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Jhumpa Lahiri

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English Literature

The immigrant experience, especially in the United States, is one of constantly reconciling two or more different and often conflicting identities. How does that experience present itself in everyday life? Jhumpa Lahiri seeks to answer this question in her critically acclaimed and award-winning short stories and novels. Her writing illuminates the hopes, dreams, and longings of Indian immigrants living in America and gives clarity to the unique struggle of bridging cultural differences within a family. Lahiri's beloved stories and novels have helped spread awareness of South Asian achievement, as well as shared the unique Bengali culture with a widespread audience.

Jhumpa Lahiri's biography

Jhumpa Lahiri was born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri on July 11, 1967 in London, England. This future author was raised in an educationally rich environment: her mother is a teacher and her father is a librarian. Her parents are both immigrants hailing from Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the state of West Bengal, India. Lahiri grew up connected to her Bengali heritage, as the Lahiri family frequently traveled to Kolkata for family vacations.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Kolkata India, StudySmarter

Kolkata, India pixabay.com.

Jhumpa Lahiri moved from London to South Kingstown, Rhode Island when she was three. It was upon entering school that Lahiri decided to go by her family pet name Jhumpa instead of her given name Nilanjana. This event in Lahiri's life is echoed in her novel The Namesake, where the main protagonist Nikhil insists on going by his pet name "Gogol" when entering kindergarten.

Education

Lahiri obtained her bachelor's degree in English from Barnard College. She went on to earn three master's degrees from Boston University; one in English, one in Creative Writing, and one in Comparative Literature and Arts. Lahiri furthered her education at Boston University with a doctorate in Renaissance studies.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Boston University, StudySmarter

Boston University pixabay.com

Career

Jhumpa Lahiri began publishing her writing during her graduate school years. Her stories were featured in publications like The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Story Quarterly, some of them later appearing in her short story collections.

In 1999, Lahiri published her first collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. She went on to write her first novel The Namesake in 2003, which was adapted as a critically acclaimed film in 2006. In 2008, Lahiri returned to short fiction and published her second collection of short stories, titled Unaccustomed Earth. Her second novel, The Lowland, was published in 2013.

In 2015, Lahiri began to branch out in her authorship by writing in Italian. The same year, she published a collection of short essays In altre parole (In Other Words). In 2018, she wrote her third novel, Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts).

Awards

Jhumpa Lahiri has received and been nominated for several prestigious awards:

  • Her debut collection Interpreter of Maladies was given a Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction in 2000.
  • Her second novel, The Lowland was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award in 2013 and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2015.
  • Lahiri was also presented with the National Humanities Medal by Barack Obama in 2015.

With her many accolades, Jhumpa Lahiri has brought considerable recognition to South Asian achievement.

Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri has written three novels, two in English and one in Italian. She has also written two collections of short stories.

Novels

The Namesake (2003): Lahiri's debut novel, The Namesake draws heavily from her own experience as a child of immigrants. The story follows the life of Nikhil "Gogol" Ganguli and his struggle to bridge the cultural gap between his Bengali heritage and his American identity. He lacks understanding of his parent's experience as immigrants and how it influenced his upbringing.

This disconnect is encapsulated by his evolving attitude towards his unusual pet name of Gogol. When he first enters kindergarten, he insists on being referred to as Gogol. However, he regrets the decision as he grows up and longs for a more normal name, alluding to his general longing to fit in.

As Nikhil comes of age, he begins to understand and empathize more with his parents' struggles as immigrants and the sacrifices they made for him. When he hears the story of how he got his pet name of Gogol, he develops a newfound respect for his father and regrets his previous rejection of the name.

The Lowland (2013): Set against the backdrop of the violent ongoing Naxalite-Maoist insurgency, The Lowland focuses on the themes of generational friction and family secrets. In this novel, Lahiri illustrates four generations of a Bengali family that are consistently at odds with one another in how they establish their identities.

For example, brothers Subhash and Udayan pursue very different destinies. While Subhash chooses to seek academic life in the United States, Udayan stays behind as a sympathizer of the Naxalite Movement and dies in the conflict. Subhash is left to marry Udayan's widow Gauri and raise his daughter Bela, who grows up not knowing who her true father is. This situation repeats in the next generation when Bela does not tell her daughter Meghna that Gauri is her grandmother.

Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) (2018): In her third novel, Jhumpa Lahiri departs from her usual subject matter of Bengali heritage. However, her prevailing theme of identity struggle remains. Set in Italy, this novel features a native Italian woman who longs to find her place in the world. Originally written in Italian, Dove mi trovo was translated into English by Lahiri herself in 2021.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Italian Village, StudySmarter

A seaside Italian village pixabay.com

Non-fiction

Interpreter of Maladies (1999): Jhumpa Lahiri's first published work earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. This collection includes nine short stories that illustrate the perspective of Indian immigrants and their children. Some of the stories also feature second-generation Indians returning to their parent's homeland and exploring the presenting cultural divides. Many of the characters in these stories long for a solid sense of identity and struggle to bridge the cultural gaps they feel between their Indian heritage and American identity.

Unaccustomed Earth (2008): Lahiri continues exploring the Indian immigrant experience with this collection of eight stories, four of which previously appeared in The New Yorker. Unaccustomed Earth was also the first of Jhumpa Lahiri's works to reach #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

Much of Jhumpa Lahiri's work consists of short fiction. Below are just a few examples of her short stories.

"Interpreter of Maladies" (From Interpreter of Maladies)

A tale of regret and cultural divide, this short story follows Mr. and Mrs. Das, a second-generation Indian couple in America. The Das family travels to India to sight-see and introduce their children to their Indian heritage. There they meet Mr. Kapasi, a tour guide who also works as an interpreter to a local doctor during the week. Mr. Kapasi instantly notices Mrs. Das's indifferent attitude towards her children, yet feels intrinsically drawn to her. Mrs. Das reciprocates and opens up to Mr. Kapasi. She confesses her unhappiness in her marriage and her life, hoping Mr. Kapasi can interpret her dissatisfaction and suggest a remedy.

There are stark cultural differences presented in the relationship between the American Das family and native Indian Mr. Kapasi. He perceives Mrs. Das's indifference and dissatisfaction as distinctly Western and divorced from his own culture of tradition and family responsibility. In turn, Mrs. Das sees Mr. Kapasi's work as a medical interpreter as extremely important and even romantic. Both characters provide each other with a new perspective that neither had considered before.

"A Temporary Matter" (From Interpreter of Maladies)

A scheduled electrical outage briefly brings an estranged couple closer in this story of loss and longing. Shukumar and Shoba were once happily married but drifted apart after the stillbirth of their child. Forced to eat dinner in the dark for five nights, they use the opportunity to tell each other untold secrets in their marriage.

Darkness is used as a symbol of emotional anonymity and safety in this story. Under the cover of darkness, Shukumar and Shoba can reveal uncomfortable truths and feelings that they hadn't been able to discuss before. Despite these revelations, however, the couple is not able to salvage their once-happy marriage and decide to separate. While Shukumar and Shoba ultimately conclude they are very different people, they recognize their shared experiences as second-generation Indian-Americans.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Candlelight, StudySmarter

Candles during a power outage, pixabay.com

"Only Goodness" (From Unaccustomed Earth)

Lahiri portrays the relationship between two second-generation Indian-American siblings in this story. Sudha and Rahul are close as young adults, but their differences eventually cause them to drift apart. While Sudha is responsible and academically driven, Rahul is aimless and struggles with alcohol. His addiction causes discord between him and his parents. It also deeply affects his relationship with Sudha, who feels guilt for introducing him to alcohol as a teenager.

Generational friction is very present in this story. Sudha and Rahul struggle with individual purpose. Their traditional parents, however, don't feel they have the luxury of pursuing this Western ideal. Their focus is more on providing their children with the opportunities they didn't have in India. As a result, Sudha and Rahul are burdened with an enormous amount of pressure, which they respond to very differently.

Other works by Jhumpa Lahiri

In addition to her novels and short fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri has also published works of nonfiction.

In altre parole (In Other Words) (2015): A collection of short essays detailing Lahiri's journey, studying Italian, and eventual relocating to Rome.

Il vestito dei libri (The Clothing of Books) (2015): An essay about book covers. Lahiri explores how the art and publishing of books affects the overall presentation of the work.

Jhumpa Lahiri's writing process

Jhumpa Lahiri considers reading an integral element of becoming a good writer. She encourages aspiring writers to improve their craft by being avid readers.

Jhumpa Lahiri, reading, StudySmarter

Jhumpa Lahiri considers reading an important part of becoming a writer. pixabay.com

Lahiri draws from her own experiences to create her stories and much of her work is autobiographical. The struggles of growing up as a child of Bengali immigrants are heavily reflected in her stories and novels.

