City Paper is not for tourists
Gogol Ganguli, the quietly willful comer-of-age in Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, hates his name. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out why; his name, after all, is Gogol Ganguli. By the time he’s 14, “[o]ther boys his age have begun to court girls already, asking them to go to the movies or the pizza parlor, but he cannot imagine saying ‘Hi, it’s Gogol’ under potentially romantic circumstances. He cannot imagine this at all.”
What were his parents thinking? Well, it was an accident. When Gogol was born, the Gangulis, Bengali immigrants in Cambridge, Mass., were still awaiting a letter from the grandmother in India assigned the task of naming the baby. American rules compelled them to put a name on paper anyway. His father chose Gogol, after the writer who had played a crucial role in his own life, as a pet name and to serve as a placeholder on his birth certificate. (All Bengalis, we learn, have pet names in addition to their official, or “good,” names.) But on Gogol’s first day of kindergarten, he won’t respond to his newly bestowed good name. The pet name becomes his good name.
Themes of Indian identity and immigration will be familiar to readers of Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies. In that 1999 collection, Lahiri observed her characters and their lives as though through a magnifying glass. Whether charting the growing distance between a young husband and wife, or the unspoken tenderness a young Indian immigrant feels for his eccentric landlord, the stories expose the poetry and poignancy in ordinary life. They do, in other words, what short stories are supposed to do. And they do it with great aplomb, by leaving the reader to discover their perceptive sense of humor and cleanly exquisite prose without a nudge.
Now Lahiri has come out with a novel, The Namesake. A novel is of course a very different undertaking from a short-story collection, and it’s perhaps unfair to compare and contrast too vigilantly. Unfair yet irresistible, so, to get it out of the way: The Namesake does not repeat the sure-footedness, the humor, or the lyricism of Lahiri’s debut. But it is a good novel whose warmth radiates through its flaws. It’s the kind of book that gets more impressive after you put it down, when the characters surprise you by outliving it.
The story opens in 1968 with Gogol’s mother, Ashima, preparing an approximation of a popular Indian snack, improvising with the American equivalents of the ingredients (Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts), when her water breaks. Thus enters our hero, who grows up feeling mostly American, resisting though not quite rebelling against his parents’ repressive ways, indifferent to his Indian background. On reluctant trips to Calcutta, he and his sister “privately admit to excruciating cravings, for hamburgers or a slice of pepperoni pizza or a cold glass of milk” just as his mother craved the Indian concoction in her Cambridge kitchen. He is drawn to American girls with backgrounds unimaginable to him. He grows tormented by his weird name.
As Gogol realizes one night, “Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name. And so it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name.” He changes it to Nikhil, the Bengali name his parents had abortively chosen for him, which is just waiting to be shortened to Nick. His decision is liberating and lonely; it means assuming agency, correcting fate and his parents, shaking off his past and, to some extent, his self. The first time he introduces himself as Nikhil, at a college party as a high-school student, he finds himself boldly kissing a girl he has just met. Gogol never would have busted that move.
Like many of Lahiri’s creations, Gogol manages to emerge as a strong character without having a particularly strong personality. Reserved but restless, he is easily seduced, not just by women but by the lifestyles attached to them; like any eager seducee, he desires mainly to be seduced away from. His darkly handsome looks do him the favor of casting his reticence as mystery, resulting in no shortage of seducers. He succeeds in all his endeavors, but none of them seem to stir much passion in him.
We follow Gogol (the narrator, significantly, never ceases to call him that) through adolescence, college at Yale, and his early career as an architect. Much of the story, at these stages, has a perfunctory feel. The narrative is episodic, tending toward summaries and updates rather than the lingering perceptions of Lahiri’s stories. “Gogol does not date anyone in high school” one section begins. A few chapters later, “He lives in New York now. In May he graduated from the architecture program at Columbia,” Some of the characters feel a bit too functionalhe has to have a couple of relationships that don’t work out, for example, before finding the right one. And the writing style, plagued by repetitive syntax, is often reportorial in its descriptions of scenes. Here is a passage describing Gogol’s date with his first girlfriend, Ruth:
They go first to a movie at the Brattle, buying tickets for whatever is about to begin, sitting at the back of the balcony and kissing, causing people to turn back and stare. They have lunch at Cafe Pamplona, eating pressed ham sandwiches and bowls of garlic soup off in a corner….Afterward they wander hand in hand, kissing now and then against a building…
It’s as though Lahiri can see her characters from across the street, only occasionally coming close enough to overhear their conversations. She is at a distance, now, that enables her to observe the external details of her characters’ lives more faithfully than their inner thoughts.
