Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake"

I knew before reading The Namesake that the novel is deeply concerned with migration, but I did not know that it is also deeply concerned with chance. It is by chance that Ashoke is rescued alive from the train wreck, a page from the Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol falling from his clutch and so attracting the attention of rescuers. This miracle turns his mind to living abroad. It is by chance that the letter from grandmother is lost in the mail and so Ashoke and Ashima give their newborn the same of Ashoke's favorite author as a temporary measure that becomes a permanent part of him. By chance too, Gogol Ganguli recovers the book of Gogol's short stories, Ashoke's long-ago birthday present for him, before the contents of his childhood home on Pemberton Road are sold or given away. The striking coincidences of an immigrant life become, in this novel, a comment on the role of chance in everyone's lives. When we move, even if the move is to the next neighborhood, we open ourselves to chance.

In her short stories, as in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri shows a flair for evoking the lives of educated, middle-class Bengalis living as immigrants in the Northeast. She does the same in The Namesake: the confusions, the cooking, the parties, the subtle discrimination. But the novel's longer format also allows her to depict persuasively very different milieus. When Gogol falls in love with Maxine, he also falls in love with her privileged upper-middle-class white life (Greek Revival house in Manhattan, a house by the lake in the country). The dominant note in the description is one of wonder, at its love for beauty, its appreciation for quality, its lack of self-consciousness, its continuity across generations: everything that the Ganguli family is not. Maxine and her parents welcome Gogol into their lives but, as Lahiri notes, they will not change anything for him. Equally perceptive is Lahiri's description of the group of young married intellectuals living in Brooklyn. She serves up the self-satisfied chatter of this self-regarding society as deftly as one of them serves spaghetti alle vangole.

Yet another pleasure of this subtle novel is the quiet symbolism of its details and events. The grandmother's letter, lost between India and the States, is an example of such signification. A wonderful incident has the grade-school Gogol going on a field-trip to the house of some famous dead writer. Brought to a nearby cemetery, the children were told to find their name on the tombstones and make a copy of it. Of course Gogol Ganguli cannot find a namesake in that place, but he discovers the equally strange names of early Puritan settlers, names like Abijah Craven, Anguish Mather and Peregrine Wotton. In this act of identification, like her protagonist, Lahiri lays her claim to being American and an American writer, for to be American turns out to be migrant-settler.

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