Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Book Review

I finished reading The Namesake while in Chennai on a teaching assignment. About the only time I can read a novel is when I am on the road. To read non-fiction at any other time seems to be a violation of time stewardship.

Sandy, my wife, who is a ferocious reader, consumed the first 75 pages before I left town. She said the character wasn’t interesting and she couldn’t get into it. Our friend Sharmila, who read it while in Japan, also said she didn’t care for the book as the author, Jhumpa Lahiri, was too detailed which distracted from the story. With “two thumbs down” you’d think I would have abandoned the project, but hey, I was going to be alone in my room for two weeks with nothing else to do, so why not?

As a student of culture, I enjoyed The Namesake. It’s a story about a Bengali family from Calcutta who moves to the U.S. in the ‘50’s and the struggles they faced as new immigrants. The main character is Gogol, their son, who was given this “good name” at birth. It was only meant to be a pet name until their grandmother in India sent his real name. That name was somehow lost crossing the Atlantic and the boy lives with Gogol until he is old enough to change it himself. The name Gogol is neither Indian nor American, but Russian, named after Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852), the Russian novelist, dramatist, satirist, founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature.

Lahiri’s book was interesting as it gives insights on how people from India cope with living overseas. They, like all immigrants, usually group together in ethnic coalitions rather than integrate into the larger society. This is still very much the practice today with most immigrants, especially with Indians who are more group oriented than individualistic American's living overseas. I found the main character, though hardly endearing, a fascinating study of “third culture kids” (TCK). Indian on the outside, mostly American on the inside, Gogol, like all TCK’s, struggles to find his true identity. Had the story continued, Gogol’s children would probably have embraced the culture of their grandparents, wanting to identify with their “roots.”

I have not read enough Indian novels to make judgment, but the few I have read all leave me thinking about one word…fatalism. Fatalism permeates the Hindu worldview. Why do peasants accept their life with resignation? It’s fate, there is nothing one can do about it. Why does the caste system, where a persons lot in life is predetermined, continue to prevail in this society? Their belief in dharma, that all creation must adhere to a sense of obligation and must fulfill his role in society, even as an outcast, somehow makes the pain of life bearable, though meaningless. As I read the last lines of this novel it left me neither happy nor sad, neither gratified nor disappointed. It just ended -- like life.

For an outsider wanting to learn the inner workings of culture, The Namesake is worth the read. If you’re looking for a Bollywood ending, I suggest you buy a copy of Hum Tum on DVD.