July 2004

Roohi Choudhry

features

Four Conversations About One Thing: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Few novels (and even fewer by South Asian American writers) have the ability to polarize readers into competing, sulky, defensive camps as The Namesake has done. While this conflict hasn’t made the $16.80-plus-shipping decision any easier for us, it’s surely better to have real discussion in place of the usual highhanded Kakutani review and subsequent murmurs of assent.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second offering, following her Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, was long anticipated with drooling jowls by critics and readers alike. To add to that pressure, Lahiri is perhaps the only South Asian American writer familiar enough to the mainstream to earn a feature in Oprah magazine. A lot of people wanted her to get all their personal stories right in one go.

The Namesake is a meandering narrative following Gogol, the American son of Bengali Indians who immigrated to Massachusetts during the 60s. Yes, the hero is named after Nikolai Gogol, of The Overcoat fame. In Bengali tradition, Gogol should have been the character’s nickname at home and Nikhil his official name for the records. But through a series of misadventures, Gogol is what sticks and this neither-American-nor-Indian title comes to stand for his struggle with identity, culture and everything in between.

I expected to dislike The Namesake. The lauded The Interpreter of Maladies was well-written but failed to make any kind of lasting impression on me, and I didn’t presume anything better for this novel. But, The Namesake was surprisingly engaging -- I was so drawn into the characters and their stories that I missed my stop on my evening commute twice (twice!).

Lahiri’s description of detail is almost mathematically precise. Her images and tastes and sounds surround us immediately, willing us into her vision of Bengali-America and its unlikely representative, Gogol. But the borderline-ADD narrative and the wandering, almost non-existent plotline demand a lot of patience. Also, after laboring through some of the less-than-compelling chapters, the inconclusive ending is not much reward. At the end of it, I still wasn’t sure if I liked The Namesake or not.

So I thought I would solicit the opinions of other South Asian women for you, some who greeted The Namesake with skepticism, and others who cried at every page. Why? Because after working with surveys all day long, I apparently still can’t get enough of them. Here are some thoughts from Auditi, Suparna, Saira and Pooja, speaking to Bookslut.com via email.

What first drew you towards The Namesake?

Auditi: I loved Interpreter of Maladies and had been waiting for Lahiri to come out with her next work. As a Bengali-American, I was especially drawn to Lahiri, but in general I seek out South Asian American writers.

Pooja: I had been waiting for Lahiri's The Namesake. I saw the book, picked it up, and read it in one night.

Suparna: Jhumpa Lahiri's background as a Bengali-American writer reflects a lot of my own background and her first collection of short stories spoke to me vividly. I was looking for something to feel connected to.

Saira: I had read Interpreter of Maladies and had enjoyed two or three stories from it.

How did Gogol’s name and his namesake work for you as the main metaphor throughout the novel?

Auditi: There’s a parallel to what many South Asians (like myself) went through. My name was about as foreign as Gogol in the tiny Midwestern town where I grew up! On the other hand, Gogol is also foreign in an Indian context, signifying that he didn’t really fit into that community either. I see it as a simple metaphor, but one that’s effective.

Suparna: Perfect! It's a Bengali thing I guess -- I remember being "Rinky" for most of my life. Then I went to school and suddenly I became "Suparna." There is this identity split that comes out of this situation with naming -- Gogol's dak name was his Bengali side, and his balo name was his American side. Eventually, you can only reach peace by merging both those sides. I loved it -- it really connected with how I see myself and how I've come to peace with myself.

Saira: The only thing it did for me was to point out a very important connection between the main character and his father's past.

Was the plot (or lack thereof) satisfying to you?

Auditi: It wasn’t a typical coming-of-age story, which generally hinges on a particular event or pivotal experience. But this seemed real to me because it focused on the kinds of experiences and events that we all have.

Suparna: A lot of the narratives had a dreamy, dragged along for the ride kind of feeling - as if things were just out of Gogol's control. I think that’s how most identity crises feel: as if they are not happening to us and we are caught in them in a helpless manner.

Saira: I definitely needed some sort of conclusion, a message of hope maybe, to carry with me. I felt that by the end, Gogol had not resolved his identity issue or really figured where he belonged. Maybe that left me saddened.

Did you feel this captured your story, or your experience as a South-Asian American?

Auditi: In many ways, yes, as much as another’s writing possibly can. For the first several chapters I just kept crying as I saw my own mother reflected in Ashima (Gogol’s mother). I think that the way that Gogol views her is characteristic of how a second generation Bengali-American might look at his or her mother. It was only as an adult that I came to understand and appreciate what my mother had gone through, and Gogol goes through that same process. At the end of the novel Gogol is 32, my age, and I felt I had learned something with him.

Pooja: I didn't understand why he was so self-hating, so Indian-hating. I agree that many of us go through times in our lives when we want to reject all things South Asian, but it seems there are reasons for it or experiences that motivate us to do so. Gogol’s character didn't deal (in the book, in his head) with any conflict.

Suparna: I cried and laughed through much of the book -- the naming drama, the awkwardly handled love affairs, the painful love/embarrassment that Gogol's parents bring him, the Ivy League pressure, the foods and the presentations, the crazy, desperate nature of Bengali gatherings. I loved it and it made me sad, made me miss my childhood and made me miss my own parents. But I also felt connection - my life was not in isolation.

