Monday, October 6, 2008
Living 'The Namesake'
June 2005: When I started writing this piece, I wondered what I was aiming at. Was it a book review? A movie review? A journal inspired by a book I loved? Not quite. As my fingers moved frantically on the keyboard, I stopped bothering about the outcome. What I was left with was a narrative of our plight….the plight of numerous Bengalis living outside their homeland.
On an exceptionally warm Saturday afternoon, I started reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Even though I was in Calcutta then (and had no idea that I would settle abroad myself), I felt a connection with the theme of non-resident Bengalis as I missed my didi who was settled in Australia. In a few minutes that connection grew stronger and the narrative gripped me.
The book spans more than thirty years in the life of the Ganguli family. Ashoke and Ashima, each born in Calcutta, had immigrated to the United States as young adults. Their children, Gogol and Sonia, grow up in the United States.
As I sipped coffee and read along, I grew more concerned about Ashima than anybody else I knew. I became a part of her family… walking in her house, eating dinner with her, crying when she was sad. Alone in her new apartment, when Ashoke is away at work, she is the picture of loneliness. There is only a glass window between the autumn in her heart and the cold breeze outside. As she remembers her parents and relatives back home, her mind becomes a global canvas, reflecting the plight of numerous individuals away from their homeland. Especially during her pregnancy, she misses the company of her loved ones. So she makes a puffed rice concoction that soothes her appetite and her nerves. ‘Puffed rice concoction’ ….the English translation of jhalmuri…almost takes away all the spice, and the dirt from the roadside peddler’s hands that makes it tastier.
As Ashima cries at the news of her father’s death…seated on her couch in Boston…helpless…desperate for a last glimpse of her dear father in Calcutta…..I cursed the world for being so vast. Ashima’s reaction to her father’s death reminded me of didi receiving the same news in a very similar manner. And I cried, more for didi than for baba. I suddenly had a strange realization - that sorrow of a very intense kind is something to be treasured. One does not realize that when one faces it for the first time but with the passage of time, the memory of that sorrow becomes the only true companion during dark, lonely nights.
Gogol’s embarrassment and initial dissatisfaction with his parents….their ways and habits, the parties they hosted, the food they preferred, their over protectiveness about their children, their constant fear of disaster….evokes both slight anger (for not loving his parents unconditionally) and mild sympathy (for being unable to accept his cultural roots). Their visits to Calcutta reminded me of some of my uncles and aunts who paid seasonal visits to India, never forgetting the Ferrero-Rocher…. the soaps, the sweaters and the watches. The cousins, who always looked either lost in or defeated by the mosquito nets and steel utensils, suddenly became more lovable (not the spoilt, snobbish brats, as we often mistook them to be).
Ashoke names his son after his favorite author, Nicolai Gogol**. Gogol’s books had been Ashoke’s truest companion in hard times. In fact, one of his books was a life savior. So when the question of naming his son arose, Ashoke thought it was the best way to pay tribute to the novelist who inspired his very existence.
Just as no employee is ever happy with their salary, no one I know is completely satisfied with their name. My name was a result of a tussle between two kids……my 10-yr old cousin and my 8-yr old didi. Both wanted to name me after their respective best friends in school. My mother solved the problem by deciding to draw lots. My relatives gathered around and picked up chits with the names written on them. My cousin won…..and I got my name.
Gogol's unusual name serves as a symbol of his own identity crisis. His resentment for his namesake is quite understandable. In the midst of the Johns, Jacks and Jennifers, he stands out because of something he had no control over - his name. His name was like the cross he could not bear….and he decided not to. So he changes his name to Nikhil. However, his new name does not give him a new identity.
Gogol grew up with an American way of thinking and living. But when it came to a family crisis (death of his father) he shows the same loyalty to family as is typical of an Indian. As he walks through the bright highways and dark alleys of life, he realizes that his name was much more than just a name. His name was his father’s pride, his mother’s sense of security, and the essence of his childhood. In learning this, he learns more about himself and….life. The name that had taken the family apart also brings the family together.
The Namesake is a story of identities (lost and found), dreams (nurtured and shattered), tears (shed and unshed), and rainbows (created and envisioned). It is about the life led by millions of Bengalis all over the world…. intertwined by their roots, connected by their souls and living by their dreams.
**‘Nicolai Gogol was a Russian-language writer of Ukrainian origin. Although his early works were heavily influenced by his Ukrainian heritage and upbringing, he wrote in Russian and his works belonged to the tradition of Russian literature. The novel Dead Souls (1842), the play Revizor (1836, 1842), and the short story The Overcoat (1842) count among his masterpieces. After the triumph of Dead Souls, Gogol came to be regarded by his contemporaries as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia. Gogol's work has also had a large impact on Russia's non-literary culture, and his stories have been adapted numerous times into opera and film.’