Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

"For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect." - The Namesake

The year 1968 - Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, bound together in an arranged marriage depart from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta to America. Packed with them are dreams, ambitions and cultural bonds which they never wish to let go. America to them is strange- it is not "Desh" and they try hard to make peace with their divided loyalties to India and America. The Ganguli’s fit readily into an academic community where they eventually find a group of other Bengalis, establishing a network of friends who gather for holidays and special occasions common to Bengali traditions. The book unfolds into a totally belivebale and relatable saga of a first generation immigrant family. Settling into a new life in a new land, soon they start a family of their own. And here's introducing Gogol Ganguli. That’s the name Ashoke and Ashima fill out in the forms for their firstborn when a letter from their grandmother that was supposed to inform the Gangulis of their newborn’s name, as per the Bengali tradition of the elders choosing a "good name" for the baby doesn't arrive in time. As the children grow up Ashima and Ashoke realise that raising their children, Gogol and Sonia in a different culture turns to be more challenging than they initially thought. As a child, Gogol loves the name his father gave him, preferring it to his formal name Nikhil. But as a gangly teenager growing into a suave architect, he starts to dislike it. His initial discomfort comes from the discovery of his namesake Russian author- Nikolai Gogol's idiosyncrasies. Later he wants to go by his formal name, Nikhil, to claim his own identity outside of his family's shadow. Just as he struggles with his name, Gogol wrestles with the worlds inside and outside his parents' home. But with his fathers sudden death, he begins on a journey of rediscovering his roots. But the journey goes much beyond a simple reclaiming of Gogol’s cultural heritage...

I have never been mesmerized by a book before this. Never ever! Maybe I can relate to it because I have been living in a foregin land for the past two years now, and India to me is still home. And yes, thats just how it will stay forever. I dislike people saying I'm of Indian origin, because it makes me feel like a hybrid, living in a foreign country. And thank you very much, but not only am I of Indian origin, but every part of me is Indian- the origin and my thoughts and all my actions! And it's not easy to live abroad. The book potrays just that. There is an intense pressure to be a part of two worlds. One which by all means is your world, a world that you were raised in, whose values and cultural roots your ground by; yet the other is the one you live in now. Both are dimensions of a life which have nothing to do with each other , yet are part of one person- YOU.

Today I am strangely aware of the things I live for- the family bonds, the friends who thought exactly like me, the culture that I'm growing to miss as the days go by, the Bollywood songs that still play on my car system. And then again, here I am in a foreign land, entering a world that I have little or no control over. A world that recognises me as just another foreigner. It's scary. And though I know that world tries very hard to take over my Indian mind, it hasn't suceeded just yet. My Indian roots are still thriving and green, and thats just how I intend to keep them. They will not shrivel and die because I won't let them. Ever. A bi-cultural life is rich but highly imperfect. After reading the book, I can safely conclude that while my life in a foreign country is highly rewarding for my career, it is founded on departure and deprivation. And that today brings to me the greatest sense of loss.

The fear Ashima feels everytime the phone rings in the middle of the night, like a siren of bad news from home. I can relate to that fear. Of being thousand of miles away, of not being able to be there when your needed most. I can relate to the helplessness when my friends call in the wee hours of the morning crying on the phone about break ups. There is just plain nothing I can do. I'm sitting miles away, in a country where nobody understands my fears or my ties.

Friends have become family. Which in a way is a great feeling, a feeling of belonging. But here I am in a country where family ties have no value. Just like Ashima, when I first moved out of home, I remember forming a large Indian group, meeting everyday, eating at each others houses- just to avoid eating alone at a table by yourself, spending entire weekends doing things together, watching Indian movies, cooking Indian food, going to buy Indian groceries, celebrating Indian festivals, the full clock works of being Indian. Today, I think I'm a little more relaxed on those terms, I have grown to befriend people of foreign origins, not agreeing to everything they say, but accepting it as a different culture. I would never embrace their culture, because that to me is alien. And as open minded as I get, some things will just always be out of bounds, because I do belive that I would rather be an Indian than an immigrant in terms of culture.

So after I read the book, which is also now a movie- I spoke to a lot of my close friends who like me have moved to different parts of the world, and they all echoed my thoughts. Everyone had gooseflesh at the end of the book/ movie and there was only one recurring thought, we need to go back before we start a family. Because challenging a foreign culture or the lack of it is difficult enough for adults, but subjecting your children to it is suicidal. And no matter how hard you try, you will always be a foreigner outside India- unfortunately blending with the crowd in terms of attire does not make you part of the crowd! I can't put into word my feeling after I've read the book and I do plan to watch the movie next week...

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