Sunday 12 September 2010

Jhumpa Lahiri

Continuing the series of readings of Indian literature, I have just finished listening to an audio recording of  The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri  was born in the UK to Bengali parents but grew up in USA and just like the boy of the Bengali American family at the centre of this story, her name Jhumpa is a pet name not her proper or as Indian say, good, name / pura nam. Everyone here in India has nicknames and good names. For example, my landlady's name is Sushila , her nickname is Susy, her daughter is Debestray, but goes by the name of Rinky, When I grew up lots of kids had nicknames, given by other kids, not always flattering or ones you'd want to keep using for the rest of your  life, and usually used  only outside of the home whereas here it is the other way round, with the nicknames being used at home and the good names being used at school. 
The boy at the centre of her novel has the name Gogol, after he of The Overcoat, his father's favourite author,  as we continually hear throughout the book. After grandmother's letter suggesting the baby's name goes a missing, the family are forced to enter some name on the birth certificate in order to take the child home from hospital. And the name sticks. But he only much later discovers that this is only part of the reason why he was so named by his parents, the real reason has a deeper significance.  But that comes after he rebels against Gogol as his name and formally changes it to Nikhil.  However, he finds comes to realise that finding his own identity growing up in 80s America as the child of Indian immigrants is more than a question of a name. 
This is a story about an immigrant families assimilation with all its fun and failings. The book spans the time when Ashima first arrives in Boston after her arranged marriage to Ashok. We share with her  her disappointment at  their apartment compared to her family home, at affording only second hand clothes and toys for her children, compared to having servants, and to being without family for the first time in her life. The couple slowly adjust to life in the US, to its customs and ways, and raise their family, buy their house just the same as everyone else. Except that for so long the only people they know are fellow Bengalis, their children's substitute aunts and uncles.  Their trips home are big events, the big news events from home coming via letters and middle of the night phone calls. Ashima never seems to adjust, it is only after starting to work in the local Library does she make American, non Bengali friends.
As his parents try to take on board the culture of their adopted home for their children - Christmas, Thanksgiving, and then dating and boy/girlfriends for their daughter and son - so Gogol  struggles with the family trips back to India. When a friend remarks with surprise that he had never thought of Nikhil getting sick on these visits, he says they do, that they have to have so many shots and injections and travel with a whole medicine cabinet full of precautions. As Gogol grows up, he finds American girls friends, sex, drugs, but there is always this dichotomy between being born an American and seeing this as his home compared with his parents who still see India as home whilst at the same time feeling slightly offset from it all. He lives for a time with an American woman and her family, then marries an Indian woman. Neither work out. He is neither, he is both.  
This may have been an especially topical read for me, feeling as I do  like some sort of inside outsider here, not a tourist, yet not totally of here. So many of the customs and little things that Lahiri writes about ring true - Ashima's always wearing a sari at home and never having the courage to wear a Shalwar kameez in her father in laws house, the way shoes lay discarded in piles by the doorway.  Many of their customs - leaving shoes by the door, eating with their hands etc - now seem common place to me, but if I had read this earlier I would have felt them strange and foreign.  All children of immigrants must go through a similar search for identity, feeling neither one thing nor the other, belonging and yet different to each - Nikhil and his sister speak Bengali with an American accent, but cannot read nor write it.  Immigration inevitably means some loss and some gain. Only by living in another country can one truly begin to understand the problems, the heartaches, the fun, the losses and the achievement that immigrants make when deciding to live in another country, and marvel at their success and wonder how on earth refugees, forced to live so, rather than through choice can begin to manage.
I was introduced Lahiri's writing only recently when my book club read one of her short stories A Temporary Matter - just about the most perfect short story I have ever read - succinct, to the point, ever word required, every aspect sharp , the whole focused. I was so impressed I immediately went and got our The Namesake, so far her only novel. It has this short story crispness and clarity to it, her writing is straightforward, not at all over flowery, not unnecessarily complicated. Her accuracy and attentive to details in her choice of words and descriptions, from people's appearance eg  Nikhil's girl has a chignon not a bun, so 70s; his father is pulled from the wreckage of train bogeys as they are called in India, not carriages.  A worthy read even if you are not resident in India!

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