Saira: (Growing up), I often felt the need to choose a dominant culture, but now I feel as if I can choose certain aspects of both mainstream culture and Pakistani culture based on my personal feelings and a particular situation. Thus, I have made my own culture. This doesn't work when it comes to relationships. If I am with a white man, I often feel that he doesn’t understand such a big part of my life. Or, that I am betraying my parents' culture. Or worse, that the man is with me only because he has a fetish for South Asian women. When I am with a Pakistani man, I feel that he expects me to be purely South Asian. These issues clearly ring in The Namesake.

Do you think Lahiri’s work is simply a representation of second-generation South-Asian America that can only be appreciated by that specific group?

Auditi: I don’t think any work can be so easily pigeonholed. Maybe you could characterize it as a fair representation of “middle-class-educated-academic-community-first-wave-second-generation-Bengali-America.” Each step you get away from one of those traits, the book becomes less applicable. But that shouldn’t be the point. I recommended the book to a number of others. I think that for my mom and Indian relatives, this book is a harsh look at what we second-generation kids have gone through. It’s not always positive. I think it was hard for them to relate to the characters because they almost took it personally. On the other hand, my non-South-Asian friends who’ve read it could enjoy the richness of the story and characters.

Pooja: Lahiri has, I think, actually broken out of the "South Asian Fiction" pigeonhole in terms of how her book has been received. I think she is now "Popular, Contemporary Women's Fiction."

Suparna It's easy to dismiss the novel based on its cultural identifications but I do believe others can relate. If the classic American novel is about the quest for self and individuality, then Lahiri's novel steps perfectly into place beside other classic American writers. Themes of racial identity crisis, the power of naming, the questions about place in society, the themes about childhood and parenthood connect to many, many other novels.

Saira: I think that that anyone can relate to this book. Cultural identity is a type of identity. Alienation and idenitity issues are familiar to everyone.

Did you feel like there was any unfair stereotyping in the novel? Especially of Ashima and Ashok, Gogol’s parents, as first generation Indians?

Auditi: I think that the sometimes-negative portrayal of the parents is authentic when you consider that we’re seeing them through Gogol’s eyes. I think it’s simplistic and unfair to suggest that a writer should avoid any negative portraits for fear of stereotyping. Second-generation South Asians face unique struggles, not the least of which is their relationship with their parents.

Pooja: Actually, I felt that Ashok and Ashima's characters were the most real, while many of the other characters, especially Gogol's partners, were one-dimensional and stereotypical. I found it interesting that many of the 30-something women characters were complete caricatures. I would have thought that Lahiri would have actually drawn those characters best, especially Moushumi.

Suparna: The South Asian American voice has usually been first gen’ers expanding on their lives. But how does it feel to be looked at through the eyes of their children? Our first gen’er parents often want the Indian community to be seen as perfect. Ashima and Ashok are not perfect and I wonder if that is why they are seen as stereotypes.

Did you think that Lahiri broke important ground with this novel?

Suparna: I think what she provides is a real skill with writing. Her voice is effortless and her characters are vivid. She provokes powerful emotion either for or against her writing and it says a lot about the impact of her work. Suddenly South Asian writing has become the new trend. So in some ways she is similar (to other South Asian American writers) - in other ways she is the writer that paved the way for other second gen’er voices.

Saira: The Namesake was a disappointment. I don't think that she broke any important ground. She merely told a story. It was a good novel, but there was so much hype about Lahiri. I think Lahiri may know the right people and have the right looks. However, the writing just doesn't carry out the promises made in the hype.

Auditi: I personally find her voice to be refreshing. Writers like Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Banerjee-Divakaruni portray the immigrant generation. The first generation’s story was about adaptation and learning, acculturating, and also discovering new things about themselves. The second generation found itself presented with two conflicting realities and cultures and sets of expectations. The struggle exists at a formative level, and there’s a sense of helplessness, maybe even desperation. We didn’t choose to deal with this duality, but were put in the midst of it. That’s a different story, one that my generation is just beginning to tell, and I think Lahiri did a nice job.

Suparna Banerjee-Emanuel is an English teacher who lives in New Jersey. “I am Bengali American and married interracially so I like novels and stories about Indian culture that do not state that finding peace… is to accept our Indian-ness through marrying a nice Indian boy and cooking Indian food and dancing Indian dance.” Pooja Makhijani is a student in the MFA program in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also editor of the forthcoming anthology Under Her Skin: How Women Experience Race in America: Childhoods Changed by Color (Seal Press, Fall 2004). Auditi Chakravarty lives in New York and has taught high school English Literature and Composition. “I grew up in a very traditional Bengali home in the Midwest, and speak Bengali fluently. I think that is a huge part of why I connected with this novel.” Saira Khokhar is a twenty-seven year-old recently graduated medical doctor who grew up in Connecticut but attended medical school in Pakistan at the behest of her parents. She is currently pursuing her masters in Urdu Literature at Columbia University and working on lung cancer research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She is proud to be a New Yorker.