We headed to Emory University Hospital, which was just a few buildings away from where I spent my days at the law school. I can't remember whether I brought law books with me to study, but by the wee hours of the morning, I certainly was not reading them. The hours passed and morning was approaching. At some point I picked up a news magazine sitting in the waiting area and began reading a story about Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. This was 2003 and she was releasing her first novel, The Namesake. I was intrigued by this young writer who had won the Pulitzer Prize for her first published worked and told the unique stories of Bengali immigrants to the United States. But I had my third year of law school to finish, the bar exam to prepare for and a job to find. I wasn't likely to have time to read her work any time soon. My aunt was given the okay to go home and I filed Jhumpa Lahiri's name in my head and drove my aunt and uncle home.
A few months passed and I found myself in a new job in Washington, D.C. To make the transition from Georgia to the D.C. area a little more manageable, I lived with a friend in the exurbs of D.C. My commute was long. Every morning I would drive to a parking garage and take a Fairfax Connector bus to West Falls Church metro station. Then I would ride the metro to Smithsonian, where I would walk a few blocks to my office. At night, I would reverse all of that. This was always intended to be temporary. The only true benefit of such a long commute (other than the reassuring companionship of my dear friend) was that, during the commute, I could read all the books that I had put off reading during law school. On weekends I would explore the shelves of our local (now defunct) Borders Bookstore and buy various books to read. During this time I read Reading Lolita in Tehran. I read Ron Chernow's biography Alexander Hamilton (oh yes, I read it before Lin-Manuel Miranda turned it into the Broadway hit it is today). On one of my Borders trips, I bought both Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I read Interpreter of Maladies immediately and loved it. The short stories made for great reading on a commute, but more importantly Lahiri's accessible prose allowed me to see inside a Bengali-American world I would never otherwise be given access.
For some unknown reason, I never read The Namesake. I kept meaning to read it. I took it with me when I finally moved to Arlington, but my shorter commute meant less reading time. I took The Namesake with me when I got married and moved to an even more convenient location (we lived right by the Rosslyn metro--the first stop in Virginia from D.C.). Soon we were moving to a two-bedroom condo to make room for Meg's arrival and I took The Namesake with us. The Namesake survived my book purge when we made room for Clare's arrival and the purge that came before we moved all of our books to a townhouse when we were expecting Anne. Last year, when we made the move to Alexandria and into a substantial house we felt sure we would never outgrow, I again attempted to purge books. I still hoped I would one day read The Namesake and it made the move with us.
This past week, I finally read The Namesake. What an extraordinary book. Having just finished all 800-pages of The Goldfinch, I was amazed by Lahiri's ability to tell such a huge story in a mere 300-pages. The story follows Gogol from birth (and even parts of his parents' stories prior to his birth) through his childhood and into adulthood through his early 30s. It is not unexpected that Gogol feels a constant struggle between American culture and Bengali culture and often finds himself alienated from both. What is unexpected is how Lahiri demonstrates this struggle. As a student, Gogol takes comfort in a field trip to a Puritan cemetery where he does headstone rubbings of names as strange and unfamiliar as his own name. But as he starts to get a sense that he can belong in America, his Bengali mother is horrified that a school would visit a cemetery and refuses to allow the headstone rubbings in her kitchen. As he grows older the struggle becomes romance. Can he have a fulfilling relationship with a woman who doesn't understand his family's culture? Is he any more likely to find happiness with a woman who can understand the Bengali culture, but who, like Gogol, has spent her life resisting the traditional ways of that culture? Through all of this, Lahiri also explores the changes of Gogol's parents. Gogol's mother initially hopes to return to India when her husband finishes his schooling. When she finally has the opportunity to return to India, she finds herself to be very much an American citizen. She will never be fully American, but she will never again be fully Bengali.
While the immigrant experience is quite unique, I found myself relating to the human experience of constantly pushing against and returning to one's roots. As I dragged this book through the last decade and a half of my life, I wonder how much I have changed in that time. I doubt the person I am today would feel comfortable in the shoes of an Emory law student focused almost entirely on the career I had before me. After my "urbanization," could I ever comfortably return to small town America? Could I live without museums, ballets and musicals at the Kennedy Center, and neighbors who all have advanced degrees (I know that sound snotty, but the conversations really are invigorating)? That being said, as a stay-at-home-mom, do I fit into this world? Generally no, but I have found my group of well-educated moms who stay home with their kids. Perhaps we all discover that we don't fit into the world generally, but we'll find our way and our group. And the truth is, we'll always be changing, so don't assume the people most like you will make you the most happy.
For those of you who weren't looking for a book club recitation, here's a totally unrelated picture of the girls and Nana on the Appalachian Trail. Enjoy.