I started re-reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake last week. I realized that the first time I’d read I hadn’t appreciated it for two reasons:
Firstly, reading the book then was a fad so I read it pretty quickly without understanding its underlying narratives. Secondly, to understand what the protagonist feels, it is necessary to put oneself away from one’s “comfort-zone” – one’s home, city, country.
I do not know why I had decided to re-read it. In fact, I couldn’t even find my paperback (some idiot must have borrowed and never returned it). So I loaded it onto my Kindle and finished it in a day and half. I also downloaded and watched the film soon after. But after I read it again, I realized how I had come to understand the book through Gogol’s perspective only. This time when I started it, I was reading it like the story was subsumed within Ashima. When I neared the end, I came to like Moushumi a lot. In many ways, I realized I was like her – fiercely independent, running away from her own identity constantly, doing things she can live without only because of her parents. I was happy to an extent that Moushumi and Gogol don’t make it – it is surreal on so many levels; two very similar (and similarly damaged) people can never *peacefully* be together.
Of course, as a reader, I had too many questions. Why would Lahiri make this her first novel? Obviously, the Bengali theme of a bhalonaam (the Indian concept of a ‘goodname’ used publicly) and a daaknaam (nickname/moniker) had been close to her heart. Perhaps Jhumpa was a Gogol. Perhaps her parents tried that she be known by her bhalonaam (Wiki tells me it is Nilanjana). Perhaps like Gogol, she preferred her daaknaam. Did she go through an identity crisis as a teenager?
Another thing that struck me how my Chhotomama has (nick) named his first-born, my cousin, Pushkin. Now was Pushkin a Gogol waiting to happen? Did Chhotomama like Pushkin’s poems to an extent that he could name his son so? Or did he have an incident similar to Ashoke Ganguli on a train to Jamshedpur?
My imagination must stop running amok.
I like how Lahiri shows the plight of two women dealing with this morass of identity in a place that is not home: Ashima Ganguli and Moushumi Mazumdar. And I respect her for doing this without judgment on either. In the beginning, when her husband leaves for work, Ashima is scared and there is a learned helplessness around her character – crying to go back home, losing her shopping bags in the train (and finding them, thereafter), running out and lighting all the lights of the house when she realizes her husband’s gone. But towards the end, we see Ashima has found peace in a place she could have never called home. She buries the hatchet with the country that took away her husband, her son and to some extend her peace of mind?
On the other hand, Moushumi wants to avoid this morass in the first place. She never does succeed, though. From India to UK to US to France to US. She often takes off because she does not want to end up like her mother. She demands to stay Mazumdar after her marriage to Gogol (as for Ashima, I don’t remember her maiden name – she takes Ashoke’s name and is known as Ashima Ganguli throughout). She reads, she studies, she drinks alcohol, she dances. She has an affair to escape her identity. She could possibly never make peace with America.
I could totally identify with Moushumi and though Lahiri paints her character without prejudice, the film adaptation seems to “judge” her. I really could not swallow that.
Also, Moushumi’s lover’s name was Dmitri. I have no idea why the lover in the movie was called Pierre. Was Mira Nair trying to convince the audience of Moushumi’s french connection?