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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Books: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri will resonate with anyone who has made it through that transition from dependent to independent human being.

And Consider This: Interpreter of Maladies, the Pulitzer Prize winner by the same author was a stunning literary debut breathing new life into what some have called a dying art, the art of writing short stories. "The House that Nat Built" issues 28 remastered Nat King Cole classics

Books

The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri © 2003
Published by Houghton Mifflin Co., NY
Paperback, 291 pp

In her first book, the Pulitzer Prize winning Interpreter of the Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri was heralded as a brilliant, new voice on the American literary stage. Her second book, a novel entitled The Namesake, does not disappoint. If any reader wondered whether Ms. Lahiri had the stuff to produce a novel (the first book was a collection of short stories), Namesake gives us a resounding “Yes!”

It is the tale of the Ganguli family, who immigrated in 1968, leaving Calcutta for Boston. Ashoke Ganguli is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at MIT. He and his wife, Ashima, are essentially strangers to each other, having undergone an arranged marriage just before coming to America.

Ashoke, when he was younger, was a great admirer of the Russian writer, Gogol. Once time, as a young man, Ashoke took a train to visit his grandparents, a fairly long ride. He was reading Gogol’s The Overcoat at 2:30 in the morning, when there was an explosion that blew the train off the tracks. The car in which he was riding flipped over and was catapulted into a field, killing most of the passengers. Ashoke, pinned in the wreckage and unable to speak, attracted the attention of his rescuers by waving the crumpled page from The Overcoat, which he still held in his hand. He spent the next year in a cast, and the experience left him with a longing to get away, to seek adventure of a kind that eventuated in his immigration to the United States.

Not very long after their arrival in America, Ashima becomes pregnant. She writes to ask her grandmother to think up a name for the baby, as is Bengali custom. This will be the child’s “good” name, the formal name used on documents or by strangers. There will also be a pet name, thought up by the parents, and used only by the family and those who love him. The grandmother mails off her letter in July, but by the end of August, when the baby is born, it still hasn’t been received. After his son’s birth, Ashoke is confronted with the need to give the hospital a name to put on the birth certificate before they will release the child. Apparently, the letter from Ashima’s grandmother was lost in the mail. It is a great quandary. The man who compiles birth certificates suggests that Ashoke choose a name of someone he admires. They can, he says, always amend the permanent record when the letter arrives. Ashoke chooses Gogol, figuring that it can become the child’s pet name, and they can put his “good” name on record when the letter arrives.

The letter is never delivered, and Ashoke’s grandmother, in her last days, is too muddled to be asked to remember it. Thus it is that Gogol reaches the age of five being called after a Russian writer. When he is to start kindergarten, however, his parents decide on a “good” name: Nikhil. Alas, when the school personnel call him Nikhil, he tells them his name is Gogol, and that is what sticks.

Once he reaches the upper grades, however, he wishes mightily that he could go back to Nikhil. Despite his attempts to change back, it is only when he goes to Yale for his freshman year that he is able to leave Gogol behind and become Nikhil to his friends.

The Namesake is a classic story of assimilation and of the inner conflicts that pull and tug at first generation Americans. Lahiri’s writing is elegant and straight forward as she chronicles the difficulties and misunderstandings that occur when a young person is torn between his family’s cultural history and the American society in which he lives. Gogol longs to fit in with his peers. He must deal with his deep sense of patriarchal family loyalty and balance it with his need to make his own way in the world.

This book will resonate with anyone who has made it through that transition from dependent to independent human being. You don’t have to be a first generation American to understand how hard it is to grow up and leave home. It is to the author’s credit that she also gives us a true picture of the parents and of their growth and change during the years 1968-2000. Gogol may be the main focus of the book, but she provides us with a rich lesson in family dynamics. The Namesake will be on my highly recommended list for a long time to come.

JS

Review of The Interpreter and a Nat King Cole CD

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