Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri - The Namesake

Anyone who reads books has heard about The Namesake, written by Jhumpa Lahiri. It won the Pulitzer prize and was on the bestseller list too, the blurbs tell us. Mira Nair even made a successful movie on the book.

A friend of mine who read the book raved about it, and lent it to me. Luckily I had some free time on my hands at the time and read through the book almost at a stretch.

The book started a little jerkily, just before the arrival of Gogol in the world. Ashima Ganguly, displaced from Calcutta to USA, is yearning for taste of home in her pregnancy and has made a bit of chivda (or whatever the Bengalis call it). She suddenly feels the labour pains coming on and is rushed to the hospital. She gives birth to a baby boy. Ashima and her husband Ashoke cannot even think of abandoning the conventions of their culture. Back home, the baby would have been named lovingly by some elder in the family. In fact, the name is on the way, posted by way of a letter. The baby's formal name is put on the hold, and the child is given a pet name, Gogol. Through a series of circumstances, Gogol never acquires a formal name.

The story, of course, is about how easily Ashima and Ashoke balance their Bengali and American way of life, and how hard it is for Gogol/Nikhil to do that. His attitude towards his name reflects his attitude towards the Bengali way of life and also towards the American way of life. He goes through his life, picking up American girlfriends, and an Indian wife. How he finally makes peace with himself when he says at one time "Actually, there is no such thing as a perfect name".

As we live, we learn more about ourselves (at least some of us do). And it is these lessons that are the most valuable.

However, the standout point of the books is not so much the theme, good as it is. The standout point is the style and language. NEVER PRETENTIOUS. So much so, that the first couple of chapters almost sounded humdrum to me. Then the effect kicked in. The author was skillfully picking up sounds inside the heads of various characters and relaying them to us. She knew exactly how much to tell us about the character and at what time. Some facts are held up to whet our curiosity, and when we learn about them, it makes shivers run through us.

I was blown away because the story is so ordinary, and is so well told that it seems extraordinary.

I have always loved the short stories of Nikolai Gogol. He was a favorite of Ashoke Ganguly as well. He was once in a train accident when he was a young man in India, and reading a book by Gogol at the time. This accident and his survival is his most life-altering moment, and is inextricably linked to Gogol. When time comes for him to name his firstborn, he thinks of Gogol. His son does not share his sentiments fully and hates Gogol the writer. At the end of the book, when he is at peace with himself, he picks up a book by Gogol, gifted to him by his father, and starts reading it.

Our names are the legacies bestowed upon us by our parents. Ram Khilawan may get a fancy schooling later and try to mask his downmarket name by calling it RK, or Ram K Prasad. Not being named flamboyantly like Amitabh Bachchan, poor Jatin Khanna calls himself Rajesh Khanna.

Ava wrestles with her unusual name and bears the jibes of her classmates and some insensitive elders. What kind of a name is Ava? ask the philistines who never heard (in those times) of Ava Gardner who inspired her name. But alas, I do not have the writing style of Jhumpa Lahiri and cannot write a book about my ordinary life and make it linger in the minds of readers like the fragrance of fresh jasmine.