The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake": In a Melancholy Setting


I cannot say it's a proper book review for it just seeks to record the impression I got reading the book. In a way, it's my desire to retain at least something out of the book I've read that made me scribble this. This can leave a live track of my reading activity which is not one of the things I can claim to be able to do easily. But then again, reading has not done me any harm...not so far. There's always a special feeling living with the characters out of the book I take time to finish.


Proper names are non-connotative—so tell the text books of Deductive Logic. One can be named as “Twinkle” and then grow up to be visually impaired. A place named Springtown may be a rainless craggy landscape. That is not all. There is another trouble in trying to associate names with the qualities the individuals may connote, for the naming conventions pay scant regard to uniqueness. As a basic requirement, names should ordinarily establish something to enable distinguishing an individual from another. But that rarely happens, for names alone are not enough to meet the goal. There can be two persons with one name…and one person with two names—a “bhalonam” and another “daknam”. So, names refusing to mean anything, don’t we expect too much from them? Don’t we play around with them as we invent meaningful nicknames and aliases, titles and avatars, brand names and icons and so on and so forth?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s immensely readable novel “The Namesake” [ISBN 978-0-00-7525891-x; Harper Collins 2007, Paperback; pages-291] more than exploits this nuance. The offspring have a natural urge to brand everything done by their parents as unreasonable, old-fashioned, non-functional and hence to be rejected. This is true not only for the dwelling units or the pianos they inherit but also for the names they receive from their parents. Names are rather the burden the progeny are called upon to carry on throughout their life unless they decide to change them subsequently.

Does a change in name necessarily bring change in everything dreaded and disliked? In everything that brings scorn of peers, disparagement in profession, and rejection in love and diffidence in every walk of life? Most certainly not. It’s not something only for Jhumpa Lahiri to tell. People who have changed their names are there to vouch for it.

Ashoke and Ashima, an expat couple, live the lives of ordinary migrants in the US trying their best to make their acceptance into the American society as smooth as possible. They abide by the law of the land, learn to love and adopt independence as they conduct themselves, and take up jobs that bring them more respect than money. While doing so they also try to keep in tact their identity as the two Bengali souls eking out their lives in a foreign land. They eventually get their American citizenship, but continue to mix and party with their Bengali friends from the diaspora during pujos and on other ceremonial occasions. They too make frequent trips to Calcutta to refresh their links.

They get their children, a boy at first and a girl thereafter and the brood grows up amidst the American counterparts. Adopting their habits with astounding ease and zest, the youngsters love to treat themselves more as the two American kids than the descendants of an expat couple, the second generation Indian-Americans. When their parents make trips to Calcutta and take them along, the frequency of such trans-continental travels make their children resent at times.

While the first issue is born, Ashoke awaits a letter from his grandma that would tell him the name of the boy, for it is the privilege of the old lady out there in India to invent names for the newcomers to the brood. But the elusive letter does not reach and it is time to leave the hospital with the boy named and certified. The US is a land where everything needs to be certified from the day one so that things move as envisaged. So, Ashoke decides to name his first child after Nikolai Gogol, a nineteenth-century Russian author whose writings he liked the most. There is a back story here with a vital bearing on the plot. Years ago, when Ashoke was a young man of twenty-two, he was travelling alone from Jamshedpur to Calcutta and his train had got derailed. This accident left him badly injured. The rescue people from the railways saw him groaning feebly with Nikolai Google’s book in hand and they made the medical help available to him. So, now that he has a name to choose for his son and that too immediately, he chooses ‘Gogol’ and thus a son in the name of Gogol comes to occupy Ashoke’s present to constantly remind him about his past, the harrowing accident he had survived at the age of twenty-two.

Lo, the name is not to the liking of the boy. He smarts under the inanity of it, more so when he comes to know that Nikolai Gogol, the Russian author was a hypochondriac and a deeply paranoid, frustrated man, given to fits of severe depression. Earlier there was an effort on the parts of Ashoke to change the name of his son from Gogol to Nikhil when it was time to enroll him in his kindergarten. But this had not materialized as Gogol the child himself resented it choosing to remain content with his original name. The old Bengali practice of ‘bhalonam-daknam’ is just allowed to lapse in his case.

Gogol and his sister Sonia go the American way asserting their independence at an early age whether they are to choose the subjects in their schools or the friends to date. Let us not forget that dating is something un-Bengali, a kind of taboo, given the fact that Ashoke and Ashima were brought together in their wedlock by way of an arranged marriage. Asserting their American status the children drink, smoke, take drugs occasionally, date not once but so very often, mix not with Bengali children as their parents would have liked them to but with Americans, and do all such things as they believe would strengthen their image as genuine Americans. And finally Gogol changes his name from Gogol to Nikhil, an action that could have been given effect to a decade earlier.

