Monday, November 20, 2006

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri - A Review

I have just finished wading through “The Namesake” written by Jhumpa Lahiri. “Wading” is the word I use because, though Lahiri is an engaging writer, she fills her novel with too many details, over which I stumble, ponder, wonder (hmm, now why would she have had to say that?), genuflect, and then straighten myself. Her paragraphs are uniformly half a page and in that, too, these inconsequential details of everyday life, some cultural vestiges lie around like stumbling blocks.

I am constrained to mention this here because the flow is hampered, I lose track, and finishing the book was a great effort. I don’t like to be exhausted reading a book; I like to be entertained. I guess this applies to most writers of the Diaspora and, our own homegrown variety. We are so much anxious to impress with our knowledge and our articulation that we overdo it, consistently, constantly.

Now, I may be veering into the rant mode but this is something Lahiri does through this excellent novel. If you are through the first hundred pages, it becomes a little better. You can safely ignore the details and go ahead, come what may. But getting over the first hundred pages is the toughest part. When Lahiri describes each item in a house, or, a rented hotel room, you have no alternative but to sit up and cry, “Whoa! She is so perceptive, she gives me a complex.” Yes, she does, to all pretenders, such as I, who think they can write. But one also thinks, “There she goes, why would she include all that? Is it significant, a leit motif, for the rest of the story?” But disappointingly it isn’t.

It’s the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli. Ashoke is told to leave the country by a man he meets during a train journey. The train in which he is traveling is derailed in the night and the compartments are smashed and thrown off the rails. Ashoke is injured in the accident but has a providential escape because he happens to be clutching a novel written by Nikolai Gogol which he was reading at the time of the mishap. So, obviously, Nikolai Gogol has a prominent part to play in Ashoke’s survival and he names his first-born Gogol, probably to record his thanks to the Russian story teller.

He immigrates to the United States with Ashima, gets a job raises a family of two. Gogol and Sonia are the two children he raises the Indian, sorry, Bengali way, protectively, always apprehensive, always paranoid about security. The children are happy-go-lucky American kids and they do not know from where their parents’ fear comes from. (They do not know that the fear originates from India where anything left untended is summarily snatched away, or vandalized.)

But Gogol resents being named thus, and is not flattered by his Russian name, that too of a writer thought to be a maniacal genius. He militates against his father’s choice of nomenclature. He has his name changed to Nikhil but the original name sticks to him like a ghost from the past, and haunts him. The teaching of Gogol’s writings in school is a big embarrassment to him, and he cowers from any association with Gogol, the writer.

Ashoke and Ashima does a heroic job of raising a family, protecting a culture in an alien land, in which they are recently emigrated strangers. They have a very close-knit community of Bengali friends in the US and their interaction is restricted to this group who meet for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other social dos. The urge is very strong among migrants to maintain their cultural identity when they are in an alien land, and Ashoke and Ashima would like to pass on their Indian-ness to their children.

But the children are drawn towards the mainstream White culture. Gogol has affairs with white girls/women and nearly marries one much against the wishes of his parents. The Indian girl he marries eventually, through the persuasion of his mother Ashima jilts him for a Russian. Sonia marries a white man, and therefore Ashoke’s and Ashima’s dream of propagating the culture they have so assiduously cultivated in an alien land collapses. So, in that sense, the emigrant’s strict phobias seems trivial and unfounded.

The most poignant part of the novel is the sudden and unannounced death of Ashoke. Now, this is the best part of the novel. It is narrated in such deadpan prose that it rings so true, so authentic and life-like. Death is the most unexpected of visitors. The reader is shocked beyond disbelief, and can understand the emotional turmoil that Ashima, and her children Gogol and Sonia go through at this juncture. It is to Lahiri’s credit that she has handled this evolving drama pretty well.

Gogol falls in love with Moushumi, the girl his mother has picked for him, and who is trying to get over a broken engagement with her White boyfriend. They marry, and for sometime all is hunky dory. This section of the novel is well handled and the reader is shocked that Moushumi would go off with another man, a Russian professor, leaving poor Gogol. But that is life, and that is literature, so authentic as to be stupefying. Lahiri handles these passages really well, one is awed how naturally it happens, and how her story lends the incident so much life-like uncertainty. This is Lahiri at her best, delivering a deadly punch in the narrative when the reader least expects it. This is as shocking, or, was as shocking to me, as was Ashoke’s death.

The novel is a chiaroscuro of images, experiences, some sad, some elevating, all written in the author’s perspicacious style, with much detailing. Much as I had enjoyed “The Interpreter of Maladies” I relished this one that promises to be a watermark in the annals of literature produced by the Diaspora.

1 comment:

jane said...

John, you should have the same problem with my writing that you have with Jhumpa Lahiri's - I too love detail, and in fact it was one of the things I liked about The Namesake, the loving attention to detail. You knew exactly what her characters were like....
On Sunday I will post my Prithvi piece (to be read on Saturday) as an example, though this is a severely pruned version of the original story, due to time constraints.
jane