“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another.”
In the past few years I’ve read and fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories as well as her book on her relationship with the Italian language In Other Words. Although The Namesake has been sitting on my shelf for the last couple months, when it was chosen as one of the February reads for the ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ group, I was finally spurred into reading it, and I’m so glad I did. The Namesake did not disappoint.
Written in an elegantly sparse prose The Namesake tells the story of the Ganguli family. After their arranged marriage Ashoke and Ashima Ganguili move from Calcutta to America. It is in this new, if not perpetually puzzling, country that their children Gogol and Sonia are born and raised.
As Lahiri recounts the story of this family, she also interrogates concepts of cultural identity, of dislocation and rootlessness, of cultural and generational divides, and of tradition and familial expectation. As the title of the novel suggests, The Namesake focuses on Gogol’s fraught relationship with his own name. As the American-born son of Bengali parents, Gogol struggles to reconcile himself with his Russian name. His uncommon name comes to symbolise his own self-divide and reticence to embrace his parents’ culture.
“He wonders how his parents had done it, leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing.”
Names and trains are recurring motifs in this long spanning narrative. Time and again we read of the way in which names alter others’ and our perception of ourselves. Train journeys provide characters with life-changing experiences: from near misses with death to startling realisations.
Yet, in spite of these fated moments, Lahiri’s novel possesses an atmosphere that is at once graceful and ordinary. The language she chooses has this quiet quality that makes that which she writes all the more realistic. Her most insightful observations into her characters, or the dynamics between them, often occur when she is recounting seemingly mundane scenes: from food preparations and family meals to phone conversations.
In spite of the gentle rhythm of her narrative Lahiri also articulates the tension between past and present, India and America, parents and children, husband and wife. As Gogol grows we read of his love and sorrows, of his hopes and fears, and of his insecurities and his lifelong quest to belong. There are heartbreaking moments of affection and miscommunication, and Lahiri truly renders both the difficulties of acclimatising to another country and of embracing one’s heritage in a world where to be different is to be other.
By observing a characters’ clothes, appearance, or routine, Lahiri makes even those who are at the margin of the Ganguli’s family history come to life. The Ganguli’s first neighbours in America, Gogol’s teacher, who inadvertently cemented Gogol’s hatred for his name, and even Moushumi’s colleague are all vibrantly rendered.
While what Lahiri’s characters’ experience can be occasionally comic, she never makes them into a ‘joke’. In fact, she reserves judgment, and each character, regardless of their actions, is portrayed with compassion.
“True to the meaning of her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”
Another thing that makes this novel stand out is how much Lahiri leaves unspoken. There are no melodramatic scenes or confessions. At times it is only hindsight that allows a character to realise the importance of a certain moment.
“Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed.”
There is a naturalness and openness to her characters’ impressions. She writes with such clarity of such complex or ephemeral feelings or thoughts that I often had to stop to re-read a phrase in order to truly savour her words.
“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”
Lahiri is a master of the trade and in The Namesake she depicts an exquisitely intricate family portrait.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars