The immigrant experience. I know it first hand, and this I’ve found: categorizing could be futile. From afar, we may look like a collective mass, like the autumn leaves that have fallen on the ground. But if you pick them up and look more closely, every single one is uniquely different.
Jumpha Lahiri’s stories belong to the academics from India. Her setting is usually Northeast United States. Her characters, often first generation immigrants striving to plant a career and a life on new soil, raising their children with the promise of a brighter future. The conflicts are not only generational by often internal. This much is true for all immigrants, academics or otherwise. But as we zoom in on a more personal level, like the single fallen leaf, we see its unique shades of color, its tarnishes, its withered edges, and we soon find that no two leaves are exactly the same.
In The Namesake, Ashima weds Ashoke Ganguli in an arranged marriage, not even knowing his name when she first met him in the betrothal. Shortly after the wedding they leave India for Boston where Ashoke continues his graduate studies in engineering at MIT. The adjustments for Ashima is overwhelming as a new wife in a new country. But she finds out a year later that her duty as a wife does not pose as much anxiety as giving birth in a land unknown. Motherhood is a much more daunting challenge.
In simple language, Lahiri paints a vivid picture of Ashima’s apprehension:
“But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. It’s not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land… She’d been astonished by her body’s ability to make life, exactly as her mother and grandmother and all her great-grandmothers had done. That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.”
Ashima soon gives birth to a baby boy, and she has to learn quickly a new role and its responsibilities. But Lahiri surprises us by turning Ashima’s experience into a metaphor:
“Though no longer pregnant, she continues, at times, to mix Rice Krispies and peanuts and onions in a bowl. 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.”
Ashoke’s story is more dramatic. He is now teaching engineering at a university, but he has a lifelong love for literature, for it is deeply set in his past experiences. His paternal grandfather, a professor of European literature at Calcutter University, read to him since he was a child the books of the classics. Ashoke grew up taking to heart his grandfather’s advice:
“Read all the Russians, and then reread them,” his grandfather had said. “They will never fail you.” When Ashoke’s English was good enough, he began to read the books himself. It was while walking on some of the world’s noisiest, busiest streets, on Chowringhee and Gariahat Road, that he had read pages of The Brothers Karamazov, and Anna Karenina, and Fathers and Sons… Ashoke’s mother was always convinced that her eldest son would be hit by a bus or a tram, his nose deep into War and Peace.”
I just love Lahiri’s images, fresh and surprising with a touch of subtle humour. And Ashoke believes this to be so, the saving power of literature in its most literal sense. As a teenager, he had miraculously survived a horrendous train crash. Among the wreckage, rescuers found Ashoke clinging to life, his hand clutching a torn page from a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, a book he was reading as the accident occurred.
The thrust of the story in The Namesake rests on this narrative. It is understandable then that Ashoke commemorates such a miracle by naming his son Gogol. At first it is meant to be an intimate pet name used only by family members. It soon turns into a legal name. So now Gogol is a name with two distinct sentiments: privately, it evokes endearments, but in public it only generates awkwardness. As he grows older, the name Gogol Ganguli begins to sound more and more strange, it is neither fully Indian nor Russian. It has become an embarrassment and even a laughingstock as he steps out into the adult world of America.
Upon high school graduation, Gogol chooses to go away to Yale as opposed to the closer campus of MIT, and take up architecture instead of engineering, all against his father’s wishes. Above all, to his parents’ disappointment, he decides to legally change his name to Nikhil. Unlike them, the need to belong has taken priority over the maintenance of cultural roots for Gogol. A name change is the best way to a new identity and a fresh start, away from home and lineage. Oblivious to him though is the very cause and meaning behind that name, Gogol, a saving miracle that has given his own father a new leash on life.
For Nikhil, life unfolds in unexpected turns. He soon realizes that a name change does not necessarily usher in a new self. There are deep sentiments and ties that cannot be severed by mere outward re-labelling. Nikhil drifts in and out of relationships striving to connect. The family of his American girlfriends only confirms the drastic cultural differences in contrast to his own. Intimacy with them burdens him with a sense of betrayal of his own family. And yet, he longs to establish himself in the country of his birth, a land still considered foreign soil by his parents.
The sudden death of Ashoke has shaken up everyone in the family, and brought the scattered members together again, Ashima, Gogol and his younger sister Sonia. The crisis presents a turning point for Gogol. He begins to rediscover his cultural roots and his duty as a son. Hidden memories resurface to nurture a belated father-son relation.
Upon Ashima’s suggestion, Gogol reunites with a childhood friend of the family, Moushumi, now a PhD candidate of French literature at NYU. A short time later they get married to the delight of both sides of the family. Sadly, the marriage of two individuals with a common cultural heritage does not necessarily mean a blissful union. Lahiri sensitively explores the complex issues and the sometimes unresolved conflicts of identity, expectations, and personal fulfillment, not just for Gogol, but Moushumi, and Ashima as well.
Lahiri is a cultural transplant herself, an experience I presume that has offered her the lucid perception and authority in crafting her stories. Born in London to Bangali parents, her family moved to Rhode Island where she grew up. After graduating from Barnard College, Lahiri went on to Boston University, where she received her masters degrees in English, comparative literature, and creative writing and later her PhD in Renaissance studies.
Lahiri received the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and later the PEN/Hemingway award for her first book The Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories. The Namesake is Lahiri’s first novel, published in 2003 to high acclaims. Her third work Unaccustomed Earth, also a celebrated short story collection, won the Frank O’Conner Short Story Award among other recognitions.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Mariner Books, Boston, 2004. 291 pages.
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