Friday, April 20, 2007
Book Review: The Namesake
Well! I promised I’ll do this. And I don’t think I regret having made the promise.
The book is much better than the movie (of course). Somehow, things seem to fall more in place when you read the book (but, of course). Gogol does come across as an idiot, but not so much. Ashoke seems more mature. And Ashima, true to what her character should be, seems as lost as she should seem. The sister’s character has some sense (Sonia). Moushumi has a more meaningful role to play. Her past, present and future makes more sense. So does Maxine’s.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”, as opposed to Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” is an extremely mature book written in a style that bridges the gap between India and America, just as Ashok and Ashima’s life tries to. At times, it moves into the narrative style of an Indian author, where there are graphic details around the mundane details of everyday life, the way people walk and talk, their cultural heritage and how that impacts their way of thinking. At several other occasions, she is at consummate ease with the American accent, style and ways. Jhumpa gets into the skin of these characters completely, and everyone is identifiable.
GOGOL: Gogol, coming across as an ABCD in the movie, is pretty much an American with Indian parentage. He is not a wannabe American, as ABCDs are supposed to be. On the contrary, he is as Indian as anyone else. His way of thinking, getting frustrated with weekend Bengali parties, are not something that I won’t see in an Indian metro of today. Just because the setting is that of USofA, it does not make Gogol any different
ASHIMA: Ashima is the quintessential taken away from her roots, Indian woman, so diminished in identity already, being forced to find/create a new identity in an unfamiliar land. She does not share the eagerness of new-gen IT geeks who would probably hang by the wheels of an airplane to go to the States, if that could take care of the H1B issues! For her, its about speaking a language, talking about things that seem so alien to her. Especially, when you are coming from a country where talking to your relatives and neighbors is the biggest social activity. Her ordeal as her children move from her side of the world to their side of the world is very subtly laid out in the book.
ASHOKE: A very mature, and subtle individual, wizened through the age, experiences and literature he devours, Ashoke comes across the most compromising and far-sighted individual in the book. He talks in a language that smells of the future, handles situations in a way that tells you how much he is thinking, has an unwavering integrity about his character, and a simplicity that you end up loving. And his character, somehow, is one the least covered and most powerful characters in the book.
MAXINE: What the movie failed to do is to highlight Max’s lifestyle and her family. From the word go, in the novel, you can feel that their relationship is doomed, despite all love and comfort between the two. Unlike the movie, the breakup does not happen at a time when Gogol is not able to think about anything, but beyond that time, when Gogol is still not able to think of anything. A severed relationship at the time of crisis can be mended, but a relationship severed because of a drastic change in life, probably cannot.
MOUSHUMI: Does get a bit of attention in the novel. The movie again, does not do justice to the complexity of her life. The presence of Dmitri in her life, a long time fetish, her love for Paris, her inability to fit Gogol in her social life, and a dying relationship (which still survives in India because of the social boundaries) are all well detailed in the book.
Starting off with the birth of Gogol, and explained through Ashoke’s accident while he still had Nikolai Gogol in his hands, Namesake explains the need of some people to remain commoners and not really stand out in a crowd. Gogol’s biggest grudge against his name is that it makes him stand out. Nobody names their children Shakespeare, for instance. Gogol wanted to be a part of the crowd. In addition to the brown skin, which never really stops him from dating or being accepted by whites, he has a unique name to contend with. While I think about this, I am sure there must be a lot of people out there who would love to explain the history of their unique name. It makes them stand out and they probably love that!
This struggle to be a common man makes him the son of Ashoke and Ashima, common Indian people, who have a preference for being a part of the crowd. Isn’t that what defines, in large parts, what Indian society think like.
Gogol struggled to find his own place by keeping both the worlds happy. When he could not, he chose one over the other. At times, he tried to understand what the other world is like, and at times, he gave up.
For me, there are 4 things that I like to see in a book
1. Content- story – I would not call it a great story, but its high on content. The story does not tell me something that I, as an individual, have failed to notice. But it does present itself beautifully. . What does make the whole story intriguing is the way people handle their own set of challenges.
2. Attention to detail – Awesome! This is the area where Jhumpa Lahiri nails it. Even the rituals of walking, driving around the blocks, switching on the lights when Ashoke dies, the use of rooms on different occasions,
3. The pace of the book – is a little slow, but in tune with the mood. There are pages that you can quickly run through because they are quick. There are times when she wants you to devour the details, and the pages are a little slow there. But not meaningless.
4. Loyalty to the genre (a thriller should thrill, a classic should have something to stand the test of time, and should be reflective of the times when it was written) – I don’t know where The Namesake belongs. But it seems to be in place! That’s as vacuous a statement as I don’t know if Tendulkar should continue to play cricket, but I think he is playing well. Bottomling – it’s a nice book to read! It does not give me a feeling of reading a boring thriller
Read it.. especially if the movie disappointed you. At least you won’t blame Jhumpa Lahiri for writing a mundane story!