Out of Sorts

Jessica Olin

  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
    Flamingo, 291 pp, £15.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 00 225901 X

Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, Interpreter of Maladies (2000), was a collection of spare short stories, whose characters, many of them Indian, exist in a sort of permanent exile, living in America but never fully belonging to it. In her sprawling first novel, The Namesake, she revisits this territory and attempts to move beyond it.

The book opens onto a dingy domestic scene: Ashima Ganguli, heavily pregnant, stands in her kitchen and looks at her cooking utensils, ‘all slightly coated with grease. She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her sari.’ She has travelled a long way, from her parents’ elegant home in Calcutta to wintry Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she waits impatiently for blue aerogrammes from her family and makes friends with Bengalis she meets by chance in the street. Together, they eat ‘watered-down curry off paper plates’ and argue about Indian politics. Being a foreigner, Ashima declares, is a makeshift existence, 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.’

The man she married and followed to America, Ashoke, had his life changed by his love of reading, and by one story in particular: Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’. When he was 22, on a train from Calcutta to Jamshedpur to visit his grandfather, he met a businessman named Ghosh who had lived abroad and ‘spoke reverently’ of England. Ghosh asked if he had seen much of the world; Ashoke said he’d been to Delhi. ‘Ghosh extended his arm out the window, flicking the glowing tip of his cigarette into the night. "Not this world,” he said, glancing disappointedly about the interior of the train . . . "England. America.”’ Ashoke refused Ghosh’s offer of a game of cards, and picked up his favourite book, staying up deep into the night, ‘immersed in the sartorial plight of Akaky Akakyevich, lost in the wide, snow-white, windy avenues of St Petersburg’. Then the train crashed. Ashoke, one of the few passengers who was still awake, survived, and during his convalescence he resolved to move as far away as possible.

Much later, in Boston, Ashima’s pregnancy announces itself ‘one steel-coloured winter’s morning when the windows of the house were being pelted with hail’ and she spits out her tea, accusing Ashoke of mistaking the salt for sugar. The baby’s name has already been chosen, by Ashima’s grandmother, who has written it down and posted it from across the world without revealing it to anyone. The letter never arrives, however, and Ashima and Ashoke have to come up with something for the birth certificate. But they aren’t worried: Bengali tradition provides an opportunity to lessen the weight of the decision by picking a pet name, an intimate form of address, different from the official ‘good name’ used on legal documents and school records. Pet names are ‘frequently meaningless, deliberately silly, ironic, even onomatopoeic’. Ashoke chooses the name Gogol, in honour of the night he was given a second chance.

When Gogol is three, Ashoke is offered a position teaching at a university outside Boston, and the Gangulis become somewhat atypical suburbanites. Gogol reluctantly attends Bengali classes, and during puja ceremonies, ‘scheduled for convenience on two Saturdays a year’, he and his younger sister are ‘dragged off to a high school or a Knights of Columbus hall overtaken by Bengalis, where they are required to throw marigold petals at a cardboard effigy of a goddess and eat bland vegetarian food’. As a boy, Gogol doesn’t mind his unusual name, although he recognises his difference. On a class trip to see a famous writer’s grave, the students are instructed to make crayon and newspaper rubbings of names on the gravestones. The other children search for their own names, but Gogol gravitates towards the odd and obsolete: ‘Abijah Craven’, ‘Peregrine Wotton’, ‘Ezekiel and Uriah Lockwood’. By the time he reaches high school, he has grown increasingly uncomfortable in his own skin: his name ‘manages . . . to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear’. On his 14th birthday his father gives him a copy of ‘The Overcoat’, and he is relieved to see that he bears no resemblance to the author illustration, with its ‘foxlike’ face, ‘velvet jacket, billowy white shirt and cravat’. He goes so far as to blame his name for his inability to ask girls out: ‘No one takes me seriously,’ he tells Ashoke. And sometimes the outside world seems only to confirm his paranoia; witness the delirious spectacle of his junior-year English teacher reading aloud to the class from a biography of his namesake:

Gogol’s life, in a nutshell, was a steady decline into madness. The writer Ivan Turgenev described him as an intelligent, queer and sickly creature. He was reputed to be a hypochondriac and a deeply paranoid, frustrated man. He was, in addition, by all accounts morbidly melancholic, given to fits of severe depression. He had trouble making friends. He never married, fathered no children. It’s commonly believed he died a virgin.

It’s an inspired, loopy scene, as Gogol listens, horrified, ‘convinced that the entire school is listening’ – and a welcome break from Lahiri’s usual gravitas. Spurred on by an article in Reader’s Digest entitled ‘Second Baptisms’, Gogol decides to address the problem in a court of law, becoming, for official purposes, Nikhil. Lahiri, however, continues to refer to him as Gogol throughout most of the rest of the book.

