Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

                                                                             L is for Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London on July 11, 1967, and came to America at age three. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her stories in Interpreter of Maladies (1999). She is the author of the novel The Namesake (2003), and the story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008). Her most recent novel, The Lowland, is shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

 From The Namesake, one of literature's great train-wreck scenes:

  Ashoke was still reading at two-thirty in the morning, one of the few passengers on the train who was awake, when the locomotive engine and seven bogies derailed from the broad-gauge line. The sound was like a bomb exploding. The first four bogies capsized into a depression alongside the track. The fifth and sixth, containing the first-class and air-conditioned passengers, telescoped into each other, killing the passengers in their sleep. The seventh, where Ashoke was sitting, capsized as well, flung by the speed of the crash farther into the field. The accident occurred 209 kilometers from Calcutta between the Ghatshila and Dhalbumgarh stations. The train guard’s portable phone would not work; it was only after the guard ran nearly five kilometers from the site of the accident to Ghatshila, that he was able to transmit the first message for help. Over an hour passed before the rescuers arrived, bearing lanterns and shovels and axes to pry bodies from the cars.

   Ashoke can still remember their shouts, asking if anyone was alive. He remembers trying to shout back, unsuccessfully, his mouth emitting nothing but the faintest rasp. . . Milling about them were villagers, police inspectors, a few doctors. He remembered believing he was dying, that perhaps he was already dead. He could not feel the lower half of his body, and so was unaware that the mangled limbs of Ghosh were draped over his legs. Eventually he saw the cold, unfriendly blue of earliest morning, the moon and a few stars still lingering in the sky. The pages of his book, which had been tossed from his hand, fluttered in two sections a few feet away from the train. The glare from a search lantern briefly caught the pages, momentarily distracting one of the rescuers. “Nothing here,” Ashoke heard someone say. “Let’s keep going.”

   But the lantern’s light lingered, just long enough for Ashoke to raise his hand, a gesture that he believed would consume the small fragment of life left to him. He was still clutching a single page of “The Overcoat,” crumpled tightly in his fist, and when he raised his hand the wad of paper dropped from his fingers. “Wait!” he heard a voice cry out. “The fellow by that book. I saw him move.”

  He was pulled from the wreckage, placed on a stretcher, transported on another train to a hospital in Tatanagar. . .

   Seven years later, there are still certain images that wipe him flat. They lurk around a corner as he rushes through the engineering department at MIT, checks his campus mail. They hover by his shoulder as he leans over a plate of rice at dinnertime, or nestles against Ashima’s limbs at night. At every turning point in his life – at his wedding when he stood behind Ashima, encircling her waist and peering over her shoulder as they poured puffed rice into a fire, or during his first hours in America, seeing a small gray city caked with snow – he has tried but failed to push these images away: the twisted, battered, capsized bogies of the train, his body twisted below it, the terrible crunching sound he had heard but not comprehended, his bones crushed as fine as flour. It is not the memory of pain that haunts him, he has no memory of that. It is the memory of waiting before he was rescued, and the persistent fear, rising up in his throat, that he might not have been rescued at all. . .

   He does not thank God, he openly reveres Marx and quietly refuses religion. But there is one more dead soul that he has to thank. He cannot thank the book; the book has perished, as he nearly did, in scattered pieces, in the earliest hours of an October day, in a field 209 kilometers from Calcutta. Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life.


How intriguing that it’s a book by the great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), that leads to Ashoke’s unearthing from the trainwreck. Ashoke, father of the American-born main character of The Namesake, will go on to name his son Gogol, in commemoration of the father’s rescue, and consequently therefore, the son’s existence. Henceforth a first-generation Bengali-American shall bear the name of a famous Russian writer: his namesake.

The book that Ashoke is reading on the train (while the other passengers play cards)–––the book that will save his life––is Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.” There is no overestimating the importance of this story to Russian, and therefore world, literature. It was no less a genius than Dostoevsky who announced: “We all come from Gogol’s Overcoat.”

Gogol published “The Overcoat” at the age of thirty-three. A writer whose genius flourished in his youth, Gogol was himself something of a trainwreck towards the end of his short life. This progenitor of Russian Literature, having fallen under the spell of a religious fanatic, disavowed his creative achievement in the hope of salvation, and in that same hope burned the second part of his projected trilogy, Dead Souls.

By such a tormented talent was Ashoke’s life saved. Grateful for his life, if not to the point of religiosity, there is, besides Marx, one more dead soul whom Ashoke has to thank. He cannot thank the book, for, as author Lahiri tells us, the book: Gogol’s “Overcoat,” has perished in the trainwreck––just s surely as Dead Souls, Part II, perished with Gogol in his untimely demise. In Ashoke’s mind, Nikolai Gogol is the dead soul to whom he owes his life.

Just so does consummate storyteller Jhumpa Lahiri lay the groundwork for plot development, and for the complex psychological interface between father and son in The Namesake, at the same time that she delicately, ardently, pays tribute to one of the greatest storytellers of all.

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