Hindi Language Blog

Special Part 4, Indians in America: Popular Literature Posted by on Oct 31, 2016 in Hindi Language, Uncategorized

Since my last post on Indian Americans in popular T.V. and film, I’ve had a nagging feeling that we have some unfinished business regarding our three-part (now four-part 😉 theme: Indians in America. Of course, it’s impossible to cover all of the topics that could fall under this umbrella, but I wanted to address one (popular literature) I’m particularly interested in and that I find especially important before we move on to other ideas.

Jhumpa Lahiri    

An author who has become somewhat of a household name in the world of American literature (साहित्य/saahitya, masc. noun) and depictions of the Indian and Indian-American experience, Jhumpa Lahiri (also known as Nilanjana Sudeshna) was born in London to parents from West Bengal. However, the family moved to Kingston, Rhode Island soon after, which is where Lahiri grew up. Since kindergarten, she has been known mostly by her nickname, “Jhumpa,” because one of her teachers decided that it was simpler to pronounce than her actual name. In her own words, Lahiri describes her unease at feeling “different” from other students, an experience shared by many of the characters (किरदार/kirdaar, masc. noun or पात्र/paatra, masc. noun) in her fiction: “I always felt so embarrassed by my name…you feel like you’re causing someone pain just by being who you are.”

Not only is Lahiri a celebrated author but she is also highly educated, having received degrees from Barnard College (B.A. in English literature) and Boston University (M.A. in English and Comparative Literature, M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies). The first collection (संग्रह/sangrah, masc. noun) of her short stories (कहानी/kahaani, fem. noun) that earned her lasting prominence in the literary world, called Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. Her first novel (उपन्यास/upanyaas, masc. noun), for which she is perhaps more widely known, is called The Namesake (2003) and was made into a film (2007) by Indian-American director Mira Nair and starred notable Indian and Indian-American actors Kal Penn, Tabu and Irrfan Khan. In the novel and movie (फ़िल्म/film, fem. noun), the main character, Gogol’s, discomfiture with his name and identity was partially inspired by Lahiri’s self-consciousness at her own name and sense that she did not quite “fit in” as the child of Bengali immigrants.

Despite the success of The Namesake, Lahiri is known mostly for her collections of short stories, which she writes more prolifically. Her fiction is compelling in that it is usually at least semi-autobiographical and concerns mostly Bengali immigrants and children of immigrants in the United States and topics such as marital troubles, the cultural gap between first and latter generation immigrants, the nuances of familial relationships and personal tragedies. The bulk of her fiction has a subdued existential and philosophical quality, as the reader is steadily drawn into the well-crafted worlds and minds of the characters while they experience the pain of cultural dislocation, homesickness and identity crises. In an interview, Lahiri describes the process during which she gravitated predominantly toward the Indian-American immigrant experience in her writing: “When I first started writing, I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.”

In a more recent collection of short stories entitled Unaccustomed Earth (2008), Lahiri moves away from some of the issues that preoccupied her in her earlier fiction and instead describes latter generation immigrants who have cut most of their ties with the communities of their forebears. Due to these changes, these characters have perhaps assimilated more into the stereotypically “individualistic,” dominant, American culture. Interestingly, Lahiri now lives in Rome, Italy with her journalist husband and two children and has taken to writing almost entirely in Italian, as can be seen in her most recent book, In Other Words (2016), which is an autobiography written in both Italian and English.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

When I first became interested in Indian culture in middle school, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s (or, Chitralekha Banerjee) books were some of the first that I read. Divakaruni is a prolific and incredibly creative (रचनात्मक/rachnaatmak, adjective) author who is adept at multiple genres, including realistic fiction (कथा-साहित्य/kathaa saahitya, masc. noun), magical realism, historical fiction and fantasy. In fact, her fantasy children’s series, The Brotherhood of the Conch (2003, 05, 09), represents some of her best work and is a great introduction to Indian culture and folklore as this series, unlike most of her work, is set in India itself.

