Until fairly recently, Jhumpa Lahiri didn't have much name recognition in this country. But in the US, where she grew up and lives, and in India, where her parents were born, she's had star status since the beginning of her career. Her first story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), which she finished not long after turning 30, won a string of awards that culminated in the Pulitzer prize for fiction. Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was also well received and became a US bestseller; a less well received film of it by Mira Nair was released in 2006. Her marriage in Calcutta in 2001 to Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a Guatemalan-American journalist, was given Hollywood-scale coverage by the local media, complete with paparazzi shots. And - unusually, to say the least, for a serious piece of writing, let alone a story collection - her new book, Unaccustomed Earth, went straight to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list.
One of the things that make Lahiri's success in the marketplace all the more surprising is her lack of interest in either charming her readers with exoticism or dazzling them with a slick style. Unflashily written, long, almost grave in tone, her new stories patiently accumulate detail, only gradually building up a powerful emotional charge. And until not so long ago, her subject matter - the experiences of first and second-generation Bengali immigrants to the United States - would have been of marginal interest to most American readers. "When I was growing up in the 1970s," she says, perched at the end of an enormous table in her British publisher's offices, "India was an unknown thing for most Americans. I felt that it was basically like the moon to them." Her family's regular trips to Calcutta earned her pitying looks from teachers and schoolfriends: "Like, 'Oh, your parents drag you all the way to India, how scary must that be?' And it was impossible to explain because there was nothing in the culture. There were no Indian restaurants, there was no Indian anything. Indians were a very discreet presence in those times."
As she sees things, the changed situation today has less to do with material advancement - the adults she grew up with were already "tucked away in universities and hospitals and engineering firms" - than with greater cultural visibility. In America now, "there are a lot of Indian restaurants. There are Indian characters in sitcoms. Half of my college friends have backpacked through India . . . Mira Nair's films, you know. My books, I guess - and other people's, other writers of Indian origin; I'm not alone at all in that way. I think it's just a matter of a generation coming of age. My parents' generation made their presence known, but not quite in the same way. It's my generation that really seeped into the culture, and spread out and spread through it. People of Indian origin, like myself, they're still engineers and doctors and professors, but they are also writers, cooks, dancers, rock musicians, actors. They're not here for the one purpose of having a respectable job."
Lahiri doesn't say this in order to disparage her parents' respectably employed generation, which is treated empathetically in her fiction, though she is clear-eyed about its dilemmas. "Unlike so many immigrant groups," she says of her father and his peers, "it wasn't war, famine, persecution or anything like that driving them out. Nothing drove them out: it was a choice. But I think it was a conflicted choice. And it wasn't a particularly romantic choice in the way that friends of mine have moved to Europe, moved to Paris. Just wanting another kind of life - it wasn't that either. It was a combination of hunger for new experiences, perhaps wanting a better quality of life, and furthering one's education. But it was accompanied by a certain sense of misgiving. They were leaving behind their families, essentially for personal gain. So, a hard decision to make, I think. Certainly for my father. It didn't come without a price."
Her father, Amar, and mother, Tapati, first left India for Britain rather than America. Amar was working as a librarian at the London School of Economics when Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri - "Jhumpa" is a family nickname that her American teachers found easier to remember - was born in 1967.
Lahiri, who remembers visiting the city of her birth when her younger sister was "in a pushchair, as you say on this side of the Atlantic", was much taken with its foreign glamour as a child. She also thinks that British attitudes to India stack up differently. "India has never been as foreign a place to the English," she says, "because of the history and the past, the colonial past. It's still a very distant place, but in the collective consciousness it exists on some level. The attitudes may have been horrible or benign or anything in between, but the mere fact that it existed as something that you would find mentioned in a Jane Austen novel - that's not something you're going to find in Hawthorne or Melville."
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