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Durga Pujos Vs. Christmases

December 2003
Durga Pujos Vs. Christmases

Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake wil

resonate well with our youngsters who are perennially navigating

between two cultures.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte


A recent Newsweek article about the incredibly talented Jhumpa Lahiri is titled: "Who Says There is No Second Act." The first act, of course, refers to the young author's 2000 Pulitzer, a well-deserved honor that created a buzz in the literary world for many reasons one of which was because it was awarded to a debut performance, for her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies. Such recognition early on would faze all but the most powerful of writers. Fortunately for us, Lahiri has delivered yet again in her powerful new novel, The Namesake.

The namesake here is Gogol Ganguli, son of Bengali immigrants, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, named after the famous Russian author, Nikolai Gogol.

Bengalis, it seems, have two names: a daknam or pet name, and a bhalonam or good (official) name. When the Gangulis have a baby boy, they wait to have the baby named by Ashima's grandmother, according to tradition. As luck would have it, when time comes to take baby home from the hospital, Grandma's aerogramme still hasn't reached America (The novel is set to begin in the 1960s). When pressed for a name for his son, Ashoke likes the suggestion of naming the baby after "someone he admires." He confers a daknam, a pet name, Gogol. To father Ashoke, the name Gogol is reverend as it marks a turning point in his own life.

The problem arises when Gogol's pet name also becomes his official one, the name by which he is referred to by the outside world. Young Gogol is plagued by his name and cannot quite comprehend why it is "neither Indian nor American, but of all things Russian." Eventually Gogol, despite changing his name to Nikhil, finds that it becomes a ready peg to hang all his subsequent troubles on, especially those that stem from his dichotomous life.

The Namesake tracks the Ganguli family through nearly three decades, from the sixties when the Gangulis are new immigrants, through the early nineties when young Gogol shakily starts a life on his own. Lahiri has an astute power of observation and she uses this skill to gorgeous results in detailing the Gangulis' early years in America: "Every weekend, it seems, there is a new home to go to, a new couple or young family to meet. They all come from Calcutta, and for this reason alone they are friends."

We watch as Gogol goes through school, through college, and two failed romances before marrying Moushumi Mazoomdar, a childhood acquaintance. We watch as the Gangulis pepper their years with trips to Calcutta and we watch, with a faint tinge of sadness, as the kids (Gogol has a younger sister, Sonia) attach more weight to Christmas than to the Bengali staple, Durga pujo.

As Gogol matures, he is often struck by the discrepancies between his two lives: his Bengali and his American one. In one of many wonderful passages in the book, Gogol is trying to explain to a fellow-American, Pamela, how he needs to bone up on shots every time he visits India. "My parents devote the better part of a suitcase to medicine," he explains. "But you're Indian," Pamela says frowning, "I'd think the climate wouldn't affect you, given your heritage."

In the end, despite Gogol's many trials, the story is strangely uplifting. Lahiri's style, fluid and unpretentious, is on wonderful display here. The novel confirms Lahiri's status as one of America's premier young storytellers. It will occupy an important place in what promises to be an impressive portfolio.

It is easy and tempting to unjustly classify Lahiri as just another Indian author who has struck it big. Yet Lahiri's winning style defies classifications and stereotypes. Unlike other Indian writers who are here and write about there, their prose dripping in nostalgia, Lahiri's storylines are more pressing, more urgent. She writes about the now and most important, she lets us immigrants see the dilemmas and conflicts our children face as we try to make new lives in the new world. The realization that the trials of assimilation visit our children as well is hard to stomach.

Lahiri's genius lies in creating universality even in the most personal of stories. Gogol is every Indian American child who has tucked away bologna sandwiches at the school cafeteria and sat down to rotis and rice at the dinner table. Gogol is our son. His trials and tribulations, and his successes are our own.

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