The story is like a sketch of immigrant lives and the generations thereof. I think in the recent past enough ink has been spent on writing about the dilemmas of NRIs and the ABCD generation. This book The Namesake also would fall in the same category. Though it takes a slightly larger canvas covering the immigration. The emotions of two generations and how they change and converge with time. The protagonist family is Bengali. Probably the culture the author is most comfortable with. And the land they moved to is America. Again I guess the author belongs to that land apart from the fact that most immigration from India happens to be in the US. And hence from an aspirational value also it would appeal to the wannabe immigrants.
The story begins with tracing the reasons of a young Bengali man to move from his roots to a distant land that everyone thinks as a land of opportunities. How this decision comes from what a co-passenger tell him, while he is traveling and has a near-death experience. How he marries a girl from Kolkata, who accompanies him to the US. And leads the rest of her life with him, as his wife and his companion in the distant land. The story of the girl who marries a stranger and lands in a strange land learns the ways of the land and at the same time tries to keep her culture alive in her house in small little ways. Misses her family on all occasions. Especially when her children are born. And she has no one around from the family.
The story of children born with a confused identity, born Americans, visiting India for vacations. And not being able to understand why they have to go there. Not being able to relate to the place and the people. The couple’s story of making a virtual family out of all the known Bengali immigrants in the vicinity. Their lives revolving around these families and vacation visits to them when they move out. The story of children growing and trying to carve out an identity for themselves. At times trying to shun out of their Indian identities by trying to keep themselves away from it as much as possible. Their affairs and breakups, marriage to another Bengali and divorce and back to a life of loneliness. The demise of a patriarch and the change in lives and thought processes of the rest of the family.
There is nothing unusual about the book The Namesake, it is a sketch of an immigrant family. And you would have seen the glimpses of the story everywhere in every such family especially in the US. The narrative is good, sometimes the details are too much. Like providing the detailed recipes of the dishes the protagonist makes. The lives of all characters seem pretty mundane and dull throughout the book The Namesake. Overall I had a very gloomy feeling reading through the book. It is high on emotional quotient though, like the designer NRI movies we have.
The whole angle of the name Gogol and the kid not liking the name has actually nothing to do with an identity crisis. But this what a lot of kids go through. When they have either very unusual name and everyone wants to know what it means or how they were names? Or when they have an exceptionally usual name and every third kid in the class seem to have the same name. This angle I guess has been used a lot in the publicity and reviews of the book The Namesake. In my opinion, this is also something that a lot of people go through. And nothing is unique to the characters psyche.
There are two emotions that I particularly connected with. One is the relationship of the protagonist with her grandmother, who tells her to go out and live her dreams. And not remain confined by expectations and social norms, which is what my grandmother always told me. It’s amazing how the grandmothers are able to let go of their conditioning and pass the wisdom to their grand-daughters. Which probably they could not do when they were younger to their daughters. A second was when the son roams and wanders in the streets of the city to get in touch with himself, I have done that so many times, especially when I am in a place that I do not know.
I am told by a lot of people that the movie has come out better than the book. If it is so, this would be the rare movie which has outshone the book.
Buy this book – The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri at Amazon India.