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THE NAMESAKE. By Jhumpa Lahiri. Houghton Mifflin Company. Hardcover, 304 pages. $24. Audiobook read by Sarita Chowdhury. Random House Audio. 10 hrs. 9 min., 6 cassettes. $34.95.
As with most second efforts after a rous-ing debut, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake was much anticipated and the object of considerable curiosity. Lahiri, a Bengali-American from New England, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 with her first book, a collection of stories titled Interpreter of Maladies. Early reviews of The Namesakehave been glowing for the most part. Lahiri, clearly, is no one-hit wonder.
Lahiri has won critical acclaim for her sensitive and thoughtful portrayal of the immigrant experience, especially the conflicts of assimilation and issues of cultural disorientation. The Namesake is a meditation on personal identity, cultural displacement, and mortality and an insightful treatise on the complexities of foreignness.
To Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, Indian immigrants in the U.S., is born a baby boy, Gogol Ganguli (named after the long-dead Russian writer of whom Ashoke is a fan). The name is given not with any deliberation, but the result of being confronted by the strange practice in American hospitals of assigning the new-born a moniker before the mom is sent home. The Gangulis will, in the course of the first quarter of the book, go through the rituals of the immigrant experience, retracing every step an Indian family takes in the process of becoming American. Moving to a suburb with a decent school district, they graduate from the instamatic camera to a decent hi-tech one, to hosting yearly Christmas parties for their Indian friends.
Food is a continuing theme in The Namesake. The book opens with the pregnant Ashima preparing a chaat, saddened by the fact that it lacks a certain something compared to the one she ate on the streets of Calcutta. That serves as a metaphor for her life in America as she defies assimilation and clings doggedly to the memory of the mother country and its customs for many years. For Ashima, being a foreigner is “a perpetual wait, a constant burden … a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.” Lahiri dwells at, sometimes tedious, length on Gogol’s education in matters of Western food and cuisine.
Gogol is a reluctant hero. He reasons that by changing his name from Gogol to Nikhil, he could shed some cumbersome ties to his past, relishing the moments when he encounters people who have never known him as Gogol. The irony, of course, is that the reader, as the novelist herself has invested too much in the significance of his name and can seldom think of him as anyone but Gogol. Parents bestow upon us names, traditions, and expectations, never once anticipating the overhead these add to the exasperating process of assimilation.
Even as Nikhil, our hero is never quite secure in his identity. He leaves home for college, seeking to escape the world his parents inhabit. He tries to discover himself in a series of romantic entanglements, some described entirely without fanfare by Lahiri and others in painful detail. He gives bits and pieces of himself to his girlfriends, sometimes to their families, realizing that it is more than what he has given to his own flesh and blood. While his courtships are long and strangely confident, the break-ups, as they usually are, invariably quick and sudden.
Gogol’s battles with himself continue well into his marriage with fellow Bengali Moushumi Mazoomdar. However, his reconciliation with his roots is rather predictable. His homecoming collides with his mother leaving for Calcutta after mourning her dead husband, and this reviewer groaned when in the last page of the novel, Gogol picks up a book to read: “The Overcoat.”
Lahiri uses Gogol’s inner thoughts and emotions as a vehicle to explore the life of the peripheral characters around him, his family, girlfriends, their families, none escape the keen eye of this master storyteller. Gogol’s moments with his father and his father’s memories are remarkably touching. Lahiri deals with quiet rebellions, longings, and random musings with great sensitivity and her attention to detail is meticulous. No detail of Gogol’s life is too trivial for Lahiri as she scrupulously chronicles every step and misstep in his arduous path to assimilation. Therein lies an obvious flaw: the characters in many situations are weighed down by their blandness. While we celebrate Lahiri’s simple style, the sheer lack of energy in the characters makes them seem, often, the most staid and boring characters ever put down on paper. At certain points in the tale, Lahiri seems to be looking down on her characters from a distance, investing them with very little insight at times, and incredible brilliance and wisdom at others.
There is a striking universality to the tale. First generation immigrants straddling two worlds, strive to achieve the fine balance between the transplanted world of their parents and the native one that they seek to embrace as their own. Lahiri, reflecting her personal experiences combined with a keen observation of diasporic culture, brings legitimacy and poignance to the predicament of the Gangulis in this foreign land. She writes with quiet authority, bestowing upon her characters an appealing sensibility, at once gentle and mildly exaggerated (and, therefore, irritating to an Indian reader).
Chitra Parayath is a writer based in Lexington, MA.