In a 2014 interview with Aerogramme Writer's Studio, Lahiri stated that writing is not a quick process for her, it takes "lots and lots of drafts and hours." In another interview with Princeton Magazine, Lahiri said she prefers uninterrupted time when writing, and feels she can achieve that more in Rome, where she currently resides.

Jhumpa Lahiri Quotes

Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people." - The Namesake (2003)

This quote encapsulates the significance of Nikhil's nickname Gogol. It alludes to the idea of names having power. An immigrant can be perceived one way by their family and another by the society. Similarly, a person can be perceived one way by their pet name, and another way by their formal name.

Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again." - "A Temporary Matter," from Interpreter of Maladies (1999)

Darkness is a powerful symbol in this story, providing emotional protection for a couple that has forgotten how to communicate with each other. The power outage is the driving event that leads Shukumar and Shoba to connect with each other again, allowing them to explore their similarities and differences.

'Depression' was a foreign word to them, an American thing. In their opinion, their children were immune from the hardships and injustices they had left behind in India, as if the inoculations the pediatrician had given Sudha and Rahul when they were babies guaranteed them an existence free of suffering.” - "Only Goodness," from Unaccustomed Earth (2008)

This quote defines the attitude Sudha and Rahul's parents have towards raising them in Western society. It alludes to the hardships they suffered in India and their hope that their children won't have those burdens. It also illuminates the parent's lack of empathy for the unique Western struggles, such as depression, that their children will have as second-generation Indian-Americans. Because their children don't face the same issues they did, they don't see Sudha and Rahul as having any issues to face at all.

Jhumpa Lahiri - Key takeaways

  • Jhumpa Lahiri was born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri on July 11, 1967 in London, England.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri moved to South Kingstown, Rhode Island when she was three.
  • Lahiri received her Bachelor's from Barnard College and her Master's and Doctorate from Boston University.
  • Lahiri is a child of Bengali immigrants and grew up connected to her Bengali heritage through frequent trips to Kolkata, India.
  • Lahiri's first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, earned her the Pulitzer prize in 2000.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri has received several other awards that garnered significant attention to South Asian achievement
  • Most of Lahiri's work features the stories of Indian immigrants and illuminates the struggles of the immigrant experience.
  • Common themes in Lahiri's work include identity struggle and bridging cultural differences within families. Lahiri currently lives in Rome and now writes exclusively in Italian.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is an English-born author whose critically acclaimed short stories and novels bridge cultures and explore the immigrant experience, especially that of East Indians.

Simple, direct language and emphasis on mundane details are two elements that characterize Jhumpa Lahiri's writing. 

No, The Namesake did not win the Pulitzer prize, although Lahiri's short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, did win a Pulitzer in 2000. While The Namesake did not win any awards, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Kal Penn in 2006. 

The Namesake is the story of an American-born child of East Indian immigrants and his struggle to reconcile his American identity with his Indian heritage. 

Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome in 2012, where she lives today.

Final Jhumpa Lahiri Quiz

Question

Where was Jhumpa Lahiri born?

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Answer

London, England

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri move to when she was three?

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Answer

South Kingstown, Rhode Island

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Question

What is a defining element of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing style?

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Answer

Simple, direct language

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What type of characters does Jhumpa Lahiri most often feature in her work?

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Answer

Indian immigrants and their children

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What is a common theme in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories?

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Answer

Cultural identity

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Which of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works received a Pulitzer Prize?


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Interpreter of Maladies

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Where are Jhumpa Lahiri’s parents from?

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Kolkata, India

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In which non-English language does Jhumpa Lahiri currently write?

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Italian

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Where does Jhumpa Lahiri currently live?

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Rome, Italy

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According to Jhumpa Lahiri, what is the most important element of becoming a good writer?

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Being an avid reader

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri earn her bachelor’s degree?

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Barnard College

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri earn her master’s and doctorate?

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Boston University

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What is the major historical backdrop in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland?

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The Naxalite-Maoist insurgency

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What is the significance of Nikhil’s dislike of his pet name “Gogol” in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake?

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It signifies his initial lack of understanding of his immigrant parent’s sacrifices

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Question

Which of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works was the first to reach the New York Times bestseller list?

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Answer

Unaccustomed Earth

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