In this installment of my series on writers with ridiculously interesting backgrounds, I look at Jhumpa Lahiri. Born in London to a Bengali family from Calcutta, the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner grew up in Rhode Island and is fantastic observer of both suburban New England life and the Indian-American community.
The book that won her the Pulitzer, the short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, is an assemblage of tales in which Bengali culture runs head on into everyday Americana. One of the more amusing ones is This Blessed House, which revolves around a newly-wed Indian couple who move into a house that, they discover, is full of left-behind statuettes of Christ and other religious kitsch. The wife, nicknamed Twinkle, is delighted, while her husband Sanjeev tells her to throw the stuff away: "We're not Christian," Sanjeev said. Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle. She shrugged. "No, we're not Christian. We're good little Hindus." In the end, Twinkle gets her way, and Christ goes up on the mantelpiece.
The marriage is an arranged one - Sanjeev and Twinkle have only known each other for four months, and their initial incompatibility is obvious. Once on their way to dinner in Manhattan, they argue about the Christian gewgaws, without reaching any resolution satisfactory to Sanjeev.
Twinkle had drunk four glasses of whiskey in a nameless bar in Alphabet City and forgot all about it. From Sanjeev's perspective things get even worse when he and his wife throw a housewarming party. The guests are fascinated by the relics left behind by the previous owners, and everyone except Sanjeev goes up to the attic to search for more of them. There they discover a silver bust of Christ: He hated its immensity, and its flawless polished surface, and its undeniable value. He hated that it was in his house, and that he owned it. Unlike the other things they'd found, this contained dignity, solemnity, beauty even. But to his surprise these qualities made him hate it all the more. Most of all he hated it because he knew Twinkle loved it.
What Sanjeev really hates, of course, is the fact that his wife is more comfortable with mainstream American culture and more able to integrate than he is. She's the Bourbon-drinking life-of-the-party while he is the gin-and-tonic sipping type, the guardian of a Bengali sense of propriety.
Lahiri was on the long list for the 2013 Nobel Prize, and like the eventual winner Alice Munro, she's a master of the unspectacular, domestic short story. The conflict about the religious objects is a way of revealing what her protagonists are like.
I discussed Lahiri with an Indian friend, who said, "You know she's really more American than an Indian writer." That's true, for what is more American than the immigrant experience, and Jhumpa Lahiri's work records the constant tremors along the faulty lines of this multicultural society.