'Namesake's' author put her trust in director

Special to The Times

BECAUSE screen adaptations of novels are, by necessity, condensations of their source, one of the hardest challenges facing any screenwriter is adapting a book in which there's nothing extraneous in the prose. That description certainly applies to Jhumpa Lahiri's novel "The Namesake," the basis for Mira Nair's new movie. "The Namesake" is the story of Gogol Ganguli, a second-generation Indian American trying to make his own life even as he's bedeviled by the feeling that he's betraying the way of life his loving parents have given him. Like her debut short-story collection "Interpreter of Maladies," which won Lahiri a Pulitzer Prize, "The Namesake" is written in straightforward yet lyrical prose. Lahiri's overview enfolds her characters within the kind of sad everyday comedy that can reasonably be called Chekhovian, while still slipping into their heads so easily that we seem to be breathing along with them.

Which, perhaps, is what Lahiri -- who says she is very happy with Nair's work -- meant when, during a recent conversation in her Brooklyn home, she said she admires "the way the screenwriter [Sooni Taraporevala] and Mira were able to draw out moments in the writing and convert them into scenes and dialogue." There is, Lahiri said, "a kind of interiority to the way that book came out," which did not suggest it would translate easily to the screen.

Lahiri turned down Nair's suggestion that she write the screenplay herself.

"I've never written a screenplay," she said. "I don't know what it entails." The timing was also off. "When Mira approached me with this project, I was pregnant for the second time, I had a small son, and I was trying to get another book off the ground."

There was also an element common to many writers. "I feel so sick of something after I finish it," Lahiri said. "And to really go in there again and have to look at the whole thing. If I were ever to sit down and read anything that I've written from start to finish, I'd think, 'Oh, my God. I have to rewrite this immediately.' It's not a healthy thing, and I think it's better for me to move forward. You live in it for so long, and if you don't let it go, it will never let you go."

Lahiri suspects that part of the reason she was able to let this project go was the trust she placed in Nair. "I really didn't know her very well. I knew her a little bit and I knew her work. But I just felt that when I heard her talking about her reaction to the book and her excitement and just the way she had absorbed it, it was very reassuring to me. And it made me curious, more than anything else, about how something I had written could be reconstituted by someone else."

THAT level of satisfaction isn't common among writers whose novels are transposed to the screen. The British film critic Robin Wood, for example, contends that the very idea of a faithful adaptation is a disservice to both film and literature.

"I think that's right," Lahiri said of Wood's point. "Reading the screenplay, it felt like just a slice of my book, but seeing it realized, I saw that it was its own fully realized thing." Lahiri said the only place you get a version that gives you every single thing in a book is "those 13-part things you watch on TV -- and even then it never equals in its level of density of what you're reading. It's never going to be the 'David Copperfield' that's on the page."

Because Gogol's parents are immigrants, "The Namesake" has been written about as an immigrant novel -- and because Lahiri's parents are immigrants, it's also been taken to be autobiographical. But Lahiri, who was born in Britain and raised in Rhode Island, and who went to school in New York and Boston (where, for a time, we worked together in the same Harvard Square bookstore), has had to insist that that is not the case.

"I've said a thousand times and I'll say it again," she said. "I don't think it's an autobiographical novel. I was clearly drawing on the contours of my upbringing and what it was like for my parents to come over here and for me to be raised in that particular climate and that sense of not belonging, of not feeling any history of your own in the place where you live, of having no legacy, or no grandmother's attic to go prowling in -- all of those things that I think speak of the fact that you are coming from something palpable and not something very far away."

That, Lahiri said, is why she kept the book in the present tense, after flirting with the idea of changing it to the past. "What I missed when I was looking at that past-tense version," she said, "was the sense of life being lived in the moment, which I think is essential to that experience of going into a place and not belonging to a place. That past tense to me corresponds more to that sense of being settled."

It's clear that in "The Namesake," Lahiri has honored her parents' experience, and her own. But there is an absurdity to classifying "The Namesake" as only representing the immigrant experience. Both the hero of the novel, a young Bengali named for Nikolai Gogol, and the writers Lahiri says are the ones she returns to again and again -- Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hardy, Woolf, James, William Trevor and Mavis Gallant -- testify to the way literature slips past national boundaries.

Through an immigrant couple and their American-born son, Lahiri in "The Namesake" talks about the drama we all go through, the simultaneous desire to find our own place in the world and the guilt we feel about separating ourselves from our families.

"To me that was very much what it was about," Lahiri said. "When I was working on the book I was growing very conscious of what it meant to go through the stages of life, and to forge your own. I had just gotten married and all of these big symbolic rituals that we go through, and that got me thinking a lot about my parents and how their going through those stages was so much more loaded because not only were they leaving their families and creating their own families, but they were doing it in a completely different place."

Lahiri may be conscious of being unable to name one place as the repository of her history. But fiction is the country in which she has found her home.


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