As a college student, Gogol follows a familiar trajectory, growing a goatee, smoking Camel Lights and discovering Elvis Costello. Lahiri dutifully lists his courses and love affairs. Gogol loses his virginity ‘at a party at Ezra Stiles, with a girl wearing a plaid woollen skirt and combat boots and mustard tights’. He ‘dashes into Newbury Comics, buys himself London Calling and Talking Heads: 77 with his birthday money, a Che poster for his dorm room’. The brand-name specifics serve little purpose other than to locate the story in a particular time and place, and stand in contrast to the romantic, fable-like quality of Ashima and Ashoke’s own stories. Lahiri’s habit of overloading the details becomes even more pronounced when Gogol moves to New York and becomes an architect. His next stab at finding an identity comes when he meets Maxine Ratliff, first encountered at a party arguing about a Buñuel film. He is equally seduced by her wealthy, seemingly untroubled parents. Almost immediately, he is ‘effortlessly incorporated’ into their lives; Maxine takes him shopping at ‘stores they must be buzzed into, for cashmere sweaters and outrageously expensive English colognes’; at Christmas, she gives him a set of house keys ‘on a silver Tiffany chain’. Perhaps Lahiri, too, is just ‘the tiniest bit in love’ with their lifestyle, as we are treated to page after page of osso buco, single malt Scotch, French chocolate, and thin pieces of steak ‘rolled into a bundle and tied with string, sitting in a pool of dark sauce, the green beans boiled so that they are still crisp’. This is an upscale bohemia in which characters called Astrid and Esme make statements such as ‘I’ve been meaning for weeks to buy myself some sunflowers’ and seem to exist on Pernod and choucroute. Lahiri isn’t wholly uncritical of her characters’ affectations, but her exhaustive cataloguing of their lifestyle is distracting.

When a family crisis abruptly ends this idyll, Gogol drifts again, until his mother suggests he phone up an old family friend, a young woman who has also recently suffered a loss. At first, Gogol is reluctant, remembering her as an uptight schoolgirl with a British accent and a book in her hand at parties. The memory is misleading, of course: she is now messy, sexy Moushoumi, with her chignon, Dunhill cigarettes and ‘slightly overpowering’ perfume ‘that makes him think of wet moss and prunes’. Her chequered past includes a broken engagement and a sentimental education in Paris; she has successfully reinvented herself in a way that Gogol, despite his name change, has failed to do. When she betrays him, it seems only natural. Lahiri’s portrayal of Moushoumi’s inner life is rich and complex, and there is a heightened sensuality in her writing. This is Moushoumi standing in her lover’s apartment, waiting for him to return: ‘The sun is directly behind her, and the shadow of her head spreads across the thick, silken pages, a few strands of her hair strangely magnified, quivering.’

In The Namesake, Lahiri addresses many of the preoccupations she introduced in Interpreter of Maladies. ‘A Temporary Matter’ concerns the estrangement of a young married couple; ‘Sexy’ describes an extramarital affair. Several of the stories are set in and around Boston, populated by characters who, like Ashima and Ashoke, have come as adults from India to America: a husband working at a university, a wife adjusting to an isolated life she never expected. In The Namesake Lahiri reworks some of her earlier scenes: a first experience of a New England winter; an Indian woman walking along the beach in a sari. At her best, she evokes the haphazard way cultures crash up against each other and produce something new; the Gangulis’ improvised Christmas tree, for example, is decorated with ornaments made by Gogol and his sister, Sonia, in elementary school: ‘construction-paper candlesticks, Popsicle-stick god’s eyes, glitter-covered pine cones. A torn Banarasi sari of Ashima’s is wrapped around the base. At the top they put what they always do, a small plastic bird covered with turquoise velvet, with brown wire claws.’

In both books Lahiri demonstrates an almost photographic visual sense; she imagines every object in a room. Descriptions in Interpreter of Maladies are often playful, exact detail with a romantic flourish:

He was a compact man, and though his feet were perpetually splayed, and his belly slightly wide, he nevertheless maintained an efficient posture, as if balancing in either hand two suitcases of equal weight. His ears were insulated by tufts of greying hair that seemed to block out the unpleasant traffic of life. He had thickly lashed eyes shaded with a trace of camphor, a generous moustache that turned up playfully at the ends, and a mole shaped like a flattened raisin in the very centre of his left cheek.

In her short stories, her manner is lighter, looser; there’s room to breathe. But in The Namesake the sheer amount of information has a tendency to stifle.

In writing this novel about an unremarkable man, Lahiri attempts to show that events are both random and apparently unavoidable. By the accretion of detail, she hopes to create the feeling and texture of a life. Gogol’s alienation isn’t the fault of his name or even of growing up in suburban America with Indian parents: it’s the effect of being a sensitive person in the world. Ashoke, reading about poor Akaky Akakyevich, is ‘haunted’, feeling the story ‘shedding light on all that was irrational, all that was inevitable’. His son is someone whose life seems to happen to him; perhaps his response is realistic, even appropriate, given his circumstances. But ‘haunting’ – now, that’s something else.