Letters About Literature: Dear Jhumpa Lahiri

In this final installment of our Letters About Literature spotlight, we feature the Level 3 National Honor-winning letter of  Riddhi Sangam of Saratoga, Calif., who wrote to Jhumpa Lahiri, author of “The Namesake.”

Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives, announced its 2014 winners in June. More than 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative, a reading-promotion program of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

National and honor winners were chosen from three competition levels: Level 1 (grades 4-6), Level 2 (grades 7-8) and Level 3 (grades 9-12). You can read all this year’s winning letters here. In addition, winning letters from previous years are available to read online.

Dear Ms. Jhumpa Lahiri,

                  As an Indian girl growing up in America, in a culture that is predominantly Caucasian, I always felt like I was slightly apart from my peers, as if there was a barrier between myself and everyone else. I remember a time when I was six years old, in the first grade, when I was eating lunch with my classmates.  My mother had packed Indian bread, chapathi, and cubes of cottage cheese cooked in creamed spinach, palak paneer. The other children looked at the food and said, “Ew!  That’s gross!” I still remember putting the lid on my Tupperware container and closing my lunch box, determined not to cry.

                  After that, I begged my mother to send me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — American food, food that everyone else ate — for lunch. My mother readily agreed, but I can see now that my rejection of Indian food symbolized something more to her; a wish not to be associated with Indian culture.

                  I wanted to be American. I wanted sandwiches and pasta and food that did not provoke disgusted looks from my classmates. I wanted to have blue eyes and a name that was easy to pronounce, a name not vulnerable to a gamut of creative mispronunciations. When people tried to pronounce my name for the first time, I would apologize embarrassedly for my culture, saying, “My name is Indian. Sorry.” I did not realize, however, that in wishing all of these things, I was rejecting my heritage and all of the sacrifices my family members had made so I could live a happy life.

                  Because I felt alienated from my peers for most of my childhood, I believed a happy life was one where I was not an outlier, a life where I was simply the same as all of my classmates. I reasoned that although I could not change my name to make myself fit in with the rest of my peers, I could mimic my classmates in dress. I did not want clothes that could provoke my peers to say, “That shirt’s so … interesting,” and I did not want clothes that were too “Indian-looking” — anything paisley-patterned or anything that was excessively embroidered was put into this category. I wanted specific shirts, the shirts everyone wore, the ones that were emblazoned proudly with logos, logos that seemed to proclaim that I was jut like the rest of the children. I remember shopping for these shirts, hearing my parents say, “Why do you even want these shirts? You know, when I came to America, I never would have spent so much money on such frivolous items. You know what I did instead? I cut coupons. I walked miles in the snow from the grocery store to my tiny apartment because I didn’t have a car. I had permanent welts on my fingers from the plastic grocery bags straining against my hands. Do you ever think of that, Riddhi?”

                  I was extremely conscious about my heritage until the tenth grade, when a group of students in my English class, including me, was assigned to read ‘The Namesake.’ Although I love to read, I did not think that I would enjoy the book — I normally do not enjoy books that come with assignments and reports due for school. This preconception changed as soon as I read the first few pages and immediately saw my parents in Ashima and Ashoke, and later, myself in Gogol and Moushumi.

                  Reading the book was like reading an echo of myself. I empathized with Gogol’s struggles to find an identity with which he could be content; Moushumi’s struggles to please her parents; and finally I realized what my parents had given up so they could create a good life in America.

                  As I read about Gogol and how he detested his name, the way his peers, meaning well but not understanding, mispronounced the letters, I felt a kinship. I saw myself in the way he strived not to be associated with Indian culture, the way he fought so hard to break the bonds between himself and his roots.

                  I identified with Moushumi’s decision to pursue a degree in French — my forte has always been languages and the humanities, and in a family composed of doctors, engineers, and businesspeople, my strengths have been treated like a hobby, something to do on the side, not to be taken seriously. “Riddhi?” She’s good at French. But what can you do with a degree in French?  Nothing, that’s what!”

                  But I was most enlightened by reading about Ashima’s and Ashoke’s lives and the sacrifices they made. My parents told me about the life they had when they immigrated to America — cutting coupons; walking for miles in the snow because a car was too expensive; and living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment — but when I heard these stories, I dismissed them.  When I read about Ashima trying to recreate chaat in her kitchen in America, I envisioned my parents when they arrived in America, trying but failing to recreate the lives they had had in India, failing because, “[…] as usual, there [was] something missing” (Lahiri 1). As I read about Ashima’s efforts to assimilate into American culture, I imagined my parents, lost and confused in American after sacrificing the comforts of Indian for a life of cutting coupons and walking in the snow.

                  I no longer desire blue eyes; I no longer desire a different name. As Gogol realizes and as I realized, “The name he had so detested […] that was the first thing his father had given him” (289). As I read these words, I understood, just as Gogol understands, that my name is the most important thing I have ever received, for my name is the embodiment of my parents’ sacrifices, my parents’ cooking, my parents’ sotires, my culture; my identity. I understood that my name and subsequently, my culture, is not something just to be rejected; instead, it is something to embrace, because my name stands for all of the past generations in my family, and all of the sacrifices they have made — such as immigrating to American when Indian held the comforts of home — so that I could have the best life possible.            

                  Now, I bring Indian food to school for lunch. Now, I wear clothes I previously deemed “too Indian-looking” to school. Now, when people have difficulty pronouncing my name, I say proudly, “My name is Indian.”

                  Thank you, Ms. Lahiri, for making me finally realize that my heritage is my identity. Thank you for making me realize that my culture and my heritage are the most important parts of me.

Riddhi Sangam

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