[(essay date September-October 2003) In the following essay, Langer provides a biographical profile of Lahiri and finds The Namesake to be "a novel of epic sweep told with a short story's precision."]
Halfway to Ellis Island on board a crowded tourist, boat, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Interpreter of Maladies and the forthcoming novel The Namesake, admits that she's never felt comfortable with her name. "When I entered the American world as a child, I endlessly had to explain to people how to say my name and how to spell it and what it meant," the thirty-six-year-old author says, leaning up against a railing, the skyline of Manhattan looming almost too portentously out a porthole behind her. "I really felt like my name was causing people pain on some level," she says. "It was painfully bastardized and it just sounded so silly to me."
Ellis Island was first opened in 1892 as an immigration station where, over the course of its history, more than twelve million individuals first set foot upon American soil. During its peak of operation at the turn of the century, on any given day up to ten thousand immigrants passed through the island's massive registry room, where names were recorded and, not infrequently, changed. The immigration facility was closed in 1954 and reopened in 1990 as a museum commemorating America's immigrant history.
For Lahiri, this journey to the Ellis Island Museum allows the overworked nursing mother to take a break and enjoy the summer air while her husband stays at home with their first son, Octavio. But at the same time, traveling past the Statue of Liberty to the destination most associated with America's immigrant past provides an opportunity for the author and daughter of Bengali immigrants to confront one of the issues at the heart of her new novel--the struggle between honoring one's heritage and assimilating into a new society, the struggle that is neatly summed up by what Lahiri terms her own "massive name anxiety." The Namesake, an effortless and self-assured bildungsroman that more than delivers on the promise of Interpreter of Maladies, is a novel of epic sweep told with a short story's precision; it follows an Indian family's assimilation into American society over the course of more than thirty years. Its main character is a boy named Gogol, who, like Lahiri, feels caught between two cultures, and who, also like Lahiri, isn't crazy about the name his parents have given him.
The name Jhumpa, according to the author's mother, Tia, is not particularly common in India. She says she chose it because she liked its sound. "It sounds like a raindrop or the sound anklets make when people dance," she says. "I just liked the name, and Jhumpa didn't change it, though I'm sure she was tempted a lot of times."
Tia Lahiri, who holds master's degrees in Bengali literature and drama, and her husband, Amar, a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, left India in 1964. They...