The Namesake (March 2007) has long finished its course in Ritz Theater franchises around the nation as the latest hip, urbane thing. The attraction associated with watching Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair and cult-classic Kal Penn from Harold and Kumar fame make non-Bollywood history has disappeared. The constant trailers playing on every American Indian website. The gossip among the aunties having their evening chai together. All of that has long died down. The movie was made, new additions of the book circulated, and Kal Penn goes back to his dayjob being Harold in the upcoming Harold and Kumar 2.
Nevertheless The Namesake continues to provoke thought.
The story revolves around Gogol, a young Bengali-American boy growing up on the East Coast. Confronted with his Indian-American identity, Gogol aka Nikhil repeatedly rebels (most notedly by changing his name to a more American-sounding name ala Kal Penn who we all know is Kalpen Modi). Yada yada yada, a family crisis occurs, Gogol regains touch with his family and reconnects with his father’s past. Etc., Nothing we all haven’t hear before. Typical Indian American melodrama. Not very different from the genre popularized by Amy Tan, etc.
In the midst of all the hoopla over Nair, Penn, and Lahiri, very few Namesake fans seem to have read the actual novel. I picked up a copy over the summer (and with it several others, one must support Indian American authors), eager to engross myself in a novel of immigrant genre more relevant to my OWN experience.
The prose was crisp. The characters engaging. The novel was everything the trailers promised and more. Except for…..the ending.
Given, this is Lahiri’s debut novel. The Interpretation of Maladies was merely a collection of short stories. The Namesake reads much like this, a tortured family’s collections of personal experiences (all that is missing is Gogul’s sister). From Moushimi, Gogul’s wife, however, we do get the voice of a young Indian American woman. The character of Moushimi is young, beautiful, intelligent. She is trapped in a culture of arranged marriages, family rituals. She speaks French and long for the sophistication of the Parisian world. A sympathetic character? No. She brutally, conscientiously makes the decision to cheat on her trusting husband. She then reveals her affair with detachment, and moves to Paris with her lover. Convenient ending.
American Indians all over the web rant and rave about this story. Gogol finally reaches inside himself and discovers the importance of family and culture. But the basic premise of the story is that for the children of Indian immigrants, there is no guaranteed chance of the inner peace and happiness delivered with familial reconciliation so appealingly promised in the film itself.
True, Nikhil/Gogol changes his sullen adolescent-attitude (perhaps realistic for American Indian men his age) and blossoms into a mature adult who is capable of appreciating his mother and sister. He emerges from his materialistic, self-absorbed, narcissist life as a New Yorker into the head of a household, capable of empathy and deep-introspection.
This change is supposedly reflected in his relationships. His mother and sister are finally drawn close to him. (At this point the absolute silencing of Ganguli’s voice, his mother in the novel, is very noticeable.) Similarly, he is finally able to commit to a stable relationship. His family gently steers him toward Moushimi, a family friend, a Bengali-American girl who is also a New Yorker. Gogol’s life seems to be coming to a complete and happy conclusion. He finally gets his samosa with ketchup, just like he likes it. Like his father before him, he has found a good Indian woman and is ready to settle down. At the same time, he gets the neat package of a New York woman with a career and goals of her own.
Gogol has made peace with the ghosts of his father’s past, reconnected with his own heritage. Life is fantastic.
Then his beautiful wife cheats on him. With a Frenchmen. And she leaves him. Brutally.
This is, I think, the ultimate point of the novel. The simple life our parents were accustomed to is gone. The parents from West Bengal, Mumbai, and Pakistan may well be used living with hardship. Like Ganguli, our mothers have suffered the trials of graduate research assistants and rat-infested student apartments. But for young American Indians, trying to reconfigure one’s past by seeking familiarity in one’s mates is easier said than done.
Poor Gogol. What will he do now? The book offers no easy explanation. He remains, a tortured character, cleansed of his father’s ghost, alone and unhappy.
Poor readers, expecting The Namesake to be yet another immigrant novel.
*Quotes to be added.