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
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
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
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
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
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
Labels: Book Review