20 August 2007

The Namesake


In nameless conflict

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Price: 395
Pages: 291
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.

6 comments:

Abzee said...

Sandy,

Despite the simmering 'hotness' of Zuleikha Robinson, don't you think that the Maushumi character emerged more as a caricature in the film as opposed to the unique identity that Lahiri gives her in the novel. I love the passage where you talk of Gogol and Maushumi's alliance, but unfortunately it was this very bit in the cinematic adaptation that left me cold. I've come to believe that Mira Nair and Sooni Taraporewala naturally leaned towards Ashima's story and The Namesake would've been an even better film had they just concentrated on that story. It wouldn't have looked as rushed as it does now. The film seriously lacks an Act III.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Yeah, having seen the film first, I didn’t expect Maushami’s character to be so well-etched in the book. She’s almost like a parallel female lead. So much so that one forgets all about Gogol in those parts. But then, only a novel can afford to travel in such a tangential way.
Yet, I do accede to your point about this character being almost a caricature in the film. But again, not very sure if Mira Nair could have helped it.

Qalandar said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I think I like the book beyond its merits, and was thus glad to read your review...also the discussion between abzee and you is interesting: those of my friends who are familiar with both tend to not think very highly of the movie, whereas those who've only seen the movie like it quite a bit...

Btw, I freely confess that I avoided seeing this movie for the most superficial of reasons-- I don't care for Kal Penn at all...

well, not just the most superficial of reasons: I'm somewhat fatigued by the whole "searching for one's identity"/diasporic experience etc...

speaking of which, if you haven't read it I highly recommend Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss-- it's terrific!

Anil P said...

Jhumpa Lahiri's first offering had me guled to the book. I'll need to read her second one now.

kallu said...

Sandhya, very interesting blog. A friend passed it on.
Your insights into each book are written so breezily and lightly.

Namesake, I read and didnt think much of. Maybe because I am far removed from the NRI experience. Wondered how a movie could be made of this. But from your blog, see its much better and worth seeing
Thanks. i like the little 'jewels' of quotes you've posted.

Gunjan said...

Sandhya, very interesting blog..i have read some more reviews by you..and having read them i expected you would also talk about the element of food that this novel by Jhumpa Lahiri portrays.. food plays a vital role in the lives of the immigrants, it is something that makes them (first and the second generation)different yet similar to each other.