Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake immediately after reading Toni Morrison's Paradise. I can't blame anybody but myself - it was a conscious decision to pick a quick light read. I had seen trailers of the movie adaptation, but remembered nothing more than that it was about a guy named Gogol.

The thing is, after Morrison's novel, with all its layers and perspectives and sheer fluidity of language, Lahiri's book seems a bit flat. Unfair, I know, to compare a young writer's second book (and first novel) to one written by a Nobel Prize winner, but there it is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Namesake follows the life of Gogol Ganguly, whose father Ashoke names him after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke believes that it was a page of Writer Gogol's collection of short stories that saved him from dying in a train accident. However, Gogol Ganguly hates the name, and changes it to Nikhil as soon as he can. He continues to be called Gogol by his family and everybody who knew him as a child, even while the outside world knows him as Nikhil Ganguly the Architect.

This dual identity is symbolic of the Bengali-American divide that Gogol experiences - the love and dutifulness of his parents in Boston contrasted against his life in New York and the succession of beautiful girls he dates.

Lahiri's writing works best when she is focusing on the female characters - Gogol's mother Ashima during her pregnancy and as a new mother, his wife Moushomi a year into their marriage. Even Ashoke's perspective of the train wreck is well done. It's only when she's focusing on Gogol (in the middle section of the book) that she falls flat. Gogol has no personality, no will of his own. The reader is forced to why so many implausibly beautiful, incredibly well-read women date him. Do such women exist in real life?

Strangely enough, the book works despite this huge Gogol-shaped hole. It succeeds in its attempt to showcase the contrast between the first generation immigrants and their children. Ashima was the character I liked the most, though she is so mild, so dependent on her husband, so set in her ways. If only the novel had been about her and Ashoke!
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