Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’: An Invocation Of The Names Unsung

I read parts of The Namesake again not because there is so much in the news about Mira Nair’s movie on the book. A personal incident reminded me of an instance in the book. A distant cousin lost her husband, he was on an official trip to Frankfurt. He had just spoken to my cousin who was in Singapore and the next she hears about him is that he has died of a massive heart attack. A gentle flick of destiny tossed her life upside down.

When I received this news I was reminded of the instance in The Namesake when Ashima gets the news of Ashoke’s death. Ashoke has taken a nine month project at a small university near Cleveland and lives alone in a flat at the university campus while Ashima stays back at Massachusetts. She had just spoken to him, he had called from the hospital and complained of a stomach upset, blamed the previous night’s dinner for his condition and had called off.  Ashima calculates the time that the consultation with the doctor would take her husband and the time he would take for driving home. She calls him at his flat. The telephone rings itself hoarse through an empty house, that by itself is no indication of anything serious. She calls at the hospital and does not receive proper response first and then her call is received and a voice, like all faceless ones at the other end that seem to have the capacity to change your fate, announces to Ashima that Ashoke is dead. A normal day gone awry, very awry.

I wanted to read this bit again, I began here and read the novel through to its end. I had read the novel the first time soon after it was published in 2003. The book was published sometime in September 2003. I am generally poor at remembering and recalling dates and months, but I remember this very clearly because I bought the book at the Chennai airport when I had gone to see off my father who was leaving for Bombay with my brother soon after my mother’s death. 

My impressions of the book at that time were different. Though the unassuming voice of the author was absorbing, there were large areas that I could not relate to. It is the story of immigrants, those who have made conscious decisions to leave home. I have not seen anyone I know who had immigrated experience a sense of guilt and pain at being away from their family in India the way Ashoke and Ashima do. Gogol is distanced culturally and experientially from those like me who live in India. 

Ashoke wants to move on after a near fatal accident, he wants to go farthest away from the site of the accident. He leaves his large family of parents and five brothers and goes to the USA. He marries Ashima; his homesick wife misses her family in Calcutta, experiences pain at not being able to share the happiest moments of her life with her father, mother, brother and uncles. Gogol’s initial rejection of the world and value system of his parents seems unfair to all that Ashoke and Ashima struggled to create. 

I searched for the likes of Ashoke and Ashima among the people I know who have immigrated to the United States of A – friends and relatives. Most had gone abroad to pursue higher studies and then settled there with a good job. The young men came back home in search of brides, marriages were arranged in a month and they went back with a wife whose parents packed pots and pans, appalams, sambar and rasam  podis and  Sumeet mixie for the young couple to build a home and start  a family. The couple then sent tickets for the wife’s parents who crossed the seven seas to help their daughter in pregnancy and child birth. The duo then became trio, visiting home once in two years to carry out the prarthanis in various temples in South India. Grand parents visited them regularly, they returned after staying for four months when their visitor’s visa expired to bore relatives and neighbours with tales and photographs of their visits to the Niagara Falls, Smithsonian museum and the likes.  

I did not hear the immigrants I know express acute homesickness or alienation, the perpetual sense of unease that Ashima suffers (quite like the sickness during pregnancy) in a foreign land. The never share what it is for their children  to grow in US of A, these second generation kids who speak with a severe accent which their grand parents, uncles and aunts and cousins back in India find hard to follow. 

I am like the Uma Maima in the novel, to my nephews who live in the U S. Alas, Uma Maima’s world is not represented in the novel! There are only two vignettes of Uma Maima. She oversees the servants in her sprawling house (His aunt, Uma Maima, presides in the kitchen all morning, harassing the servants …”), and when Gogol attempts cross country running on the streets of Calcutta Uma Maima who is drying clothes on the terrace sends a servant to run along with him so that he does not get lost. 

I wonder why nobody writes about the Uma Maimas and Rana Mamas who stay back home to take care of old parents. Only immigrants seem to have a story to say, that too only writers seem to feel the need to negotiate their hyphenated identities as Indian-Americans ! 

Left Behind

She wanted to call him and ask him to push aside the lock of hair that had fallen on his forehead. She didn’t and this image of him stayed with her, her hands reached into the emptiness to brush aside the lock. 

