Friday, September 09, 2005

The Namesake: A review of the 1st 100 pages!

Am reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri or rather am reading it on my commute to and from work and then being haunted by the book for the rest of the day. And this book threatens to sweep me away in its flow. Many are the times when I have to stop reading, look up and blink to stem the tears that otherwise threaten to trickle down as I sit there in the bus reading the book. And many are the times when my throat is thick with emotion but a warm feeling of recognition runs through me... "Oh! I know how Ashima is feeling or I know how sad she must be or I know exactly how she must be craving for Indian food or just I know...". I have not progressed much through the book, still reading the initial portion where Gogol has started to realise that his name is rather unusual. But whatever I have read of the book has endeared it to me... its characters are people I see in me, in my friends who feel the same way... so far away from home and family, even in my mom who came to Bombay after her marriage and my dad who left his home in Kerala to come to Bombay when he was in his early twenties. Something needs to be said of the genius of the author who has managed to bring out the bereftness and the acute loneliness felt by the first generation Indian migrants who leave their country and their warm, extended families behind to make a life for themselves, in countries so different in every possible way from what they have always known as home. Jhumpa Lahiri is herself a 2nd generation migrant, born in London and brought up in Rhode Island. Inspite of this (or maybe because of this), she has managed to draw out every nuance of emotion that her parents might have felt.

The book starts with Ashima preparing an adaptation of that quintessential Indian snack... the bhel puri, using Rice Krispies (combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there was mustard oil to pour into the mix.) Note the usage of the more pungent red onions so typical of India and not those colorless, insipid white onions which are common abroad. This is an example of how expertly Lahiri has managed to use simple actions to bring to life the small things we all do to keep alive the illusion of home away from home. One nods with understanding and empathy when the book narrates how Ashima repeatedly reads the couple of Bengali magazies she had brought along with her in her efforts to hold on to the littlest things that remind her of home. And then there is the fierce pride with which Ashima and Ashoke perseveringly cling to their culture... trying to christen their son with a 'bhalo naam' (name used for official purposes) and 'dak naam' (name used by family and friends) in accordance to the bengali tradition. There is also that lovely description of Gogol's anna prasan (rice ceremony... where a baby is fed solid food for the first time) which his parents try to celebrate in a manner as closely adherent to the traditions as possible (Ashima regrets that the plate on which the rice is heaped is melamine, not silver or brass or the very least stainless-steel).

Over time they develop friendships with other Bengali families whom they meet often to eat "shrimp cutlets fried in saucepans" and in true Bengali way discuss arts and how can one forget... politics (argue riotously over the films of Ritwik Ghatak versus those of Satyajit Ray. The CPIM versus the Congress party. North Calcutta versus South. For hours they argue about the politics of America, a country in which none of them is eligible to vote.) For their kids sake they cheerfully also adopt more and more of the American ways of life and the American traditions... Thanksgiving, Christmas, hot dogs and hamburgers. "Still, they do what they can." They also take the children to watch Kathakali performances sitar recitals and also the Apu triology!! They ensure the kids learn Bengali and also of Subhas Chandra Bose. They drag them to Saraswati and Durga pujos. As you read on the feeling strengthens that Ashima and Ashok are people you know and in a way are people that you are.

There is this very touching moment when Ashima learns of her father's death of a heart attack. And eventually there are many more of these bad news. "As their lives in New England swell with fellow Bengali friends, the members of that other, former life, those who know Ashima and Ashoke not by their good names but as Monu and Mithu, slowly dwindle". The kids, not having bonded much with their relatives, never comprehend the depths of their parents sorrow at these deaths and are "embarrassed at the sight of their parents' tears". And Lahiri drives home the desolation in a sentence which I think is going to stick with me for the rest of my life. She says... "In some senses Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost, those who survive and are consoled by memory alone."

Read the book if you are an Indian living abroad... it will speak to you and several times you will mentally hug it as you would a dear friend who empathises with you, read it if your parents were 1st generation migrants from India... the book will bring alive for you an aspect of their lives which you often must have felt and which must yet not have been something you could identify with or understand completely, read it if you have children or dear ones abroad... you will for once understand that their lives in those rich countries abroad is still so poor... bereft of the richness that comes from living at home, near loved ones.

Since I am only at the first 100 pages, I know it is too early to review this book or even say too much about it... having yet to touch upon the primary plot of the book. But I wanted to write this post now so that I can focus on these first few pages which have touched me so immensely. Let's see... if the rest of the book manages to fulfil the promise shown by these intial few pages then you will hear more from me of this book and its characters.