As I finished the last line of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel - "The Namesake"- I, at last, felt a sense of relief. This, then- was the much talked about book, that has been read by thousands around the world, and has now been made into a movie.
The book has made me feel a rollercoaster of emotions. Happiness- when Gogol is born to Ashima and Ashoke, relief- when Ashoke survives the train accident so many years before his marriage, grief- at Ashoke's death, sadness- when Moushumi cheats on Gogol, nostalgia- at Ashoke and Ashima's fond memories of Calcutta, and a feeling quite inexplicable- at the closing part, when Gogol reads the story by Nikolai Gogol (one of the two men who gave him his name), in the book of short stories his father gave him so many years ago.
The book is so completely authentic about the Bengali culture and its many idiosyncrasies. For instance- Bengali wives never addressing their husband by name, but instead saying- "Ogo, shuncho?" (This part is one of my favourites in the book. I quote: "When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn't say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband's name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname, but refuses, for propriety's sake, to utter his first. It's not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or caress in a Hindi movie, a husband's name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke's name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as "Are you listening to me?") Another - our obsession with the 'good name' and the 'bad name'. ("In Bengali, the word for pet name is 'daknam', meaning literally, the name by which one is called, by friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private, unguarded moments. Pet names are a persisent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated.... Every pet name is paired with a good name, a 'bhalonam', for identification in the outside world. Consequently, good names appear on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories, and in all other public places. Good names tend to represent dignified and enlightened qualities. Pet names have no such aspirations. Pet names are never recorded officially, only uttered and remembered. Unlike good names, pet names are frequently meaningless, deliberately silly, ironic, even onomatopoetic.") And then of course, our endless love affair with syrupy rasogollas and other mishtis, our obsession with big family gatherings and addas, the various names we use for family members, Jhumpa Lahiri even goes into details about the bracelets Ashima wears on her wrist- the shona, shanka, pola and loha.
The writing is endearingly simplistic, without gigantic words, and lacking any kind of pretension whatsoever. Jhumpa Lahiri's ability to go pages and pages without any inkling of conversation proves that one does not need oodles of meaningless dialogues to build up characters. For one can surely build up characters from details about their thoughts, desires, regrets, and their everyday doings. And even though her novel is based mostly on a topic that has been dealt with again and again, she does not make it feel stale. Indeed, her writing feels as fresh as new hibiscus flowers.
The ending is touching. It's not a sad ending, but neither is it a happy ending. But it is an ending that leaves a lasting impression, makes you think, and feel an undefinable something. And even as you close the book, the last setting leaves its imprint in your mind. Gogol, in his old room, lying back on his bed, reading the book his father had gifted him so many years ago, while the party goes on downstairs.
"He turns to the first story. "The Overcoat". In a few minutes, his mother will come upstairs to find him. "Gogol," she will say, opening the door without knocking, "Where is the camera? What's taking so long? This is no time for books," she will scold, hastily noting the volume open against the covers, unaware, as her son has been all these years, that her husband dwells discreetly, silently, patiently, within its pages... He will apologize, put the book aside, a small corner of the page turned over to mark his place. He will walk downstairs with his mother, join the crowded party, photographing the people in his parents' life , in this house, one last time, huddled on the sofas, plates held in their laps, eating with their hands. Eventually, at his mother's insistence, he will eat as well, seated cross-legged on the floor, and speak to his parents' friends, about his new job, about New York, about his mother, about Sonia and Ben's wedding... As the hours of the evening pass he will grow distracted, anxious to return to his room, to be alone, to read the book he had once forsaken, has abandoned until now. Until moments ago, it was destined to disappear from his hands altogether, but he has salvaged it by chance, as his father was pulled from a crushed train forty years ago. He leans back against the headboard, adjusting a pillow behind his back. In a few minutes he will go downstairs, join the party, his family. But for now his mother is distracted, laughing at a story a friend is telling her, unaware of her son's absence. For now, he starts to read."