When a chapter from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake appeared in The New Yorker in 2003, I almost immediately faxed a copy to my mother. That was the beginning of almost five years of being followed around by a story.
Reading the full novel a year later, I thought: “This is me.” Growing up, my mother and father took me to the kind of family functions that Lahiri details so exquisitely. Take, for instance, the passage where Gogol first meets Moushumi at the weekend family do, the nemonthono (invitation).
Some weeks, these events would feature the same people, the same kids, and the same laughter and conversation in the background. Then there were weeks when your parents pulled you to someone you didn’t know and insisted that you play together. What I remember most from the book is the uncanny authenticity of the details, which may sound mundane to ‘outsiders’—samosas served on paper plates and tin foil, shared cooking, chicken curry in metal pots and the men sitting some distance away, playing bridge.
When my mother read the story of middle-class immigrants in the US of the 1960s, she said she too had thought: “This is about me.” Just as, demographically, I almost am Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguli, my mother is almost Mrs Ganguli. She was in her early 20s in 1969 when she moved to the US, only a few weeks after an arranged marriage. My mother says she completely related to the birth scene in the first few paragraphs: Not knowing where the hospital was or how to get there, being asked to immediately choose a name for the child and being separated from her parents by thousands of miles.
In truth, The Namesake was and is about both of us. My parents’ generation is now slowly fading away. This is why it’s important to me to remember or learn about their experiences and why I value Lahiri’s contribution so much.
The only surprise for me is that I have never met the woman whose life so closely parallels my own, Jhumpa Lahiri. This despite the fact that my mother ran into her at a family friend’s Saturday lunch and got me her mobile number and email address. Lahiri was even scheduled to come to our Durga Puja years before The Namesake was written and she moved within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn, where I would occasionally see her doing chores outside her brownstone apartment.
Several people I grew up with auditioned for roles in Mira Nair’s movie and there have been any number of other possible run-ins.
Maybe I was too shy to speak to her. But I prefer to think that when something this close to your life becomes the subject of a book, it would be too much to look upon the author.