His embalmed body was flown to Chennai from Frankfurt and she had flown from Singapore to Chennai on receiving the news. She had packed her clothes into a suitcase hastily. His bathrobe lay on bed and the faint smell of aftershave that he dabbed just before leaving remained in his bathroom. She closed her flat that still had his presence and flew with friends to Chennai on receiving the news of his death. 

She had looked at the world through his eyes. That was the first time she was travelling without him or her grown up daughter who was then studying in Chennai. Her husband had joked many times of having two children, one who has grown up and the other who will never grow up. 

She gazed into the empty darkness through the window of her flight. She looked keenly into the space and wondered if this was the emptiness that everyone disappears into after they die. Was her husband somewhere here? It was hard for her to develop this thought. 

She had seen him off at the elevator and had rushed to the balcony to see the car drive out of the apartment building. She lay on the bed that carried the warmth of his body, lazed around desultorily picking from the floor the things that he had strewn around as he hastily got dressed to take the early morning flight. 

She did not clean the apartment and spent the day biting into the left- over of previous night’s dinner. She micro waved the dosa and soaked it into cold coconut chutney and ate it. She sprawled on the large sofa in her housecoat and drained down mugs and mugs of filter coffee. She looked at the Singapore evening sky spill red wine laced with mauve at the edges, behind the high-rises. 

This was how she spent the time when her husband travelled. She did not call on friends, stayed up the whole day without cooking, boringly ran through magazines, surfed TV channels. She spoke to her daughter at 20.30 Singapore time. She did not bother to calculate the time zone of the cities her husband visited, he always called and spoke several times during his travels. She just waited, all activity called off when he was not near her.    

He had called soon after a meeting and said that that he was boarding the flight in a couple of hours and that he would reach Singapore in the early hours of Wednesday. It was still early evening, she had enough time to have an unhurried bath. She soaked herself for half an hour in the bath and rubbed her wet hair gently after she draped herself in her husband’s bath robe. She took time to choose her dress for the evening.  She wore a block printed Salwar Kameez that she picked up during one of her visits to Chennai; she sprayed perfume liberally and called her driver on the cell to get the car to the lobby. She drove to China Town which was a twenty minute drive from her flat. She went to the Indian store and bought a large bunch of Rajnigandha. The flowers weighed the stalks down and made it droop gently. Pollen settled on her fair skin with a few drops of water that the florist had sprinkled to stand the flowers fresh. She paid for the flowers and left the store.  On reaching home she put the flowers in the ceramic jar, she then opened the fridge to take stock of the vegetables to cook for the next day. She retired to bed leaving the light on in the sitting room. She stayed awake for long as the sounds of the night diminished, she followed a trail of light left on the wall by the headlight of a car turning around the corner of the road.  She plunged into deep sleep and was startled when the doorbell rang. She sat bolt upright and took a few seconds to orient herself. The time piece near her bed showed half past six. She cursed herself for oversleeping. It must be her husband, she went to open the door surprised at her husband for not calling her from the airport, which he normally did.

When she opened the door she found Anand and Ravi with their wives. So early in the morning, she wondered. No one generally called impromptu like this. Anand and Ravi were her husband’s colleagues. She invited them in and asked to be excused to rush in and brush her teeth. They did not reply, she went in thinking that their presence was odd at so early an hour. At the back of her mind she kept expecting a call from her husband.

She went to the kitchen to put milk on the stove to boil. She went to the sitting room. Anand’s wife came and sat next to her and held her hand. She found this strange. She sensed some misgiving, it filled the air around her, and she shivered a little at the oddness of the situation. She wanted to blot these people out of her existence and call her husband on the mobile. It was strange he did not call.

A hollow pain gripped her stomach, she looked searchingly at the four sitting around her. For a moment a strange thought ran though her brain. What had her husband to do with these four people who have barged into her house? She could not hold a single thought as she was getting restless. The thought that it was past her husband’s arrival time back home rattled her. She needed to be alone to figure out what delayed her husband. She needed to talk to him. 

Anand cleared his throat and started speaking to her gently, “I received a call late last night form Henrik.”  Henrik was her husband’s counterpart operating in Frankfurt. “Your husband felt uneasy just as he was boarding his flight. The airport authorities had given immediate medical help and moved him to a hospital. They called Henrik as that was the last person he had spoken to before taking ill.” 

She listened to this
as she would to a story, this as yet had nothing to do with her husband, and she was expecting his call anytime now. 

“The doctors say Srini had a massive heart attack, they ….” 

