On The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
As I was reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, the cultural differences between the American culture in which I have been raised, and the Bengali culture that was so poignantly described stood out. The moment late in the book when Ashima heard her husband's words of love beween a man and a woman, and her immediate emotional respose was that this was not what she ever "heard nor expected to hear from her own husband,. This is not how they are." That moment created an emotional lens through which I read the entirety of the book. I began looking for clues that would show the unspoken emotional connection between the Ganguli family. I will describe three scenes that provided me with a this kind of understanding for the relationship between Ashoke Ganguli and Gogol Ganguli.
In order to understand Ashoke, one has to understand the story of his train accident. Potentially, I remember this scene because I have viewed the movie adaptation multiple times, but knowing Ashoke's history definitely played a part central to the book and his decision to lead his life afterwards in the US. The account of the accident (p. 13) emphasizes how Ashoke was a "man who has yearned for an education through books since childhood." We learn that his grandfather was a source of inspiration and educational challenge: "The books had been promised to Ashoke through his childhood and for as long as he could remember he had coveted them more than anything in the world." Ashoke learned to travel the world by books, learned to value books and modern independent life too. While on the train journey, he has Gogol's "The Overcoat" in a large volume with him. We are told "he had read "The Overcoat too many times to count, and certain sentences and phrases were embedded in his memory" (p. 14).
It was this story that saved Ashoke's life -- quite by chance. When the accident took place, Ashoke was reading. The searchteam found the injured man, as he raised his fist in the air while a lantern shined in his direction. As he lifted his hand, a crumpled page of "The Overcoat" fell out. I may not going to go so far as to say that education or reading saved Ashoke's life, but it certainly at that moment played a vital role, and his decision to travel for real intertwined with his value for reading and for the central sensitive character of the book. Ashoke is sensitive and kind to his wife and children and provides for them through his intellect.
I recall that scene because I feel it gives a rare glimpse into Ashoke's character. From the very beginning, he was described to us as an intellectual man, someone who thought outside of his culture, someone who wanted to learn more than from just the day-to-day activities. This moment led to the naming of his son, Gogol Ganguli.
The second scene which is very much linked to the first occurs when Ashoke is recalling to Gogol the events that led up to his naming Gogol. Gogol had not previously known about the train accident, or about why Ashoke named his son after the eccentric isolated author. Ashoke recounts the tale (pp. 123-24). The moment that held me, however, occurred when Gogol questioned his father about whether or not the naming prompted pain, horrible memories, and emotional trauma. One could understand that question, and I think it was completely justified. Ashoke, however, shows more of his character and his love for his son when he says, "Not at all ...you remind me of everything that followed." Ashoke was able to transfer the painful event into a somewhat happy memory. Without that book, Ashoke would not have lived, nor been a father. By giving homage to Nikolai Gogol, Ashkoke is saying "thank you" and from then on tried to live moments to the fullest, and trying to explain this to his son that he named him after the story that saved his life.
The last scene that made an impact on me happened when Gogol visits his father's apartment after Ashoke died. Throughout the novel, Gogol had a juvenile approach to his father, and did not seem to fully understand that his father was another individual who had chosen to keep both aspects of Bengali life and US culture. Gogol's love for his father is not apparent in the book until this scene. The text does describe more of Gogol's inner ilfe and also emphasized things we don 't see so easily: like his father's clothes which were given to him at the morgue. In short precise sentences, each article of clothing is described, and it's the style as well as the connections between the clothes and family and memories each presents, and sense of a vanished body too. Gogol is moved close to crying when he arrives at his father's apartment when he sees the space and other belongings. And he remembers his father's voice: "He cannot remember the last time he and his father had spoke. Two weeks ago. Four?" The novel goes on to show Gogol imagining his father's daily activities.
Then we see the scenes of the mourning process of a Bengali son. This scene was dramatic and clinched how Gogol at long last began to connect to his father in many more ways. Once again we are shown that despite the phrase, "I love you" not being expressed, this family had deep abiding love for one another. They lacked the ability to verbalize because that's not in the traditions which emphasize ritual.
This novel was not romance. Its emotions are presented in implicit and other kinds of stories than romantic love -- which actually fails in the novel in Gogol's case twice. In US culture we so emphasize the verbalizing of love and romance itself, but here we see another culture's way of experiencing deep emotions and the novel does argue on behalf of traditional culture. To be fair, part of Gogol's lack of romantic success is that he is not really wholly assimilated, does not want the more superficial forms of success, does not turn to signs of wealth but values instead hard work in architecture. But even there there is a critique of the modern world. Moushumi and also Ruth (the woman Gogol has an affair with) stand for it, and the book's flaws might be said not to have given their sides of the story sufficiently and to have caricatured Maxine's family. We have only one female ideal developed thoroughly, Ashima, but I am moving into another paper here.
*This paper was written in class as part of a final exam.