Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri documented the lives and struggles of Indian immigrants like herself in such novels and short story collections as Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Names...
What’s in a name? For Mira Nair the director of Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala it’s everything. With her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel Nair employs the name given to the American-born son of Bengali parents as a metaphor for the clash between cultural heritage and cultural assimilation. As The Namesake reveals Bengali tradition requires a child to possess both a “good name ” for formal purposes and a “pet name ” for use by family and friends. Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) doesn’t think too highly of his father’s decision to confer upon him a “pet name” in honor of his favorite author Nikolai Gogol. “Of all the freakin’ Russian writers in the world why did you have to name me after the weirdest? ” he angrily asks his mother (Bollywood sensation Tabu) and father (Irrfan Khan). But Gogol cannot come to understand or appreciate what his name really means to his father—or to his future in his native New York—until he embraces his Indian roots. And that means Gogol must not only go out of his way to learn why his father left India for America but to face the same hardships and heartaches that every man—regardless of their nationality—must face during his life. For years Penn’s tried to make us laugh by shattering Indian stereotypes with such comedies as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the Van Wilder films. But The Namesake which marks his debut as a dramatic lead represents an invaluable opportunity for him to paint a more truthful portrait of how first-generation Indian Americans are torn between family traditions and life in their parents’ adopted homeland. After an awkward start in which he almost plays a teenage Gogol as a younger version of that pothead Kumar Penn quickly finds his confidence. He captures the emotional turmoil that his conflicted character endures as reaches for the right balance between his pursuit of the American dream and his acceptance of his Bengali heritage. Penn’s honesty and deep affection for Gogol allows him to emerge as an empathetic figure especially for those born to immigrant parents and have experienced—or are experiencing—what Gogol goes through. As Gogol’s father Ashoke Irrfan Khan is patience personified. Ashoke clearly wants his son to appreciate what it means to be Bengali but Khan never comes across as overbearing or demanding. It’s the relationship between father and son that gives The Namesake its heart and soul. But to discount Tabu’s contribution as Gogol’s mother Ashima would be criminal. Ashima could have been your run-of-the-mill overprotective mother and subservient wife but Tabu blesses her with a quiet strength and resolve that proves invaluable when the family suffers a great loss. As for the other women in Gogol’s life Jacinda Barrett offers little as Gogol’s token WASP girlfriend but Rome’s Zuleikha Robinson crackles with sexuality as Gogol’s adventurous but ultimately unsatisfied wife. To say that Mira Nair was out of her element directing the ill-fated Vanity Fair is unjust. After all Monsoon Wedding was set in contemporary India but it had all the feel and flair of a colorful and lavish 19th-century costume romance. But Nair seems at home in the present rather than in the past possessing more of an affinity for characters who are flawed but fundamentally good as opposed to cold and calculated like in Vanity Fair. Born in India and educated at Harvard University Nair clearly has a greater appreciation than her peers of The Namesake’s exploration of cultural heritage vs. cultural assimilation. That’s evident in the delicate manner in which she presents Gogol’s transformation from a sullen and uninterested teenager to a man willing to accept his family’s past as he plans for his future. She also handles Gogol’s complicated relationships with his family—especially with his father—with clarity purpose and warmth. Unfortunately Nair’s pacing is too slow and too deliberate. It certainly doesn’t help that the death of a major character casts a pall over the rest of The Namesake. This loss should have provided Nair with the impetus to swiftly wrap up the proceedings but she drags things out much longer than necessary and you’re left with the impression that Gogol is being needlessly put through the wringer. Still The Namesake manages to be a thoughtful examination of a man struggling to straddle two different cultures. If only Gogol’s journey of self-discovery wasn’t so long and drawn out.
Served as consultant for third season of "In Treatment"
Awarded Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Published first book, Interpreter of Maladies
Second book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is published
Appeared in the film adaptation of The Namesake
First novel, The Namesake, is published
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri documented the lives and struggles of Indian immigrants like herself in such novels and short story collections as Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013). Lahiri burst onto the literary scene at the dawn of the new millennium with Interpreter of Maladies, which became one of the few short story collections to win the Pulitzer. After winning the Pulitzer, she soon proved to be a skillful and prolific writer in several mediums, including novels like The Namesake, non-fiction essays on cooking for The New Yorker, and even academic material on Renaissance studies. Lahiri also served on the board of major literary organizations like the President's Committee on the Arts of Humanities, but her fiction remained her most potent showcase, where her stories of immigrant culture and assimilation into American society underscored her status as one of the modern literary world's most acclaimed figures.
Born Nilanjana Sudheshna Lahiri on July 11, 1967 in London, England, she was the daughter of Bengali parents who relocated to Kingston, Rhode Island when she was two years old. Her pen name, Jhumpa, was also her pet name, which in Bengali culture was used only by friends and family. However, it became her given name to Western outsiders when a kindergarten teacher decided to address her by that name when she found Lahiri's formal first name too difficult to pronounce. The embarrassment imposed upon her by her name and cultural identity would later inform much of her fiction, most notably The Namesake, whose protagonist, Gogol, also pained over his Indian name. After graduating from South Kingston High School, Lahiri received her bachelor's degree in English literature from Barnard College in 1989 and later multiple degrees, including her master's and doctorate, from Boston University.
Lahiri made an impressive debut in 1999 with Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories that received excellent reviews in America. The book was awarded the O. Henry Award for its title story before becoming one of seven short story collections to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. After marrying journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush in 2001, Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, followed in 2003, with a film adaptation by director Mira Nair reaching theaters four years later. Lahiri appeared briefly in the picture as an aunt of the main character, played by Kal Penn. She then served as vice president of the PEN American Center, a literary organization devoted to fostering international relationships between writers, Lahiri published her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), which became one of the few publications of its type to top the New York Times best-seller list. Lahiri worked as a consultant for the third season of the HBO series "In Treatment" (2008-2010), which featured a Bengali character dealing with culture shock and grief. She was then appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2010 before issuing her second novel, The Lowland, which was nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award for Fiction in 2013.