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November 9th, 2008 - The Book of the Celestial Cow — LiveJournal

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November 9th, 2008


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

(15 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")


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