Here name is the symbol and through it Jhumpa Lahiri essentially deals with the basic crisis of identity an expat has to undergo in a new land. It is not that this syndrome of rootlessness ceases as the family-root sinks further deep into another generation. In fact, its complexity is manifest with insuppressible virulence in the second generation. Gogol suffers from the same insecurity and dreads the same lack of acceptance, but they are quite unlike what once his parents had to undergo. At least, it was then open for the parents to revive their links with their old folks at Calcutta. But now that too is denied to Gogol and his sister Sonia. Finally, as her husband Ashoke dies, Ashima does the inevitable: she decides to go back to Calcutta, or rather span her life between Calcutta and the US.

The unique relationship between the father and the son has been dexterously explored here. Despite all his resentments, Gogol loves his father as much as or even more than he can show. It is always silent, way bit dignified. When Ashoke dies, Gogol realizes what it is like to be fatherless…and what a mass of pain his father had hidden in his person as he traversed his way to success in a foreign land. With all his failures in his love front, Gogol is ready to realize the greatness of his father. He remembers the occasion when his father took him along the breakwater at Cape Cod right up to the lighthouse, a point where nothing else was left to cover. This is where Jhumpa Lahiri shows the father with full confidence in the ability of his son to run a long marathon, and a son that is convinced about the prowess of his lame father to traverse beyond the strength of his limping legs. This is one of many occasions I enjoyed the text like the lilting tunes of a soulful song, nay like the ringing rhymes of a lullaby.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s narratives score full marks, especially how she has successfully made a full-length novel out of a simple plot that could have been elaborated into a short story only. All those who have praised the work have started with praising the prose, its simplicity and elegance, its eloquence and journalistic precision, its refinement and emphasis, its grace and clarity…. I have none to disagree with what all has been said earlier, but then again the authoress times her denouement well, at a time when her narratives just begin to feel long-winded. The denouement is rather sudden and a subject like this needs such suddenness of conclusion. Or else, the story would have been a trans-generational epic and as such this would have robbed the effect of immediacy produced by the narratives.

There is one point that made me stop and think for a while but with no answer: Why should a father choose a name for his son so inscrutably so as to remind him about an accident that was near fatal? Aren’t accidents something people would always like to forget? No wonder a son like Gogol has been born to a father like Ashoke! I don’t know if that has been deliberately chosen to infuse the tone of melancholy…maybe it is so. Maybe, the plot demanded it.



A. N. Nanda






Blogger Aniruddha said...

I haven't read the book but followed it in movie.

Apart from the usual NRI drama which now a days every other movie shows, I liked the simplicity in which the various characters and their relations were portrayed esp. between father and son...

11:00 PM  
Blogger Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

I am so glad to have found your site, Unadorned, through your finding mine! This is a wonderful synopsis of the book. I didn't read the book and perhaps I now can. My greatest fear of reading any book about a foreign land is that I will miss the cultural nuances. Through the film I was able to live the music and beauty of India. I don't think the book would have "brought" me there entirely. The theme, I am sure, would have come out more strongly through the book, however. Flashback and philosophy rarely work as well in film as they do in books.

This film was truly one of the most meaningful I have ever viewed: it depicted the cultural struggles of immigrants, a worldwide struggle of assimilation and alienation. As much as I wish to travel (and especially to India), I cannot imagine leaving all that I have known for an entirely new country. I believe the mother felt like she had returned to her own body and spirit when she returned to her native land.

Thank you for writing this insightful piece! I look forward to reading more of your postings and hope to find some of your poetry here as well.

5:29 AM  
Blogger A_N_Nanda said...

Hi Aniruddha. Thanks for returning the visit and leaving a snippet of your feedback. That encourages me a lot.

Hi kathey, it's indeed nice of you to have returned a visit. And leaving a wonderful feedback. I'd definitely post some new poems and look forward to your visits.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Brasil said...

This book was so beautifully written. I was looking for time in my day to hide away and read it. A friend in my book group suggested it and I was not convinced this was the book I wanted to read for our group. Well,it was the perfect book group read. She evokes emotion and passion and I can't wait to discuss this with my book group. Cultural gaps with parents and children, learning about the Indian culture and the beautiful descriptions the author uses are just a few of the reasons to read this book.

6:48 PM  
Blogger A_N_Nanda said...

Thanks, Brasil, for visiting my blog and sharing your thought about the book "The Namesake". The essential part that I'll retain about the book is the way the generation gap has been depicted. The demand of assimilation and every attempt leading to half-hearted result and consequent alienation have been aptly captured. I've not seen the movie, but my children who have watched it say it is worth watching. I'll do that one of these days.

4:12 AM  

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