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Indians in America - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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November 9th, 2008


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11:48 pm - Indians in America
Last year, I saw The Namesake, the movie. This January, I bought The Namesake, the book. Last month, I finally read it.

Most of my comments about the movie still stand, of course, since they are essentially the same story. It very accurately depicts what it's like to be the American-born son of two Indian-born parents. Ashima and Ashoke are more traditional than my own parents, but a lot of their character traits ring true. The lack of displays of affection, for instance, that makes you wonder what their relationship is like, what it's even built on. Just like Ashima, my mom talked to my dad for about ten minutes before marrying him. Like the Gangulis, my parents pretty much have only Indian friends and only hang out with Indian people. I'm not used to reading about my own experiences and my own culture; it was neat to recognize so many little details or foreign words (spelled a little differently in Bengali than in Gujarati). It was also interesting to read English descriptions of things I only knew the Indian words for.

Jhumpa Lahiri loves detail. She gives you the impression that she knows everything about these characters and their lives, like she really did take the time to fill out those character sheets with "What does Character A have for breakfast?" on them. Oh, she knows what Ashima had for breakfast. She knows what she has for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a midnight snack; what outfit she wore on Tuesday; how she did her hair yesterday, tomorrow, three days from now; the smell of each individual spice she cooks with; everything. It can get to be a bit too much information, really. She gives detailed physical descriptions of unimportant characters, the shape of their face and the cut of their hair and exactly what clothes they're wearing. It reminded me of my epic posts. As annoying as it can be sometimes, it does serve to pull you into the book; it makes you feel like you're in good hands, in the hands of someone who knows what she's doing.

Lahiri is both very detached from and attached to her characters. The style of the prose definitely feels like that of an observer, someone watching the lives of the Gangulis and writing about them while privy to their innermost thoughts. But this observer is clearly a Writer, crafting her story to get the most emotional impact, ending scenes on just the right line or image or phrase. It makes for a reading experience that's both engrossing and easy to walk away from. Because she's really just chronicling these characters' lives; you don't even get the impression that she's actually telling them what to do. It feels like these characters exist, and they live relatively normal lives full of interesting parts and boring parts, and she's turning them into a proper book. There's no clear narrative drive: what propels the book is Gogol's identity crisis. The book is more focused on Gogol than the movie; the movie made the story as much about Ashima as it was about Gogol, but Ashima's story falls by the wayside once Gogol moves away for college. Which is unfortunate but good for me because that's the point at which I begin relating to Gogol a lot more.

The movie was a good adaptation of the book, although they compressed a lot of the story, skipping over important events in the early parts of the book. And Gogol has many more relationships in the book than they depict in the movie, and the end of the movie is very different, if I remember correctly. The book is, of course, much better because it allows you to hear what the characters are thinking and how they feel, which is basically the meat of the story! It's incredibly internal.

A co-worker recognized the cover of my book a few tables away at lunch and lent me Interpreter of Maladies, which was her favorite book. It's unusual for a collection of short stories to win the Pulitzer Prize, so I had been meaning to read it. Also, I'm Indian and a writer and I should see who I'll be compared to if I ever actually write about Indian characters, right? And that's an even bigger If now that I've read Jhumpa Lahiri because...what else is there left for me to do? I'm not even Indian enough. I've been to India three times and can't write about it with as much detail as she has.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories. What impressed me most was that each story was so different. Not stylistically—although a couple do break from her usual third-person omnisciently objective—but plotwise and characterwise. I really liked four of them: "A Temporary Matter," about a couple who tell each other secrets in the dark during blackouts; "Interpreter of Maladies," about a tour guide who takes an interest in the wife of a family he's showing around; "Sexy," about a white woman who has an affair with an Indian man; and "This Blessed House," about a newlywed Indian couple who moves into a house filled with Christian paraphernalia hidden everywhere. See what I mean already? Most of the other stories are good as well, but they didn't do as much for me. Many of the stories end ironically, which was fun and unexpected after The Namesake. I didn't know Lahiri liked that kind of thing, but she does have a sort of appreciation for the fact that sometimes life will kick you in the face.

Google Book Search has the book up for preview, so you can flip through it, but pages are omitted throughout so you can't read an entire short story. You can get a sense of Lahiri's writing style, though.

