Though no longer pregnant, she continues, at times, to mix Rice Krispies and peanuts and onions in a bowl. For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realise, 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 an ordinary life, only to discover that the 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.
Jhumpa Lahiri's first short fiction collection, The Interpreter of Maladies (2000), was one of the best impulse purchases I ever made: each subtly wrenching story was a small revelation of measured prose and luminous insight. Thanks to my chronically over-stuffed TBR shelves, it took me a little while to get round to reading her debut (and, to date, only) novel, The Namesake (2003), but I'm glad I did. On balance, it isn't as successful as Lahiri's short fiction: she is at her most effective when exploring, in detail, short periods of her characters' lives - quiet emotional crises that bubble up over several weeks, that is, rather than the (unavoidably soap operatic) ups and downs of decades; there is also, perhaps not unsurprisingly in a novel, more incident, not all of it satisfying. Yet this remains a sensitive and illuminating work.
Like the stories in Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake is concerned with the experiences of first- and second-generation Bengali immigrants to the US - specifically, with their experiences of East Coast university towns. The first part of the book focuses on Ashoke Ganguli, a graduate student at MIT, and his young, pregnant wife, Ashima. It is 1968 and they are recently married, and are still getting to know each other even as they're setting up home together in a new country. Ashoke has his work and his colleagues to ease some of the shock of transition. He also has something of a new lease on life, having survived a vividly-depicted train crash - and resultant serious injuries - seven years before. His salvation came mostly through the workings of chance; he was reading Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman at the moment of the crash, and was spotted in the wreckage because he had a page from the book clutched in his hand, which caught the rescuer's search lights:
None of this was supposed to happen. But no, he had survived it. He was born twice in India, and then a third time, in America. Three lives by thirty. For this he thanked his parents, and their parents, and the parents of their parents.
Ashima, though, is adrift, abruptly bereft of the extensive support network of family and friends she has been raised to expect:
"We are expecting a perfectly normal delivery, Mrs Ganguli."
But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she's arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. It's not so much the pain, which she know, somehow, she will survive. It's the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land. [...] She is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no-one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.
This and other passages struck a chord for me, recalling tales of my late grandmother's early experiences as an immigrant to the UK - specifically, her experience of going into labour alone in the flat she shared with my grandfather (on a long shift in the mines), lacking both access to a telephone, and enough spoken English, to even call an ambulance. (Her landlord eventually roused an ambulance; the paramedics arrived to find the job already over, and my grandmother lying exhausted beside her firstborn, whom she'd wrapped in the bed cover.)
When Ashima's son is born, she feels pity for him ("She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived"). One symptom of this deprivation is that the new child cannot be named immediately, as Ashoke and Ashima are waiting for a letter - long promised, and, it becomes apparent, long lost in the international mail - from his great-grandmother, which is to advise on what the name should be. He can be given a pet name,
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 persistent memory of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too that one is not all things to all people.
But he cannot yet be given a 'good name', the formal name by which will be known to the world ("on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories"); for this they must wait, because any link with the family so far away is too precious to abandon. Back in India, this delay would be less of a problem ("It wasn’t unusual for years to pass before the right name, the best possible name, was determined"), but in the US the customs are different, of course, and the child's pet name becomes, by default, his official name.
Thus their son is named Gogol. This is chosen by Ashoke, and even amid her loneliness and dislocation it brings Ashima some joy, as she recognises this very personal gift for what it is: "the name stands not only for her son's life, but her husband's". As he grows up, their son, of course, does not:
For by now, he's come to hate questions pertaining to his name, hates having constantly to explain. He hates having to tell people that it doesn't mean anything "in Indian".
It comes to stand instead - not least because Ashoke doesn't actually tell him the history behind the name - for the lack of communication between father and son, which only worsens as the years go by and that early promise of a bond between them, greeted with such pleasure by Ashima, is lost. When Ashoke gives his son a copy of his namesake's short stories, it means nothing to Gogol, and the gesture goes painfully unremarked.