Originally from Calcutta (now Kolkata), Divakaruni earned her B.A. from the University of Calcutta in 1976. The same year, she traveled to the United States to begin a Master’s program at Wright State University. She later earned her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Now, she teaches at the University of Houston as part of its renowned Creative Writing Program. Although she started out as a poet (कवि/kavi), she is known mostly for her fiction; her collection of short stories entitled Arranged Marriage (1995) received the American Book Award in 1995 and earned her greater fame. Since then, she has written many books and collections of poetry, but some of the more well-known include The Mistress of Spices (1997), Sister of My Heart (1999), Queen of Dreams (2004) and The Palace of Illusions (2008), which was incredibly popular in India and is an avant-garde version of the Hindu epic Mahabharata (महाभारत) related through Draupadi’s eyes.

While her children’s literature is fantastical, inventive and intensely engaging, her poetry (कविता/kavitaa, fem. noun) and realistic fiction is more restrained, although still lush with figurative language and emotive characters and narration. Above all, in her poetry and realistic fiction, Divakaruni excels at portraying women’s relationships with one another and the tragedies and joys that are particular to the female experience. The reader can see that Divakaruni takes a particular interest in these issues, which is reflected in her personal life, in which she is a former president and co-founder of Maitri (मैत्री, fem. noun=friendship), which is a helpline based in Houston for South Asian women suffering domestic abuse; Divakaruni also works on the advisory board of an analogous organization called Daya (दया, fem. noun= compassion).

In addition to the above writers, other notable names in the field of Indian-American literature include Kiran Desai, who is the daughter of renowned author Anita Desai and whose novel The Inheritance of Loss (2006) won the Man Booker Prize. Again, the major themes explored in this novel are migration, a sense of limbo and negotiation that comes from being part of two cultures at once, friction that exists between the past and present and how colonialism and post-colonialism alter and attempt to rob colonized or formerly colonized peoples of their identities. Another important author is Susham Bedi, who writes short stories, poetry and novels and was previously an actress in India as well as a professor of Hindi language and literature at Columbia University; she too writes about the experiences of the South Asian diaspora in the U.S. and focuses on her characters’ psyches as they negotiate divergent cultures. Yet, unlike the other authors described here, she writes mostly in Hindi rather than English.

Lastly, although he now lives in London, author Vikram Seth studied doctorate-level Economics at Stanford University and thus spent a considerable amount of time in California, which inspired his novel in verse The Golden Gate (1986). This novel does not concern the South Asian diasporic experience at all, but rather that of upper middle class, Northern Californians. However, Seth is better known for his family saga A Suitable Boy (1993) and his advocacy for gay rights in India and opposition to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which dates from the time of the British Raj and seeks to criminalize homosexuality. If there are any other Indian-American writers you feel I should have included in this post, let me know in the comments below!

शब्दावली की सूची/

Shabdaavali ki Suchi (Vocabulary List):

  1. साहित्य/saahitya, masc. noun: literature
  2. किरदार/kirdaar, masc. noun (informal) or पात्र/paatra (formal), masc. noun: character (as in a play, novel, etc.)
  3. संग्रह/sangrah, masc. noun: collection (can be used for many types of collections)
  4. कहानी/kahaani, fem. noun: story
  5. उपन्यास/upanyaas, masc. noun: novel
  6. फ़िल्म/film, fem. noun: film
  7. रचनात्मक/rachnaatmak (formal), adj.: creative (incidentally, the word for “creation” is रचना/rachnaa, fem. noun)
  8. कथा-साहित्य/kathaa saahitya, masc. noun: fiction (the first word, “कथा/kathaa,” means “story” in Sanskrit)
  9. कवि/kavi: poet
  10. कविता/kavitaa: poem or poetry
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About the Author: Rachael

नमस्ते, मेरा नाम रेचल है/السلام علیکم، میرا نام ریچل ہے۔ Hello, my name is Rachael, but I also on occasion go by Richa––an interesting story for another time :) My two great loves are Hindi and Urdu. I first traveled to India (Jaipur, Rajasthan) in college on a Hindi study abroad program. A little over a year later, I returned to the same city to study Hindi in a yearlong program. I've also spent a summer in Kolkata, West Bengal learning Bengali, and I studied Urdu at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a graduate student in South Asian Studies. I hope to share with you the fascinating world of Hindi and Urdu literature, society, culture and film through my blogs!