Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin 2003).
A crowd buzzed with anticipation at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square on an evening in mid-September. Jhumpa Lahiri was going to open her book tour here, promoting her first novel, The Namesake. Among the typical mix of Indophiles, South Asian Americans and book nerds, there were lawyers, teachers and students of all ages. It seemed as if people were awaiting the arrival of a movie star or a politician. I couldn’t help but wonder: why was everyone so enamored with Jhumpa Lahiri and her writing?
The short answer is that it’s oh-so contemporary. Namesake chronicles the life of the Gangulis, a Bengali family who lives in suburban Massachusetts. After an arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli immigrate to the United States in the late 1960s. Ashoke is an engineer and becomes a professor after earning his doctorate at MIT, and Ashima is a homemaker who spends the majority of her life trying to recreate Bengali culture in her new homeland.
In contrast with Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories Interpreter of Maladies, Namesake focuses on the dilemmas of the children of immigrants, instead of those of their first-generation parents. Ashoke and Ashima’s American-born son is named Gogol, after the Russian author whose work is credited with saving Ashoke’s life. Gogol is an ABCD— an American Born Confused Des(h)i. The word Des(h)i means countryman in several subcontinental languages. Lahiri writes, "ABCDs are unable to answer the question "‘Where are you from?’"
Certainly, for much of his life, Gogol has difficulty understanding where he is from or who he is. He is often unhappy, because it is difficult for him to reconcile the different cultures, countries and people that define him. For Gogol, the universal difficulties of adolescence are compounded by being the son of first-generation immigrants. As he enters his teenage years, he begins to resent his Bengali heritage. He would rather listen to the Beatles instead of classical Indian music, and he begins to address his parents in English, while they speak to him in Bengali. His identity crisis is intensified by his unique name, ‘Gogol,’ which is neither Bengali nor American.
After graduating from Yale and Columbia, Gogol becomes an architect and lives in New York City. He doesn’t socialize with other Indians, and he becomes increasingly distant from his family and Bengali culture. In New York, he falls in love with a woman named Maxine and tries to assimilate into her indulgent world of Manhattan townhouses, New Hampshire summers, and fine wines. But this relationship is destined for failure, perhaps because it is too far removed from Gogol’s childhood and family history. Eventually, Gogol starts dating an old family friend, who is also the child of Bengali immigrants. Once again, he falls quickly in love. His new relationship allows him to reconnect with his Bengali heritage, and more importantly, with his suburban childhood.
At this point in the novel, I suspected that Namesake would be another narrative about an immigrant’s struggle with identity, and accordingly, it would convey a clichéd theme of immigrant fiction— that in order to be happy in the present, immigrants must embrace the elements of their cultural past and integrate them into their identity.
Fortunately, Namesake is not just a simple narrative about identity, and it doesn’t offer such a storybook ending. Marrying a Bengali-American woman doesn’t bring Gogol long-term happiness and doesn’t completely allow him to understand who he is. In order for Gogol to be happy and resolve his identity crisis, he certainly must embrace his past. But his past is more complex than an oversimplified notion of collective heritage of being Bengali. What’s more relevant to Gogol is his specific past, which is not only defined by his family, but by John Lennon’s death, suburban Boston, smoking pot in college, Nikolai Gogol and an infinite amount of events, people and places.
Namesake is at its strongest when its characters’ lives and dilemmas aren’t resolved by oversimplified solutions in the perfect universe of a novel. Gogol’s individuality isn’t exclusively defined by the clashing of unrealistic, stagnant notions of Indian and North American culture. His very name precludes any simplistic and divisive notions of identity. While Gogol’s parents long for their homeland and the people of their past, Gogol has a hard time figuring out what exactly the past is.
Although Gogol isn’t a simplistic character, I often felt that I didn’t actually know who he was. In Namesake, Lahiri employs a banal, third person, present-tense narrator. While this neutral narrative voice is effective at times, it keeps readers at a safe (albeit deliberate) distance from most of the characters. The narrator often sacrifices the depth of the characters, as well as the development of the plot, for the sake of describing the quotidian events of the characters’ lives. At certain points I was left wondering: who are these people that I’m reading about and what are they actually thinking and experiencing?
