There are no surprises here. You have heard a similar story before, watched a movie on similar lines, and though you might not have crossed the seven seas to start a new life you can still relate to the story. So the familiarity of the story is the dampener here. But also the winner.
This is not a ‘never been told before’ story. In fact, the story closely resembles a book penned by another Indian author. When Shoba De’s Second Thoughts showcases the journey of a Bengali woman who moves to Mumbai after her marriage, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake tells the story of a woman (Bengali again) who comes to terms with her new life in the US. And the opening pages of the novel narrating the birth of a child has been seen before in Anita Pratap’s Island of Blood . (But the similarity with Island of Blood ends here. You can’t draw parallels with the storyline) Hence the author doesn’t stretch our imagination and take us to an unexplored territory. She merely puts to words emotions that have been living inside us. But it is this very familiarity that makes the novel appealing.
At some point each one of us might have faced the heartbreak of uprooting ourselves from a place where we were deeply rooted ( probably born, raised or spent the best years of life), and lived through the apprehensions about discovering, accepting and eventually loving or learning to love a world that has been alien hitherto. Jhumpa Lahiri captures this emotion beautifully. Ashima, one of the chief characters leads a life of constant regret. Despite having a supportive husband in Ashoke, she experiences an enormous sense of loss. And she lives with that sense of loss until the day she decides to leave US. And then when she finally gets to leave, she grieves for having to leave a land, where she, together with Ashoke build a home, a family, a life , a land where Ashoke breathed his last breath.
The characters in the novel are well etched. They are normal people with no out- of-the ordinary experiences, just trying to make the best out of the life they have. The story begins with the life of Ashoke and Ashima but later their son Gogol becomes the central character. Though reasons have been given for attaching so much significance to Gogol’s name (hence the title Namesake), I found the explanations unconvincing. Probably the author was trying to add a different dimension to a common NRI story.
Gogol’s unfulfilled love life is another aspect of the novel. He goes through a series of relationships and eventually marries a woman he loves. But the initial fondness turns into boredom first, and then resentment. Two people who fell so easily in love with each other, falls out of love as easily. But that’s what I liked about the ending of the book. The author kept Gogol’s love life hanging, reminding the readers that finding love is not the end of life (unlike in most movies/novels), but living with ur love is. Marriage and courting are different ball games altogether. Probably the author wanted to underline the instability of relationships. And with reference to Gogol’s divorce, Ashima mouths something like – “America’s common sense has taught them to separate” (can’t remember the exact line). Through Ashima’s words, the author tells us that if the divorce rates are comparatively lower in India, its not because we love our spouse any better than the Americans , but because we have been conditioned to live with resentment inside. We probably con ourselves into believing that we can still make it work if we try harder. Or worse still, we fear wagging tongues, being alone or like Ashima hinted, lack plain common sense. And we Indians believe in clinging on and not letting go.
The book is a bit of a drag in between, but ends on a beautiful, hopeful note. I read it because it was widely recommended. It is definitely one of those ‘feel good’ reads. Haven’t seen the movie yet. Need to catch it sometime. Just for Mira Nair’s sake.