The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Book subtitle: I will write down everything I know about a certain family of Bengali immigrants in the United States by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Immigrant anguish – the toll it takes in settling in an alien country after having bidden adieu to one’s home, family, and culture is what this prize-winning novel is supposed to explore, but it’s no more than a superficial complaint about a few signature – and done to death – South Asian issues relating to marriage and paternal expectations: a clichéd immigrant story, I’m afraid to say.

Gogol’s life, and that of every person related to him in any way, from the day of his birth to his divorce at 30, is documented in a long monotone, like a camera trained on a still scene, without zooming in and out, recording every movement the lens catches, accidentally. A final picture emerges in which nothing in particular stands out; and twists that could have been explored more deeply, on a philosophical and humanistic level, such as Gogol’s disillusionment with his dual identity or the aftermath of (Gogol’s father) Ashoke’s death are touched upon perfunctorily or rushed through.

Some cultural comparisons are made as though to validate the enlightened United States at the cost of backward India. This is a familiar line in immigrant success stories: to justify their decision to migrate to the West by heaping scorn on the country or culture of their origin.

But even that’s not done intelligently. E.g; Maxine’s mother wears swimsuit on the lakeside; Gogol thinks his mother would never do that. Maxine’s parents don’t bother when Gogol moves into their house and have sex with Maxine; Gogol’s parents would have been horrified! It is almost in these words the comparisons are made. Well, of course. We get it.

However, on the bright side, I liked the trope of public vs private names – Nikhil aka Gogol – and how Lahiri relates this private, accidental double-naming to the protagonist’s larger identity crisis as an American and Indian immigrant. But, again, it’s also wasted; it doesn’t stand out; nothing catches your fancy; nothing piques your interest; and you sit with a little impatience welling up inside you.

You just sit there, squinting your eyes, making faces at the text, wondering…Pulitzer? Are you kidding me?

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