family input he was so named for his father's favourite author, the Russian Nikolai Gogol.
From this comes the title of the novel.

So essentially the novel is the story of two generations of the Ganguli family with the first chapter set in 1968 and the last in 2000.
It is an appealing, poignant and intimate family story, dealing with the ups and downs of generational and cultural differences spread across two continents.

But it is much more than that, it is a wonderful piece of writing in which I found myself totally absorbed and I reckon to that earlier list of great Indian writers you can add the name Jhumpha Lahiri.

And I reckon she ends her first novel in a way that calls out for a sequel. I hope she is writing that now.............

It occurs to me as I write this that had Vikram Seth or Rohinton Mistry written this novel, then it would not have ended here, rather it would probably have covered another two generations of the Ganguli family.
Seth's "A Suitable Boy", one of my all-time favourites, at 1400 pages is one of the longest novels ever published in English.

Another Indian writer I have not yet read is the 2006 Man Booker Prize winner, KIran Desai, but I have bought a copy of "The Inheritance of Loss" and it is in the pile next to my bed. Watch this space!


Anonymous said...

My apologies in advance for the late contribution to this particular thread, but I only just happened across your blog today (by virtue of Kerryn Goldsworthy's recommendation at 'A Fugitive Phenomenon'). Now, getting to the point:

Indeed, 'The Namesake' was Jhumpa Lahiri's highly anticipated (at least in the U.S., where I was living at the time) follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Interpreter of Maladies'. And as much as you clearly enjoyed her second book, I would wager that you enjoy her previous collection of short stories even more. This is a risky bet, I realise, since there seems to be a predilection among readers to favour the first work they read by a given author, above and beyond the works of that same author they may subsequently be inspired to read. Nonetheless, I suspect you will favour 'Interpreter of Maladies', particularly as I found it revealed many of the (less than immediately obvious) flaws in Lahiri's subsequent work. Specifically, Lahiri is a brilliant writer in the short story form, and the sheer brilliance of her performance in 'Interpreter of Maladies' highlights the stuttering approach of 'The Namesake'. I found the novel to be little more than a series of connected short stories, each of which lacked the focus and perfect control of the story arc and pacing exhibited in Lahiri's earlier work. The victim, perhaps, of a publishing industry that favours the novel over a collection of short stories, as publishing wisdom would have it that the latter doesn't sell (though this wasn't the case with 'Interpreter of Maladies', which sold extraordinarily well).

Lucky for us (or me, at least), when I was fortunate enough to work briefly with Lahiri a few years ago (she was serving as Writer in Residence at the university where I did my first degree), she informed me that she had already begun work on a new collection of short stories. Perhaps she, too, felt that her foray into the novel had not been an entirely successful one. But I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter, when you get around to reading 'Interpreter of Maladies'. Perhaps this comment will have even inspired you to turn your attention to it sooner!

Beattie's Book Blog said...

Thanks for this per.
I have ordered a copy of
"Interpreter of Maladies" and look forward to reading it following your remarks.I am a keen reader of short stories.
Have you read Owen Marshall at all? He is probably New Zealand's most significant and successful contemporary exponent of the form.
Bookman Beattie