In nameless conflict
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Published in: 2003
Publishers: Harper Collins
It would only be fair to mention here that I saw Mira Nair's adaptation of the book before I actually got down to reading this novel recently. Having loved the film, I was keen to see how Lahiri had approached her characters and where its cinematic version stood in comparison.
I'll say two things. First, I feel this is one of the few times when the film more than does justice to the book and second, that the book itself is a deeply involving and affecting experience. In fact, so compassionate and compelling is the writer's understanding of her characters and their complexes, that the novel stays uniformly engaging till the very last page. Also, it helps that this is an extremely easy read and I for one, found myself going through it at a ravenous pace.
Jhumpa Lahiri, being an NRI herself, is adequately at home in tackling the theme of re-location and search for identity. As a reader, one gets instantly drawn into the lives of young Ashima and Ashoke, who are a bundle of nerves in an alien country, far from adoring relatives and friends in Calcutta. The writer's description of how the couple grapples with the ways of a new world yet tightly holding on to their roots is deeply moving and rings true at every point.
When a letter from their grandmother in India, enclosing the name for their first born doesn't arrive in time, Ashoke instinctively and naively (as their son says later in life) names him Gogol- a name, derived from the Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, with whom the latter feels a deep connection. The name comes to embarrass their son as he grows older and is a reminder of his confused being -it's not even a proper Bengali name, he protests!
Gogol's agony is not so much about being born to Indian parents, as much as being saddled with a name that seems to convey nothing, in a way accentuating his feeling of "not really belonging to anything"
After much internal struggle, he changes his name to a more acceptable Indian name, Nikhil and feels it would enable him to face the world more confidently.
In all this, Gogol has started seeing the narrowness of the world that his parents inhabit, their fear of adventure, their lack of 'openness' --qualities which are in complete contrast to some other Amercian couples he's come to know --in this case his girlfriend, Maxine's parents, who live life king size on their own terms. Gogol sees before him a whole new way of living, which he starts aspiring for.
The fact that he is no longer 'Gogol'- the name his parents gave him---enables him to distance himself from them more easily than he ever did in the past.
The writer captures all these parts brilliantly and it's fairly easy to relate with Gogol's confusion and predicament.
Nevertheless, a total surrender to an Americanized life, nullifying any attachment to his roots, is also not acceptable to him, as we see later.
But for me personally, the best part of the novel was Gogol's marriage to his childhood family friend Maushami Muzumdar. The latter is far from a conventional Bengali girl and Gogol is attracted to her individualitic streak and high living. In many ways, Maushami bridges a certain important gap in his mind and presents to him the best of both worlds --- she's Bengali like him, so in a strange way that's a comforting feeling. At the same time, she displays the same excessive, broadminded living of the Americans.
However, the fact that this relationship collapses and leaves no mark in their individual lives whatsoever, is also a telling statement about how, ultimately, coming from a similar background provides no guarantee for marital success. On the other hand, his sister Sonia's marriage to an American proves to be quite blissful.
The ending, which shows Gogol browsing through the pages of the book on Nikolai Gogol that his father had presented to him before he died, does appear a bit simplistic in its symbolism. Is he finally coming to terms with his dual identity? Is he finally growing to be comfortable in his own skin? These are answers to questions that can only be guessed.