The Namesake – A Review

Warning: foot-note heavy post.

Somebody apparently asked Jhumpa1, about this book, whether this book was slightly autobiographical?

She smirked.

~

A guy goes to the States, gets married, brings his convent-educated, total-Indian wife with him. They have a kid, who gets disillusioned with the way his parents live, and more importantly, he is burdened by his daknaam turned bhalonaam2, which keeps cramping up his Amru style. So he decides to turn American, and wash off his Indianness by changing his name to a more respectable Nikhil from a monstrous Gogol, (named after his father’s favourite author) and hangs out only with his American friends, much to the chagrin of his parents. Even when his father passes away.

Of course, it’s autobiographical! It would be for almost every Indian who settles in the U.S. This book would have caused a massive neck sprain among all the first generation Indian-American, who must have nodded at each paragraph, and exclaimed in psued Amriki accent, “Arrey! Yeh to mere saath bhi hua tha, y’know!”

The second generation Amrus would have dropped the book in paranoia, and run out of the house, screaming, “Big Brother is watching!!” Ok maybe not. But they would have changed the locks to their homes.

Oh but this is not just another story. The boy ends up marrying an Indian girl, who was brought up in the States just like him. But she can’t take the Indianness, and decides to cheat on the kid. And the marriage ends up in divorce. Now that is totally different.

How original. Divorce happens to only a million Amrus every year. Such divine originality is gifted only to Pulitzer-prize winning authors.

~

The irony of the entire situation is that she didn’t claim it was an extraordinary book. The language is very simple, the plot even more so. Anybody who hasn’t read the Interpreter of Maladies, would have cried out of the sheer anti-climax. I am most irritated with her of making a non-plot out of the name Gogol; I thought there would atleast be some case of mistaken identity or something. Nope, hard luck for all you conspiracy theorists.

It was the entire Jhumpa brigade, that made this book into a “must-read”: you know the people who started ooh-aahing over her, when she was shoved into the limelight, not unlike the headlights of an oncoming car, after they suddenly win Pulitzers or Bookers. (A famous Mallu writer comes to mind.). But unlike most authors who still are getting used to their win, Jhumpa clearly used the moment to her advantage.

I have a distinct feeling, that she wrote this book before she wrote the Interpreter of Maladies. But her publisher must have said, no way they would publish the Namesake, so she wrote her masterpiece first, and then cleverly decided to dump the Namesake on gullible intellectuals, who, Jhumpa knew, would lap it eagerly, and continue give her her millions, because they would be too sheepish to admit that the author they praised last year, wrote crap this year.

Of course, this is just a theory, a conspiracy theory.

1What is it with the Lahiris? They are one clan where only names with jatak-matak are chosen for their kids. I mean just look at the sample-set we have: Bappi, Bappa, Jhumpa.

2There is a silver lining to this novel, though. It has been very educating about this “good name” business for me. I used to think that the typical Indian expression “What is your good name, beta?” was hilarious; you know, as if we had a bad name. (Though if you check out some of the Mallu Christian names, they are totally out of this world, and cannot be classified as either good or bad, or any other conventional typology. Sample Sidin Vadukut.). Till sometime back, I would reply, “Uncle/Aunty/Ungle/Andy (as the case may be) both my names, good and bad, are Vivek only.”, to which they would smile embarassed, knowing something funny just happened, but what they couldn’t quite figure out.

But apparently, your good name is something like your official name, as opposed to a carefully chosen nickname. Your official name is for the passport, voter’s id, etc. and your nickname is for everything else.

Still though, I can’t repress a giggle when an avuncular person asks me my good name.

Apparently, it is a bit autobiographical. Read this Wikipedia entry.

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9 responses to “The Namesake – A Review

  1. I haven’t read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works. Which one would you suggest that I pick up first ? Or the order doesn’t matter ?

  2. I guess you should just start with “The Interpreter of Maladies”. I haven’t read it myself, but you can’t go wrong with a Pulitzer, can you? πŸ™‚

  3. Nitish Saraf

    Hehe.. i havent read this book (its on my book shelf), but i saw the movie.. the movie was quite nice, and it was the day i decided that i am not having ABCD kids for sure. the day i have a kid, i am returning home.

  4. hehe.. won’t it be a slight strain on your wife?

  5. Nitish Saraf

    ok make that in a few days… u get the point. πŸ™‚

  6. Ultra disagree with your opinion on Jhumpha. I read this when in IIT and it totally clicked. Language is simple but plot is fairly complex. The plot is not with the outline but in character development, particularly with Gogol, and how he feels about the world. The parts where Gogols relationship with parents, about his going out with amru girl and staying at their place, and living with her, and as also the unspoken pain at his father;s death and the way he takes up responsibility as the son, etc., too deep .. outline is simple, emotions are deep.

  7. Total agreer, Rachitp, the story is good, but what I am arguing was that it lacked originality.

    What I find a problem specifically with is that, the theme of the book, The Namesake, has no role to play in the actual story itself. Anyway, I had just read some stories by Ashokamitran, and I was pretty anti authors who didn’t come to the point soon. In this case, Jhumpa’s point was something else, and I was so obsessed with finding out what the point of the Namesake was, that I got slisha frustrated. πŸ˜›

  8. Point to clear out: Not all NRIs are running away from their heritage. Heck some of us are actually more conservative & cultural than you would think! The emphasis should be on how you raise your kids actually and not where !

    I agree that there’s no real freshness to the story.

    After reading the good name part I kept chuckling as though I don’t have a nickname (thank god) I still dread my middle name!

  9. Most of the first-generation NRIs, I would even go so far so as to say that all of them in fact, are much more conservative than folks back home. And there are some kids who revel in being part of the greater Indian heritage too. I am not denying that. πŸ™‚

    Well, with a short name such as yours, it would be silly to have a nickname πŸ™‚

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