So now I just have to figure out how I can get myself one of those Pulitzer Prize thingies.
Current Mood: pensivepensive
Current Music: CSS - Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above

(17 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:sneaker328
Date:November 10th, 2008 11:29 am (UTC)
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Wow. I read those ages ago! I'm glad you finally read them and that you enjoyed them. Normally I'm not as crazy about books that are so light on dialogue, but in this case it worked- because you're right, it did really feel like Lahiri was more biographer than novelist, which made the characters seems more real.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
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More biographer than novelist! More succinct than I!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
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I always wondered if, should I ever publish a book, I'd be compared to other contemporary "young, ethnic" writers like Lahiri. Then again, if I didn't put a picture on the book jacket, no one would ever know I'm Korean.
Sometimes I think about using a pen name.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
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Seamus Ramon Wong-Haroutunian...Jones.
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From:punzerel
Date:November 10th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
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I think I share your favourites from Interpreter of Maladies. I kind of felt that in Interpreter, Lahiri was still developing her writing style - in places I felt it was a bit clunkier than in Namesake and in Unaccustomed Earth. (The detail thing she does felt more annoying in the first than in those second two.)

If you haven't read the latest, you should pick it up - my favourite is the first story, although reviewers all seem to focus on the last, longest one.

I think you pinpointed her writing style really well, by the way.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! My co-worker wanted to wrangle Unaccustomed Earth for me, but I needed a break from Lahiri. I could only take so much.
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From:electricmonk
Date:November 10th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
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I loved Interpreter – pretty sure my favorites were mostly the same as yours, but it's been a while.
I saw Lahiri do an onstage Q & A with Seattle's head librarian probably a year and a half ago; she actually seemed kind of uncooperative, and resentful of being asked to interpret her own work. The librarian would ask how Lahiri thought her novel reflected the immigrant experience in general, things like that, and Lahiri would be like, "I don't know, I just wrote it." Probably it's exactly because she's more detail-oriented, more focused on chronicling her characters' lives than on hammering in deeper points, even though they're there.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
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That's really interesting. Like the characters just lived in her head and she wrote their stories, and that was that. She wasn't trying to Say anything.
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From:missquita
Date:November 11th, 2008 09:41 pm (UTC)
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That is my favorite kind of writing -- when the Something Said emerges, after the Something is written.
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From:dharmavati
Date:November 10th, 2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
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I've read The Namesake but I haven't watched the movie yet so I can't comment on any comparisons but I always felt like Lahiri created a very organic model of Indian-American life, even if it is not the one I encounter in my own life. I can imagine a mother like Ashima and a person like Gogol having all those life experiences that help define their identities. Personally, my path and determination of my Indian identity has not been the same as Gogol but I can imagine someone like him. It's weird because, when my grandfather died and my dad had to attend the funeral, I gave my dad my copy of The Namesake along Transmission by Hari Kunzru and a couple other books for flight reading. I'm still kind of curious if he managed to finish the book and what he thought of it. I wonder, if he did, which character he empathized with more. :)

I should really read Interpreter of Maladies sometime. It's been on my To Read booklist for a long, long time now. :P

Also, I'm Indian and a writer and I should see who I'll be compared to if I ever actually write about Indian characters, right? And that's an even bigger If now that I've read Jhumpa Lahiri because...what else is there left for me to do? I'm not even Indian enough. I've been to India three times and can't write about it with as much detail as she has.

Haha, I kind of get what you mean. She weaves a beautiful picture with her words and I don't pay attention to that level of detail. It's, of course, not the only way to describe India or even discuss the Indian identity. Have you ever read Londonistan (don't have the author ATM but I'll find it and come back to you)? Such lulz.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC)
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I completely agree with you on the book, fellow Indian-American!

I totally suck at detail. I don't even know what things are called half the time. Like, basic things. Like lampposts.

Londonistan...does not sound like something I would read. Or want to read.
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From:dharmavati
Date:November 10th, 2008 09:58 pm (UTC)
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I totally suck at detail. I don't even know what things are called half the time. Like, basic things. Like lampposts.

Haha, I'm the same! :)

Oops, I realized that I meant Londonstani (Londonistan is a nonfic book, IIRC). I mention it because it's a bit of a foil to The Namesake. Lahiri's writing is very emotional and poetic and this book reads like a kick to your stomach. As for finding Londonstani as provocative, YMMV. It's... different. :D
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 10th, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
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Ah! Maybe I will check that out. It does look...different. Plus, according to the Wikipedia entry, it has a plot twist that only a book could take! I love those! Thankfully, I didn't see what it was.
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From:missquita
Date:November 11th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
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I read The Namesake, really liked it, purchased Interpreter of Maladies, loved it, and now have it on my Shelf of Favorite Books. Plus, at least for me, I like to say her name. It feels good.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 11th, 2008 10:05 pm (UTC)
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She does have a nice name! It has a good sound to it.

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