It should come as no surprise that the writer who penned The Namesake (2003), the story of an Indian family moving to New York and struggling to find an
identity, has struggled with a lifelong identity crisis of her own.
Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri was born on 11 July, 1967 in London (England), to a Bengali couple who had immigrated overseas. When she was only, her parents moved to the United States of America, where Lahiristarted school. Her nickname “Jhumpa” was easy to pronounce in America, and so it stayed with
her for a lifetime.
The author has been known to say that her name always embarrassed her—like it embarrassed her protagonist “Gogol” in The Namesake. She then received multiple degrees from Boston University which included an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph. D.D. in Renaissance Studies.
A two-year fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center was followed by teaching creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Like most writers, this writer too faced her fair share of rejection from publishers. Her short stories were rejected again and again, until the year 1999, when her collection of short stories was published under the title “Interpreter of Maladies”.
The book received mixed reviews. American critics praised the ingenuity of thought, while the Indian critics tut-tutted at Jhumpa’s unclear portrayal of Indians. Interestingly, the book spoke volumes about Jhumpa’s personal turmoil of not being able to connect with her roots. This book ends with the story, The Third and Final Continent, where the protagonist says: “There are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.”
With this sentence, Jhumpa summed up for the entire world the experience of growing up, leaving home, finding and losing love and most importantly—not feeling like you belong, even within a family. The book won her the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000.
In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist and now Senior Editor of TIME Latin America. They have two children—Octavio (2002) and Noor (2005). Having lived in America for most of their married life, the couple moved to Rome, Italy, where Lahiri is writing an autobiographical account in Italian titled In Altre Parole or In Other Words.
Lahiri’s inexplicable need to delve deep into the Italian language stems from her need to connect to a language she can call her own. “I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile,” she says. Her mother tongue Bengali was foreign to her American lifestyle. Her family often visited Kolkata, and Jhumpa remembers noticing a physical change in her mother’s body language as the plane landed on Indian soil. She says, she experiences that feeling when landing in Rome.
Perhaps Jhumpa has decided to find her identity as a nomadic writer in different languages.