Novelist Jhumpa Lahiri is the sort of woman who makes being brilliant and accomplished appear effortless. At 36, and with just two books behind her, Lahiri is already one of the most celebrated American authors of her generation. Her first book, a short story collection called 'Interpreter of Maladies', earned her the coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2OOO.
The Pulitzer, the American equivalent of the Booker prize, represents the pinnacle of literary success. Previous recipients of the award include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Updike.
But when I meet Lahiri, she tells me she is keen to put the 'whole Pulitzer business' behind her.
'Winning was almost disturbing, because it was so unexpected,' she says. 'It was good news, but because it came out of nowhere, it shook me. I found out during a phone call, not from the Pulitzer people, but from my publisher.
More prestigious literary awards seemed to tumble into Lahiri's lap. The O Henry award for short-story writers was followed by the PEN/Hemingway award for unpublished writers. Then she was named one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40 by The New Yorker magazine. Newsweek commented, 'Lahiri writes such direct, translucent prose you almost forget you're reading'. The NewYork Times called her 'a writer of uncommon elegance and poise'.
Amid the abundant praise, Lahiri, newly married and pregnant, wrote The Namesake, her second book and first novel. The Namesake is an eloquently written, moving book that spans two generations and two continents, India and America. The protagonist in the story, Gogol, is born to Bengali parents in America in the late Sixties. The Namesake charts his struggles to carve out his own identity and disentangle himself from his immigrant parents' expectations and traditions, in its exploration of being a second-generation immigrant.
Lahiri herself was born in London to Bengali parents who moved to Rhode Island, on the east coast of America, when she was two, where her father took up a post at Rhode Island University.
'My parents assumed that life would be the same for their children because they didn't know any alternative. As an Indian girl, you didn't date and were very respect ful and quiet - it was just a different existence'.
Many of the characters in Lahiri's stories end up in arranged marriages, but her own parent s never broached that subject with her as she entered her twenties. She met her husband, who is of Guatemalan and Greek origin, at a friend's wedding about six years ago.
'I was never under pressure to marry,' she says. 'But I expected to be, because in my parents' culture that was the way things were done. It's taken them a lifetime of living here to see the different ways one can be raised. And, as I've got older,I've understood where they are coming from. But as a child, I thought they were excessively conservative and demanding.'
The recurrent theme in Lahiri's writing is the bitter - sweet experience of emigrating to America from India. Her characters are often caught in a cultural limbo - excited about their new home but grieving the loss of their country of origin.
In The Namesake, an American-born Bengali baby is given the name Gogol (after the Russian writer) as a pet name. The name sticks after his official name, selected by an elder in Bengal, get s lost in the post.
'Names are very important in Bengal, and the idea for the The Namesake grew from a visit to Calcutt a when I was in my early twenties, she says. 'one of my cousins had a friend called Gogol, and I never forgot that name. I wondered why a little Bengali boy would be named after a l9th-century Russian writer .' In The Namesake, the young Gogol announces that he is changing his name to Nikhil - or the more English-sounding Nick for short. The boy's father, Ashoke, is unimpressed but concedes, 'In America, anything is possible. Do as you wish.'
But as a child, growing up in South Kingstown, a rural town in Rhode Island, Lahiri didn't feel as though anything was possible. Even though she had been writing short stories and articles since she was about ten, she never imagined that she could make a living as a novelist.
'I had assumed that I'd lead an academic life, because that's what I'd been trained to do,' she says. 'I grew up in that world. Everyone I knew was the child of a professor, and my father was a university librarian. If you were intelligent and had a subject you liked, you taught at university . It was a nice, solid living'.
'But at graduate school I became really unhappy with that academic world, and I started writing fiction in the evenings, I wrote enough to get accepted on a seven month writing fellowship in Massachusetts, and it was there that my writing career took off'.
'Getting my short stories published was the biggest, most profoundly altering and wonderful news of my writing life. It just felt so huge - such a dream,' says Lahiri, breaking into a radiant smile. She is currently working on her third book, although she adds, 'I don't really think of them as books. I just write and see where it goes.' She works for several hours each day 'because if I don't, I don't feel right.'
When not writing, Lahiri spends her time with her son, and evenings are often spent reading, cooking for her family or, she admits with a giggle, knitting.
this interview first appeared in the "Mail on Sunday"