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Why The Namesake made Jhumpa Lahiri cry
Arthur J Pais in New York

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March 14, 2007

For Ashoke Ganguli and his wife Ashima, getting to understand American culture is never easy. But even as the immigrant couple tries to make sense of the world around them, they have to watch their two children, especially son Gogol, wrestle with the question of who they are.

Jhumpa Lahiri's deeply observed portrait of an Indian-American family in The Namesake caught the imagination of readers worldwide. The book was not only a bestseller but it was also chosen as Book of the Year on many newspaper lists, including The New York Times.

Now, Lahiri's novel is a major film being distributed in America by Fox Searchlight, one of the best companies to handle art-house movies.

First published in India AbroadLahiri, a reticent writer, is so impressed by the film directed by Mira Nair that she has been doing quite a lot of publicity for it.

Lahiri, who led an insular life as the daughter of Indian immigrants, is married to a journalist from Guatemala, and makes her home in New York City.

While she writes her short stories or novels, she often talks to her parents Amar and Tia Lahiri about immigrant experiences, and the significance of Bengali festivals and cultural life. Her parents were also involved in the film to the extent they served as role models to the characters played by Irrfan Khan and Tabu.

Lahiri tells Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais that Mira Nair's film has done justice to her book.

The Namesake has been showing at a number of film festivals. Did you see it with the audiences at any time?

No. I saw it a private screening in New York.

Where you anxious to see how the book has been made into film?

I was never anxious, but I was burning with curiosity.

I have watched people getting very moved by this film. I hear sobs during the screening, and I see people wiping tears as the lights come on. Did you cry while watching the film?

Not during the film. But as the film ended, I was overwhelmed. I hugged Mira. I felt this is the greatest gift Mira has given me. I cried then.

Why do you call it a gift?

When I write something I give it everything I can. And then it is over to me. I never go back to the book or short story unless I am at a reading. Even then I am not affected. I would rather read someone else's work. But when I saw the film I was moved by the story Mira had told. It was a powerful feeling.

What would you tell people who have faithfully read your novel and are about to see the film?

My novel encompasses 30 years in the life of a family, and what Mira has made is a 110-minute-long film. You cannot have everything from a novel into a film unless it is a television serial. Books are earthbound entities, and we read them whenever we have time. A film, on the other hand, seems more ethereal, and should be able to old our attention from start to finish. The essence of my book remains very much in the film but it inhabits a different realm.

And what would you tell to those who haven't read the book?

The film works on its own. It is compelling and it has many insights into immigrant lives. I hope they will find it a moving experience as I did.

You have said you cannot anymore think of The Namesake belonging just to you.

That is because what Mira has taken from my novel and turned into this film. I cannot think of anyone else who would have been able to internalize my novel, to take the essence of my novel, and transpose it the way she has done. Her dedication and enthusiasm were immense.

I have watched her reinvent my novel. So, I am convinced this was a story both of us were meant to tell. Not everything from the novel is in the film. But none of it is a loss; it's pure gain.

You have also said you don't think you would have been interested in making the movie if it were for any other director but Mira Nair. Why?

Having seen her other films that have brought out the Indian experience in such a fresh and innovative way, I had come to consider her as a pioneer. Her passion and commitment swept me and my entire family along in this film.

Didn't you say that at some point you thought The Namesake could not be made into a film?

There is a lot of description and summary in the book, not to forget that its story is spread across three decades. But Mira and Sooni [Taraporevala, the screenplay writer] had read the book so carefully that they were able to coax out the dialogue and action that is implicit, and choose parts of the book that convey the essence of the novel the best.

Would you have been able to write the screenplay?

I could never have been able to do what Mira and Sooni have done. And that is why I think what they have done is remarkable. 

You have also talked about the film being a deeply personal experience.

For one thing, Mira and I developed a strong bond from the time we met, through the filming, and the bond continues. I did not write the screenplay but she kept telling me what she was doing with my novel. My parents met with Irrfan Khan and Tabu offering them insights into immigrant lives. My relatives in India appeared in the wedding scenes in the film. And my daughter Noor plays the part of Gogol's sister Sonia receiving her annaprasan [when Bengali babies are given their first taste of solid food].

How did you decide on the name Noor?

It is short and has a historical significance. My son is called Octavio, an emperor's name, so I guess Noor fits in well.

You have said the experience of immigrant children differs little from that of their parents.

In a sense, there is very little that distinguishes the two experiences. The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially for those who are culturally displaced as immigrants are, or those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, like the children of immigrants.

In a way, it is easier on the older generation [to live in the new world]. They bond with fellow immigrants; they have ties to cultural organizations and to temples. But the children have to fend for themselves, in a sense. They too carry considerable amount of tension about their own identities.

What was your own experience like?

I have observed that the problem for the children of immigrants -- those with strong ties to their country of origin -- is that they felt neither one thing nor the other. In any case, this was my experience.

Whenever people asked where I was from, I could not really answer. If I said I was from Rhode Island, people wanted me to say something more. I could not have said I was from India because that was not accurate, though I speak good Bengali and I have strong connections with my relatives in India.

And then I also remember that I was born in London. Now, when people ask me the question, I am not bothered much. But it was a nagging question while growing up.

What do you think of those years you were with your parents?

I understand and sympathize with my parents' predicament now that I am an adult. But as a child and teenager, I could not understand their opposition to dating, living on one's own, having close relationships with Americans, listening to American food, wearing skirts.

Do you consider yourself an American now?

I find it very hard to think to myself as an American, especially as I am very attached to my parents and their connection to India. And that is why I feel that while for the immigrants the challenges of exile, the loneliness and the constant sense of alienation are too explicit and distressing, there are many immigrant children who have their own distresses.

What else bothered you as you were growing up?

There was a conflict between wanting to please the expectations of my parents and that of my family. It was a classic case of divided identity. Often the level of such a conflict depends on the degree to which the immigrants in question are willing to assimilate.

How about your parents?

They were fearful and suspicious of America and American culture when I was growing up. Maintaining ties to India, and preserving Indian traditions in America meant a lot to them. They are more at home now, but it is always an issue and I am afraid that they will always feel like, and be treated as, foreigners here. 

What is your next book going to be?

It is a collection of short stories and should be out by the middle of next year. It is about immigrant Indian families. The Namesake is also about an immigrant family but it was about just one family.

Will it also have Bengali families?

[Chuckles]. Yes, it certainly has Bengali families.

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