January 6, 2019 · book review

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

This article contains spoilers!

This week I read Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake".

My favourite sections, I think, were the scenes of Ashima and Ashoke (Gogol's parents) at the beginning of the book. They are plucked from their familiar homes in East India and pulled to a foreign country where they are required to make a life for themselves. They succeed at this, for the most part, and over the course of the book the place they call home shifts from Calcutta to Cambridge, Mass. USA, with the result being that it almost always resides in the no-man's land between the two places. The early scenes of Ashoke and Ashima gave me some insight into what it might have been like for my own parents to build their new lives in the UK.

It is also interesting to watch the difference between the lives the parents live, and the lives their children live. The parents are still mostly connected to their homeland - they miss their families and they miss the familiarities of India. They take every opportunity they can to connect with the local Bangladeshi community, and they look forward to their trips back home. Whereas for the children (Gogol in particular), trips back to Calcutta feel like a chore, and the Bengali ritual of hosting guests every weekend feels like an alienating force.

I liked the explanation of the difference between a "good name" and a "nickname". When I was in India, people would occasionally ask me what my good name was, and I remember feeling amused at the turn of phrase - does anyone have a bad name? Having read this book, I have a richer understanding of this difference. In some South Asian cultures, children are born and remain unnamed sometimes for a long time, and are called only by their nicknames.

My primary disappointment with the book was that things didn't ignite more often. For example, when Gogol brings home a white girlfriend his family is mostly polite and subdued - holding close any misgivings they might have. However, within the communities I have known, I think there would be a lot more drama in such a situation and I'm sad that the underlying misalignments were not explored more thoroughly in this book. More broadly speaking, Gogol's parents seem like very upstanding, well-adjusted people who exhibit a lot of common sense and are generally happy to step aside in cases where they might otherwise choose confrontation. As a consequence of all this, I think we don't see as much of the clash of cultures that I was looking forward to reading about - it feels too smooth somehow. For example, quite soon after arriving in America they have a large group of friends and they are able to build a surrogate community for themselves, so we don't see so much of the loneliness and challenge of that first upheaval. They just kind of deal with it sensibly.

In a similar vein, the author skips over much of Gogol's university years except for one short-lived relationship. For me, university was the time where I discovered the stark contrasts between the world my parents saw, and the world as it appeared to everyone else, and I would have loved to have heard more about this transition for Gogol.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Gogol's relationship with Maxine. As someone who grew up in a South Asian household, I empathised with the sense of seduction that arises when watching how "white people" live their lives. There is a certain sense of freedom / whimsy present in these families which seems absent in immigrant families, and I think that carefreeness was captured incredibly well by Lahiri. In the end though, Maxine discovers that she is less useful than she might be when Gogol is going through a particularly tough time, and there was one quote in particular ("You guys can't stay with your mother forever"), where she reveals herself to be more self-interested than she should have been in this situation, and they soon break up. I thought that this was a great place to explore the culture of individualism in the USA versus the collective family-centric culture of India, but we didn't quite get that in this book.

We also tend to focus more on his relationships than we do on his work life. This is helpful because it gives us insight at the points of contact he has with the Western world, but it also reads a little like he is just hopping from one relationship to the next - we don't really get to dwell in the spaces between them. His relationship with Mouse seemed at first to be making a statement about how there is comfort in familiarity - both of them had come full-circle and were doing the thing they had never imagined themselves to be doing by dating each other. However, the end of the relationship painted a much more sinister picture. The fact that Mouse got bored of Gogol was a damning critique that familiarity alone is not enough to build the kind of deep-rooted love that makes a marriage last.

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