Just day before yesterday, I was impressed by Chitra’s ingenious remark ” Names are graceless conveniences” in her novel ‘The Vine of Desire‘, and then I stumbled upon a novel entirely based on names and their role in our lives. Yes, I am talking about Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’, the first novel written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘Interpreter of Maladies’.
The novel ‘The Namesake’ is a story of a Bengali couple Ashoke and Ashima, who migrate to America to carve a new identity and in the process end up being alienated from their own country, terribly missing their families and trying to adjust to a foreign culture, while maintaining their firm beliefs in their own traditions.
The novel spans over thirty two years from 1968 to 2000, covering the important events in the life of Gogol – son of Ashoke and Ashima, in a more or less chronological order. The very beginning of Gogol’s life is unique, he is born in a country, both his parents live in, but can’t accept as their own, he is stuck with a strange pet name his father chooses to give him, due to non receiving of letter containing his good name.
This strange beginning will continue to be stamped on Gogol’s entire life. Throughout his life, he hates his name, he wants to distant himself from his parents and the imposed Bengali traditions and want to run away from his roots. At one point of his life, he even changes his name to build a new identity.
But, in a stranger way, as the story progresses, he is attracted towards the same culture, the same people he has been trying to avoid and ends up marrying a Bengali girl of his mother’s choice. His life runs in a never ending circle and even after running for thirty two years, he finds himself in the same spot, stuck in a country he is born in, but can’t relate to, a new name Nikhil, which does not have the love and affection of his parents, an old name- Gogol, which he hated all his life, but now misses terribly for the very man who gave him that strange name.
The novel is written in a simple storytelling manner, the narrative being easy and involving. It gives a glimpse of the suburban American life, thousands of Indian immigrants live, highlighting their complexes, their day to day trysts with feeling of being alone in their present country and having no affection towards their home ground, confused with their identities, trying to mingle in the crowd, and being reminded regularly of their foreign origins.
Namesake, though, based on the unusual name of Gogol, comes to represent every thing being just a name, let it be a country, a beloved, a profession, where everything new attracts you and once you try to accept it, it becomes queer just as the name Gogol is. It establishes the fact that names cease to matter, once you get involved. Every name is strange in its own way to one or other in this world. Humans are wired to like familiarity and abhor the unfamiliar, irrespective of their origins, a fact Gogol learns at the very end of this book.
Jhumpa Lahiri does have an eye for details and I was impressed by her vivid description of every place, each event, giving due importance to the miniscule details. However, the book failed to impress me, I was never engrossed in the story, there were very few surprises and the narrative seems to be running linearly. Namesake ends with just a vague hope of Gogol, being able to carve out a future for himself, hardly justifying the long story. To me, it remains just an okay time pass.