The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
I was euphoric when quarantine commenced on the 24th of March, 2020; I was officially required to laze around for greater good. Half way into April I’m starting my days with a big bowl of ‘why on earth am I awake’ with mildly worrying amounts of caffeine, doing nothing but a bit of housework, some classes, binge-watching Netflix with an attention span as wide as my pinkie finger and cursing the geniuses who don’t understand social-distancing. In fewer words I was-
(see now that’s ironic because apparently a picture is worth a thousand words)
29th April 2020 seals the fact that 2020 is an abominable poop goblin of a year- the finest, most nuanced actor of India, Irrfan Khan, is now on the other side of the stars. One of his works was the film adaptation of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, and as tribute, it was the book of the month for our college’s One Book a Month program; we are assigned a book to read and review each month (or so we try). E-book downloaded, I wait for the motivation to read it to knock on my door, while cursing 2020 with an assortment of words that would make a sailor blush. One miraculous May afternoon, said motivation graces my life.
This very Bengali (as a Bangali, I am fully within my rights to say this) family saga- right from the nearly ritualistic tradition of daak naam* to the mouthwatering familiar food Ashima Ganguli cooks which are often the fare from my kitchen (the only reason my mom doesn’t have a Michelin Star is because she is above it and no one can convince me otherwise)- begins with me feeling bad for a very pregnant Ashima, feeling painfully foreign on the foreign land just as soon-to-be-named-Gogol decides that he wants to be out in the world and she is rushed to a hospital where she is uncomfortable with the feeling of not being home and the hospital gown reaching just her knees, while Ashoke Ganguli, her husband reminisces his decision to move to the States and Nikolai Gogol.
Due to some late mails and required official documents, the baby boy is officially called Gogol- his daak naam* – though his bhalo naam* is Nikhil (desi-fied Nikolai?). Gogol’s not-quite-Indian personality begins to grace the book as little Gogol prefers Gogol to Nikhil-he sees no difference between a pet name and a public name. With age Gogol feels a bit of an identity crisis with a name (the leading theme of the book) that was from nowhere- I found that odd because I’m pretty sure Gogol is a common daak naam , but then again he’s in the US so maybe it’s fair. 14-year-old Gogol receives a copy of his father’s favorite Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol and in my opinion, is a twat waffle (I’d much rather use a slightly stronger word that rhymes with crass mole) about it, and is vexed when he learns of the frankly tragic life of the author. I don’t understand- however his life might’ve been, Nikolai is a celebrated author, and aren’t the most beautiful stories born of wreckage anyway?
At 18 Gogol finally becomes Nikhil before parcelling himself off to Yale to study architecture where he briefly dates a Ruth whom neither I nor Ashima care much for. Nikhil graduates from Columbia where he meets Maxine Ratliff and I was really rooting for their relationship. The Ratliff parents like Nikhil, who adores them and their way of life, though Ashima isn’t particularly excited about it. Sadly, for them (and my rooting), it all ends after Nikhil learns of his father’s passing when he’s back from vacationing with the Ratliffs and becomes distant with grief.
Ashima’s, like every desi parent ever, is concerned about her son’s single-ness and pushes him to reconnect with Moushumi from his younger days, a fellow Bengali American, whom he does connect with. For some obscure reason I don’t particularly like Moushumi and as it turns out, the two get into a rather unhappy marriage which ends with Moushumi rekindling a romance with a former Parisian crush which eventually comes to light and puts both Nikhil and Moushumi out of their misery. The curtains on the saga draw on an anti-climactic note with now single and forever unimpressive Nikhil picking up Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol at Ashima’s final party at their Pemberton Road apartment as Ashima waved goodbye to me the way I met her- by leaving home.
A friend of mine, Gandhar Joshi, says and I quote- “And this is why I hate Jhumpa Lahiri. She’s shown me how books are so much more than films. She’s helped me see how books can make you feel so much more than. She’s helped me fall back in love with books”
(You should really read the whole review)
And for that alone-though I’d say she did a better (read amazing) job with Unaccustomed Earth– as a bibliophile with a ground rule of always reading the book first, Jhumpa Lahiri is my favorite Bengali hereafter.
Daak naam- pet names that yes, range from names with context to a random noise that often have nothing to do with our actual names and are often meant to be affectionate.
Bhalo naam- Our actual name which bears no resemblance to what one might hear our mother calling us while feeding us roshogollas (no it’s absolutely not rasgullas).
SY B.Sc. Economics