Warning: foot-note heavy post.
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.