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 ! 

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4 thoughts on “Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’: An Invocation Of The Names Unsung

  1. for starters, I loved this book. I hope movie will do justice to this book and since it is Mira Nair’s hopes are even higher.

    Now to your point, ofcourse there are book(s) about Uma/Rana Maimas, I recommend (if you haven’t already raed ): A Fine Balance, Family Matters
    you would agree many can relate to these books but The NameSake is romanticized version of 2nd generation Desi’s struggle for identity(different target audience).
    hope Iam making senses..!!

    /Yuva

    btw: also, all 3books are in my book review at http://toogood2read.blogspot.com/ hope that interests you.

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