THE NAMESAKE follows the Ganguli family through its journey from Calcutta to Cambridge to the Boston suburbs. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli arrive in America at the end of the 1960s, shortly after their arranged marriage in Calcutta, in order for Ashoke to finish his engineering degree at MIT. Ashoke is forward-thinking, ready to enter into American culture if not fully at least with an open mind. His young bride is far less malleable. Isolated, desperately missing her large family back in India, she will never be at peace with this new world.
Soon after they arrive in Cambridge, their first child is born, a boy. According to Indian custom, the child will be given two names: an official name, to be bestowed by the great-grandmother, and a pet name to be used only by family. But the letter from India with the child’s official name never arrives, and so the baby’s parents decide on a pet name to use for the time being. Ashoke chooses a name that has particular significance for him: on a train trip back in India several years earlier, he had been reading a short story collection by one of his most beloved Russian writers, Nikolai Gogol, when the train derailed in the middle of the night, killing almost all the sleeping passengers onboard. Ashoke had stayed awake to read his Gogol, and he believes the book saved his life. His child will be known, then, as Gogol.
Lahiri brings her enormous powers of description to her first novel, infusing scene after scene with profound emotional depth. Condensed and controlled, THE NAMESAKE covers three decades and crosses continents, all the while zooming in at very precise moments on telling detail, sensory richness, and fine nuances of character.
Well. Where do I start with this one? I’m a good 12 years late to this beauty, as it was first published in 2003. Better late than never! You already have most of the plot and/ or background from the blurb above, but there is so much more about this book to say; the cultural idiosyncrasies, the lives ruled by conflicting traditions and modernisms, the guilt of not living up to family expectations etc.
I learned many interesting facts about Bengali culture and the traditions that imbue everyday decisions and life changing decisions alike. There are strict wedding rituals and mourning rituals, all of which centre around the family. Most interesting was the use of ‘pet names’ and ‘good names’, which navigates Gogol through his life and the reader through the novel.
Family and tradition is undoubtedly the crux of the novel, and where would family and tradition be without food? Lahiri‘s delectable descriptions of food is enough to kick your saliva glands into overdrive. You know that rule about not attempting a food shop while hungry? Same rule. This book is impossible to read before a substantial meal, lest the tummy rumbles deafen you to your inner narrator.
(A little example of Bengali food for you there. WANT CURRY NOW PLEASE!)
There is a rich list of ingredients that make a diet conscious waist quiver, but that sit so comfortably in Lahiri’s world. Creamy kormas, red meats, opulent wines, whole blocks of ripe brie; a menu to compliment the eclectic company of characters and cultures within the story.
The style of her story telling is so calm that you could be forgiven for almost missing all the excitement and drama in the folds of Lahiri’s beautiful narration that is all at once lilting, comforting and whimsical.
From what I have gleaned about Bengali culture in this novel, the narrative style sits very comfortably within said culture’s parameters. The author foresees that this will come to pass, followed by this and then he will feel this and she will do that. Much like the Bengali characters are told ‘you will marry him’ and ‘you will live there’. The third person account delivers a wealth of description, but this sometimes comes at the expense of individual voices.
At times, I felt myself straining to hear what the characters were saying beneath the heavy narrative. But then I made a discovery – behold! The Namesake can also be enjoyed in movie form! So I don’t have to imagine what the characters are actually saying anymore because Sooni Taraporevala and Jumphi Lahiri have done it for me. Click on the picture below to watch the trailer!
I don’t usually like to watch the film of a book so soon after reading it, but I may have to enforce this one on my beloved this weekend. (Speaking of: Ian, when you eventually get to this post in your emails, that you tell me you trawl through every so often to read, for to enjoy my really good words of wisdom on my stupendously terrific blog, this is why I wanted to watch The Namesake so much all the way back in May. Yeah, May 2015. Cast your mind back. Yep. There you go. You’re welcome.)
To conclude, The Namesake is a vibrant snapshot of real life framed neatly and luxuriously in the apartments of New York and the hustle and bustle of Calcutta. I now want to go to India pleasethanks.
A perfect holiday read for your summer travels.