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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Genre: Contemporary
Rating: 5/5

Stories about expats make for a very touching read. As a Bengali myself, I have revelled in reading about the idiosyncrasies of my community. But somewhere, they touch a bittersweet chord. I may not have stayed long enough to be a pure-bred Bengali, but snippets from my culture still fill me with a sense of love and belonging. 

The Namesake was all about the prodigal son. Set in Massachusetts, the story chronicles the life of one Nikhil Gogol Ganguli, starting from the time his parents met and set shop in the city and ending in him finding his way back. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli lead a very docile life in Massachusetts; Ashoke as a professor with the MIT and Ashima, as a new bride, coming to terms with a whole new kind of life, both as a married woman and in an alien country. Baby Gogol, named after the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, journeys through life as more of an American than as a Bengali, creating sweet memories and clashes along the way. The absurdity of his name bothers Gogol and he grudgingly comes to accept its roots. The three of them try to reconcile the cultural differences and go through the motions, till the time Ashoke drops dead of a heart attack. Ashima, the archetypal stoic Bengali wife and the stunned Gogol come to terms with the development. Gogol himself begins to mature in small ways, which ends in a full circle. 

Family bonds and acceptability are the threads that run through The Namesake. The Ganguli family may not be as entrenched in itself as the Westons in August: Osage County, considering the former's lean structure and the more core issues in hand; fitting in, for one. I can assure you, from personal experiences, the Ganguli's extended family back in Kolkata, would be a worthy match for the Westons. The Gangulis are the first generation of Indian Americans having to deal with changing their stereotypes (built at a time when the concept was barely acknowledged) to coming to terms with the fact that the subsequent generation is not only alarmingly different from its predecessor, but is an exact confirmation of their preconceived ideas about the alien society. 

The American way of life remains only half-baked in the minds of Ashima and Ashoke, who accept it as a step in their journey. For Gogol, this is terra firma. The conflict of being behaviorally domiciled in two geographies is never more difficult than for the second generation of expats. You can't very well shake off heritage,and even genetics has something of a say in these matters. It is only natural, as we may have seen ourselves, that daughters return to be their mothers and sons their fathers as the days go by. And if mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts are still entrenched in their roots, the subsequent generations do not fully free themselves of it. That is the magic of hybridisation, the very kernel of Mendel's pea-plant experiments. Gogol is a very visible example of a racial and cultural mix that has been in the making a long, long time, with beautiful results to see. But it is one thing to have it happen discretely, and quite another to experience it in full knowledge. In the latter case, it tantamounts to undergoing change or at least resisting it, and nobody likes change in any form. Neither did the older Gangulis, nor did Gogol. 

Jhumpa Lahiri has successfully masked the age-old phenomena of migration and its impacts under the veil of a very down-to-earth family, meeting its daily quota of the good and the bad. Her language is a distraction, in a good way. She reminds me a lot of Haruki Murakami, both of whose writings take pride in ethnicity, against the backdrop of the modern. The words flow like waves, in and out, quietly churning the sands of emotions under the feet. Lahiri never engages in the dramatic in terms of words (her later works are testimony to that), but the simplicity of her words is the crowning piece of the book. It envelops you into the family and makes you feel the pain and the joys as if you were a part of the timeline.  

A special mention to complete the aura of The Namesake would be to the equally brilliant move adaptation of the same by Mira Nair. Her work, like Lahiri's, is so understated, yet powerful, that I cannot imagine the story without the movie and vice-versa. 

At this time of global turmoil (I write this as news is filtering out on the terrorist rampage at Barcelona), we need something quietening. Bombastic rhetoric has had its day, and it doesn't seem to have had the desired effect, for we see it fail again and again and again. Maybe its time for the world to come back home. 


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