But the name also stands, more broadly, for the gulf of expectation and experience that separates US-born Gogol (and his younger sister), desperate to fit in and live a 'normal' American life, from his Indian parents, who feel each step towards acculturation as a lost part of themselves. Ashima and Ashoke feel the separation from their families in India more keenly with the passing years, as their own parents' lives disappear at the other end of crackly, borrowed telephone lines, the deaths events reported from another time zone, not shared or relieved by the presence of relatives. Although they can occasionally afford to visit home, it only increases their loneliness when they return ("in spite of the hundred or so relatives they've just seen, they feel as if they are the only Gangulis in the world").
This, again, put me in my mind of my own grandparents: my grandmother, who came to England at the age of 18, had neither money nor leisure time to visit her family for several years (by which time she was already married, and had the aforementioned child); my grandfather, who came from the Ukraine, had even less chance to go home by the late 1950s, of curse. While I still find it hard to imagine the scale and finality of this utter removal from all that is dear and familiar, or the notion of going through so many life changes without being able to share them with my parents, reading The Namesake gave me some insight.
Of course, the experience of being a white granddaughter of immigrants in a majority-white country is very different from that of Gogol, in the novel - from having a heritage and a skin colour that forever mark you out as different in the country where you were born and raised. Ashoke and Ashima do adapt, in some senses, to their surroundings, even though doing so entails loss:
And yet to a casual observer, the Gangulis, apart from the name on their mailbox, [...] appear no different from their neighbours. [...] They learn to roast turkeys, albeit rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne, at Thanksgiving, to nail a wreath to their door in December, to wrap woolen scarves around snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and hide them around the house. For the sake of Gogol and Sonia they celebrate, with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati.
Nonetheless - as we come to see increasingly through Gogol's eyes - they can never completely 'fit in' in the white, middle class suburbia that Ashoke's career opens up to them. Small slights accumulate, and Gogol becomes aware that his parents' identity is at odds with, and viewed with hostility by, their adopted home:
For by now he is aware, in stores, of cashiers smirking at his parents' accents, and of the salesmen who prefer to direct their conversation to Gogol, as though his parents were either incompetent or deaf.
The racism, and its internalisation, is subtly portrayed, but pervasive. Gogol's inevitable period of teenage rebellion becomes focused on kicking against the things that make his parents (and himself) different. He resists their efforts to maintain a measure of Bengali culture in their American home. They speak Bengali to him, he speaks English back; he sighs, as only a teenager can, over the festivals they "force him, thoughout his childhood and adolescence" to celebrate (as he recalls it later); he resists pressures to date Indian and Indian-American women, and occasionally goes out of his way to shock his father with his choice of girlfriends. He even, albeit with his parents' blessing and not without a "twinge of sadness", changes his name (to Nikhil).
It is in this context that he really begins to feel what his parents have felt since they moved to the US: the same nagging conflict between past and present, between his upbringing and the life tries to make for himself:
[H]e doesn't feel like Nikhil. Not yet. Part of the problem is that the people who now know him as Nikhil have no idea that he used to be Gogol. They know him only in the present, not at all in the past. But after eighteen years of Gogol, two months of Nikhil feel scant, inconsequential. At times he feels as if he's cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different. At times he still feels his old name, painfully and without warning, the way his front tooth had unbearably throbbed in recent weeks after a filling.
What Gogol/Nikhil comes to realise, as we follow him through (the unsuccessful relationships of) his 20s and beyond, is that his parents' identity and heritage, the one marginalised and viewed with suspicion by the society around them, is shared by him. He cannot simply deny that part of him (not least because the American culture surrounding him will never let him forget that he is different); nor, at length, does he wish to. But their Bengali identity is not the whole story of who he is, either, because his experiences growing up in another country have shaped his expectations and selfhood in all sorts of difficult ways; this he discovers in a separate process of realisation and growing up, and another unsuccessful relationship. There are no straightforward answers here.
Ultimately, it seems, Gogol is unmoored, partaking of several worlds but never (allowed to be) entirely at home in any. In the end it seems his displaced, accidental name may indeed be the best possible one for him.