The focus on the material is a trademark of Lahiri’s, and it can be an asset. She provides information about interior decoration, food, clothes, and the everyday rituals of people’s lives in an almost premodernist way, harking back to literature before the fetishization of consciousness. She never fails to describe Gogol’s girlfriends’ hairdos, fill us in on the colors of their cardigans, mention the location of the table in the kitchen, or identify the kind of wood on the floors. Sometimes this approach effectively contributes to the construction of a fictional world, and it works as shorthand for both status and culture. But sometimes it just feels superficial.
Lahiri’s tendency to dwell on food, however, is always welcome. The care she takes to list ingredients imbues them with poetry and conveys the deep delightfulness and psychological importance of food. Ashima, making her first-page snack, “adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix.” Yes, food is a metaphor, but in this case almost incidentally so. This recipe can be read to indicate Ashima’s longing for home, her alienation in America, her attempts to maintain her identity with makeshift American substitutes. But first and foremost, it shows that she really wants the snack.
Though she spends much of the book in the background, Ashima traverses as much psychological ground as Gogol does. The book’s beginning finds her inconsolably lonely in her new country, where life “feels somehow haphazard, only half true.” Years later, when Gogol refers to college as “home,” she reprimands him: “‘Only three months, and listen to you,’ she says, telling him that after twenty years in America, she still cannot bring herself to refer to Pemberton Road as home.” She resists assimilationor, more accurately, it doesn’t occur to her. Dressing up will always mean breaking out her best sari, and cooking will always involve dal. Whether in India or America, she is for different reasons not entirely at home but also not a guest. Her feat, in the end, is to occupy her ill-defined space with equanimity. As an Indian, she comes to accept that her children’s home isn’t India; as a mother, she comes to accept that neither is it any longer Pemberton Road.
The novel thus tells the yoked stories of a family and of immigration, with the cultural dimension more starkly dramatizing the Anyfamily rhythms. Every child reacts against his parents’ idiosyncrasiesbe they individual or shared by a nationbefore learning to overlook, forgive, or adopt them. After a loss serves as a wake-up call to Gogol, he recognizes his family’s preciousness and returns to it like the tide.
Around this time, he falls in love with Moushumi, an accomplished, strong-willed woman, given to bouts of furtive recklessness. Also of Bengali descent, she was a childhood acquaintance, and they are able to dip into the same reservoir of memories and understandings. With Moushumi, Gogol is not drawn in by the glamorous trappings of her life; they annoy him, because he wants only her. And this is when the book hits its stride. The earlier reportorial style, at once rushed and slightly tedious, gives way to patient absorption in Gogol’s world. It’s clear that this is where our author wanted to take her character all alongto the maturity that comes with loss and love.
Now, at last, we are privy to more intimately observed scenes, more dialogue. The story regains what was missing in earlier sections of the novel: the author’s astute attention. She has recovered her magnifying glass, through which she focuses the light of her considerable talents. Not only does it amplify details; it also warms up and sometimes sets fire to what’s beneath. After Gogol and Moushumi make love for the first time, they speak the language of abrupt new intimacy:
He looks down at her face. “You’re beautiful.”
“Can you even see me without those glasses?”
“Only if you stay close,”
“Then I’d better not move.”
This early flush gives way to the complexity that two individuals together inevitably spawn; the sameness of their backgrounds eventually takes its place as one factor among many. The book, finally, explores cultural identity almost to the point of exploding it. In college, Gogol-cum-Nikhil learned the acronym ABCD, meaning “‘American-born confused deshi.’ In other words, him.” But even this specific and messy identity is insufficiently specific, insufficiently messy. A living identity, the accumulated jumble of inheritance and accidents and decisions, is so individual that there is only one name that can denote itor, as the case may be, two. CP