Saturday, October 06, 2007

Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake": My Review

I just finished reading a book last night. My first in a long... very long time. I've been reading sleepy paperbacks in between all this, but never a book as an experience. But in the past weeks, I did it.

The book is Jhumpa Lahiri's, The Namesake. Popularized by a movie of the same name, with some Hollywood and Bollywood bigwigs involved. That's probably why I heard of it and bothered to get my paws on it. Alas. The Metatron from Dogma (1999) was right: it's not worth knowing anymore if they haven't made a movie on it.

The Story

Story goes of the Gangulis, from Calcutta, West Bengal, India. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli travel to a far away land, America, to make a new life. Ashoke, the husband, has chosen to define himself by a train accident he nearly died in, in India, where he survived by the skin of his teeth, with nothing but a tattered copy of Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat", and a lifelong limp to show for it. Sick of his life in India, he travels across the world to make a new beginning.

After their arrival in America, having settled and made a life, Ashima has a child, who is to be named by her grandmother. Unfortunately, the letter her grandmother mails them is lost, and her grandmother becomes gravely ill and loses all her higher faculties. It becomes impossible for them to find out the name she chose for him.

In a spur of the moment, compelled, and against tradition, the Gangulis name their son themselves. Not having put much thought into it, having deferred good judgement to Ashima's grandmother, Ashoke pulls out the first name in his head. Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, of whom Ashoke is a fan of a deeply spiritual nature, becomes the name of their son. What follows is Gogol Ganguli's uneventful American childhood, adolescence and adulthood, with but one unique characteristic: his name is Gogol.

He is unique among his friends, and as he eventually realizes, among people around the world, since Gogol was a surname turned first name. Not even in Russia, where Nikolai Gogol was from, was anyone named Gogol. And he resents it. Eventually changing his name, and inwardly, part of his own identity, he goes through turmoil in his personal life. Courting women from America-proper, and immigrant Bengalis not unlike himself, towards the end, he comes to realize the dreary and momentary nature of life itself.


My dislike first, of which there is only one. I'd like to leave off this book review on a good note, so bad news first, good news later.

I didn't like how Lahiri describes everybody from Calcutta as so educated! Gosh, Gogol is an accomplished architect, his friends and significant others are PhDs and professors and intellectuals. Is that really how Bengalis are in New York? Are there no philistines in Calcutta? Where are the grocer and restaurant Bengalis?

If Bengalis really are that well off, well, wow! You guys are doing well! If not, this book tastes of nasty Bollywood'ness, where everyone's a romanticized bigshot. And, by the way, why are all the Bangladeshis in the book cab drivers and busboys? Actually... no, I think she hit the nail right on the head there. Can't gripe about it if it's true!


Now my likes. Thinking about the story, and putting it into words in writing this review, I now truly realize exactly how much I love this book. It touches upon many of my own sensitivities.

First of all, the book is about Bengalis. These guys are from Calcutta, West Bengal in India, but Bengalis will be Bengalis. We are essentially, and truly the same for good or for worse.

I loved the Bengali culture that was describe in romantic detail in this book. How Ashima never addresses her husband by name, but calls him by (roughly translated) "Are you listening to me?". How the intimacy between them is so rigorous and deep, that even they themselves are unaware of its reality. How Bengalis give their children two names, one for home and one for the world. How they have their compatriots over for dinners regularly on the weekends, with loud, boisterous Bengali ringing through the household while the children play or watch television on their own upstairs. Of foster-uncles and foster-aunts that become their family in a far away land. Of unwanted and bothersome visits to an inhospitable Calcutta every few years. Of Gogol's irritation at having a name he shares with nobody, of having to spell it out, or having to hear it mispronounced.

I loved it because I lived it. I am Gogol. I never changed my name, but I fell back to my Arabic name, something slightly more common in the sub-continent than my Bengali name, which I never quite liked.

But I've now found respect in my Bengali name, and in my parents, who lived the life of Ashima and Ashoke described in such intimate detail in this book. I especially realized what my mother went through in raising three children, on her own, in a faraway land. The story of Ashima in this book is a story of my mother.

Truly, mothers hold debts no mortal being can repay.

I'd give this book 5 stars out of 5. If I had stars to give.


About Me

My photo
I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)