This is the case with the character Ashima, Gogol’s mother. Lahiri’s narration of Ashima’s efforts to adapt to North American society are disconnected from Ashima’s actual personality and experiences. Lahiri writes, “Ashima begins to realize that being a foreigner is like a lifelong pregnancy…” I’m not convinced that it is Lahiri’s character who is feeling and observing, as opposed to Lahiri herself. As a reader, I would rather understand characters and their difficulties through a narration of plot, rather than through passive, descriptive commentary by the narrator.
Similarly, it seems that much of the novel is less concerned with the actual people in the Ganguli family, than it is with the clashes between the two different worlds that this family simultaneously inhabits— the world of Bengali immigrants who struggle to integrate into mainstream North American culture while maintaining the customs of their homeland, and the world of Ivy League America into which the Gangulis try to integrate. Lahiri writes:
It is nothing like the schooling Gogol’s parents have known, fountain pens and polished black shoes and notebooks and good names and sir or madam at a tender age. Here the only official ritual is pledging allegiance first thing in the morning to the American flag.
Such contrasts between Bengali culture and the culture of the Ganguli’s adopted homeland are overdrawn. But I suspect that Lahiri’s readers are sensitive and aware, and they don’t need such neat conclusions and overt observations.
Throughout the novel, Lahiri also seems more concerned with describing the contexts in which her characters live the names of restaurants, bars, highways and train stations— instead of the actual characters themselves. She seems adamant that Bengali culture and North American culture are defined by cultural icons and brand names. She describes a party at the Ganguli’s home, when Gogol is still a baby. “They sit in circles on the floor, singing songs by Nazrul and Tagore… They argue riotously over the films of Ritwik Ghatak versus those of Satyajit Ray. The CPIM versus the Congress party…”
And when describing the North American culture that is at odds with the Ganguli’s Bengali heritage, Lahiri invokes the names of Skippy peanut butter, Fantasy Island and Barnes and Noble. Even at the very end of the novel, for Ashima, life in America is composed of television commercials and American products. "Ashima has always loved these hours before a party… the coffee table wiped with Pledge, her dimmed, blurry reflection visible in the wood just as the old television commercial used to promise."
It seems as if the characters are as much defined by their collective cultural contexts— a series of objects and empty names— as they are by their own emotions and experiences. Maybe Lahiri is suggesting that we live in a society that is defined by popular culture and numb to emotion and individual experience. But, without a critical edge, such name dropping merely gratifies the audiences to which the novel is written.
Readers who belong to the South Asian diaspora are “validated” when they recognize their own customs and experiences in Lahiri’s writing, as a young Bengali-American woman told Lahiri during the ‘Q & A’ session following the reading at Union Square. Meanwhile, Lahiri’s audience of upper-middle class suburbanites and Ivy League New Yorkers certainly can see elements of their own world in her prose. Lahiri describes a Brooklyn dinner party:
The rest are painter friends of Donald’s, poets, documentary filmmakers. They are all married… But this is life now, the weekend… an endless stream of dinner parties, cocktail parties, occasional after-eleven parties with dancing and drugs… followed by Sunday brunches full of unlimited Bloody Marys and over-priced eggs.
As both an outsider and an insider in the United States, Lahiri is an adept social observer who can make insightful and slightly satirical observations about North American society. In reading Namesake, Lahiri’s elite, non-Indian audience must reckon with a caricature of their own lives and communities as presented through the eyes of a critical outsider.
Lahiri’s novel, then, is like a mirror for different groups—for South Asian Americans and for upper-middle class and wealthy white America—and perhaps it enables each of these groups to understand themselves and one another better. But there is a danger when fiction tries to tell the story of collective experience instead of individual experience, and when it makes context more important than characters. A work of fiction that is so emphatic about collective experience can possibly reinforce stereotypes, instead of breaking them down. And a work of fiction that is too grounded in specific contexts may not be able to outlive or transcend these contexts. It can cease to be universal.
Despite all of this, Lahiri’s novel is emotionally evocative and profound. At points where Lahiri does explore her characters’ memories and experiences, I am left in awe of her terse, enchanting prose, which slowly draws me into the lives of the Ganguli family and gives me insight into the experiences of South Asian immigrants. When tragedy strikes the Gangulis, I shed tears and think about my own parents, who also emigrated from India to the Northeastern United States in the 1960s.