She silenced Anand mid way, “What?”

“Srini was very serious by the time they reached him to the hospital. The doctors did their best…”

A whip of cold air lashed her face, she woke up to the grammatical subtext. The subtext acted as a spoiler to the story, it let the story run ahead. At the same moment, the import of Anand’s unsaid text hit her, the line dividing Anand’s words and her life merged. She gasped and she wanted to ask Anand to stop. Words didn’t flow out. 

Anand said, “You have to be brave, Prema. Srini is no more.”

Prema made a rasping sound that was close to a laugh, the words that Anand said hung in the air, and it made no sense to her. She just stared for a few moments at these intruders who were messing her perfect morning. She felt the mess could be cleared, just make a few changes, go back a few minutes and have her husband call from the airport.

Prema cradled into herself, pulled her leg very close to her chest and sank her head on her knees. She experienced an agonising urge to have Srini hold her. A frightening darkness engulfed. Something snapped in her, a wave of terror tore through her. The muscles around her mouth contorted and the howl that rose from her stomach choked at the throat. She coughed it up loudly and ended up wailing as saliva spilled from the sides of her mouth. 

Anand and his wife comforted her, rocked with her as she cried. After a few minutes Anand said, “We have contacted Srini’s brothers in Chennai. They will tell your daughter about Srini. They want you to come over to Chennai. Henrick is flying Srini’s body to Chennai.”

Prema winced at the logistics of planning that men were capable of carrying out even when the gravest of catastrophe hits them.

Anand said “You have to speak to your daughter.” Prema shook her head. “Is there any one else in Chennai whom you think can comfort your daughter till we reach there?”

Prema suggested the names of her cousins and gave their phone numbers that she knew by heart. She recollected suddenly that one of her cousin’s numbers has changed, racked her brain where she had noted it down and fetched the number for Anand. 

Anand’s wife brought tea for everyone; the smell of boiled milk filled the house. The rays of the morning sun fell on the burgundy coloured Kashmiri carpet. Anand spoke to her cousins, she now got used to listening to “Srini is no more” that Anand repeated with every call he made. She sank her head on the sofa and closed her eyes. 

Anand then got busy booking air tickets to Chennai. A few more friends joined, the driver had come and taken the key for the car, and a few neighbours came and sat near Prema.  She heard the ring of puja bells —  Mukerjee’s morning arthi, thought Prema. She saw the young couple who lived at the flat opposite to hers return back after their early morning dash to the grocers down the street. Broccoli and lettuce spilled out of the large brown paper bag that the young wife carried. They were as always so self absorbed that they did not notice the crowd gathered at Prema’s flat.   

Prema noticed that nothing around her has changed; Mukerjees continue their puja uninterrupted; the gardener would have opened the sprinkler on the lawn. The routine that she noticed around her comforted her a little. She wished that people would not crowd around her, the crowd made her home appear like an alien space.

She went to the bedroom and lied down. She drew the Sholapur blanket over her.Her mind worked out what she did the previous day when her husband lay dying in the hospital. She recollected the call she received from Srini the previous evening and recreated the last minutes of her husband’s life from the events that Anand narrated. She always knew every move of her husband; now he seemed to have tricked her. She thought that her husband had excluded her from his final decision. By dying he had killed her as well, he had pulled her into deep darkness. She stared at the ceiling and stayed in a state of shock.

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This post is for someone I know, she lost her husband recently in tragic circumstances

If only I could ….

I lay on my father’s cot yesterday and looked up at the roof. I remembered my father lying there many nights, especially the difficult nights when he could not sleep and when memories of a beautiful life that he lived with my mother haunted him. These painful memories he learnt to live with, but these metamorphosed into fear and insecurity during the long nights that he could not sleep. Not all nights were bad, I think. Probably they were and he did not tell me, there were the nights when he could not handle it. He woke up hoary eyed, a sadness hung over his eyes as he went about his morning routine of brushing his teeth, drinking tea, those days he skipped his morning walks. I would ask him to go for a walk, but he stubbornly refused. Thinking back now, I regret that I had not done my best to help him. For instance, I could have gone for a walk with him, stayed up a few nights with him and shared a hot mug of Horlicks; I could have done a million things to make him feel that he was not locked out alone from humanity. I do not want to think of all that I have done for him, but of all that I could have done for him. He might not have lived a day longer, but I certainly owe him thousand fold more than what I gave.