NEA Big Read
The Namesake

The Namesake

by Jhumpa Lahiri

That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.

The Life and Times of Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. 1940s
    • 1947: British India divided into two sovereign nations, India and Pakistan.
  2. 1950s
    • 1950: The Indian government outlaws the caste system.
    • 1952: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, targets immigrants who support communism or anarchy.
    • 1957: Dalip Singh Saund elected the first Indian American voting member of U.S. Congress.
  3. 1960s
    • 1965: U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 liberalizes immigration.
    • 1966: Indira Gandhi elected India's Prime Minister.
    • 1967: Jhumpa Lahiri born in London.
  4. 1970s
    • 1970: Jhumpa Lahiri and her family move to Rhode Island.
    • 1970: America's first Hindu temple built in Flushing, New York.
    • 1971: East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh.
  5. 1980s
    • 1980: The United States Refugee Act of 1980 raises cap on annual admission of refugees to 50,000 per year.
    • 1984: Indira Gandhi assassinated.
    • 1989: Lahiri graduates from Barnard College.
  6. 1990s
    • 1990: The Census counts more than 450,000 Indian immigrants living in the U.S.
    • 1993: Lahiri receives an MFA from Boston University's Creative Writing Program.
    • 1999: Lahiri publishes first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.
  7. 2000s
    • 2000: Interpreter of Maladies wins Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
    • 2003: The Namesake published.
    • 2006: The Namesake made into a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair.
    • 2006: Lahiri receives NEA Literature Fellowship.
    • 2007: Bobby Jindal elected the first Indian-American governor (of Louisiana).
    • 2008: Lahiri publishes second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.
  8. 2010s
    • 2010: Lahiri serves as consultant to the HBO series In Treatment.
    • 2010: Nikki Haley elected the first Indian-American female governor (of South Carolina).
    • 2012: Lahiri named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Indian Immigration Experience

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 liberalized America's immigration laws by replacing quotas based on national origin with a greater emphasis on family relationships and the need for highly skilled immigrants. These changes helped accelerate the pace of Indian immigration to the U.S. Today, Indian Americans are the country's third-largest population of Asian ancestry, after Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans. In 2010 nearly three million Indian immigrants lived in the U.S.

Indian immigrants to the U.S. tend to be highly educated; almost 67 percent have at least a bachelor's degree, and nearly 40 percent have a graduate degree. Indian Americans have a disproportionate presence in professions such as engineering, technology, and medicine. India's vast education system produces tens of thousands of engineering and technology graduates each year, and English is widely taught in Indian schools.

Prominent Indian-American businessman Vivek Wadhwa noted in Businessweek that most Indian immigrants arrived in the U.S. relatively recently, after 1980. He attributes their success in part to the competitiveness of the Indian education system, which teaches hard work at an early age. He also credits the entrepreneurial spirit and acceptance of other cultures that arise from living in a sprawling, under-resourced country that includes six major religions and 22 languages.

Indian immigrants who come to the U.S. for higher wages and broader career options also expect their children to take full advantage of American education. A 1992-96 study in California demonstrated that Indian-American students excel academically, outperforming most other immigrant groups. But many young Indian Americans also report some degree of cultural dislocation, deploying the acronym "ABCD," or "American-Born Confused Desi," to describe themselves and their experience. (Desi refers to second-generation South Asians.)

In a 2009 essay contest conducted by the Hindu American Foundation, one such young writer compares herself to superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman, owing to her "double life" straddling both her parents' distant world and the Minneapolis suburb where she grew up. She also notes that Hinduism, as one of the world's oldest religions, contains elements of many other faiths, and so to be a Hindu in America is to experience "a melting pot within a melting pot." Finally, she points out that recent films such as Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) have provided an opportunity for Americans to learn more about her religion and cultural heritage, bringing her country of origin "into the spotlight" in positive ways.

An Indian immigrant family arriving in the U.S. in 1970 would have had many more reasons to feel isolated than a family arriving today. The first Hindu temple in the U.S., built in Flushing, New York, didn't open until 1970. Today there are hundreds throughout the country, in big cities like Chicago and also in smaller population centers. "Bollywood" films, Hindu-language movies created in Bombay's thriving film industry, often play in theaters dedicated exclusively to south-Indian films; the United States is by far the largest export market for these movies. The Internet and more accessible telecommunications tools have made it possible for families to stay in touch across long distances and many time zones, and the same technologies have exposed millions of Americans to Indian cuisine, dress, architecture, and societal customs.

Today, from spices and textiles, to music and art, India is a visible and vibrant aspect of American life. Due in part to decades of successful immigration, India's presence in the U.S. is also recognition of the tremendous contributions made by Indian Americans to U.S. business, technology, education, and culture.

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