Saturday, 23 March 2019

Book Review: My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Book Review: My Antonia, by Willa Cather

I've never been to Nebraska. Couldn't point it out on a map if I had to. I don't feel too bad about that, because, you's not like most Americans could either. It's a typical 'flyover' state, large rural expanses, minimal population (16th by Area, 37th by population) and not much to distinguish it from the rest of the mid-west. But to those who live there, and lived there, it must be home, and home is never insignificant. Home is always unique.

Willa Cather's' My Antonia' is a heartfelt ode not just to Nebraska and the prairies, but to the concept of 'home', of youth and first love.

Through the narrator, Jim Burden and the Antonia (Shimerda) of the title, Cather constructs a story without a real plot but with a lot of story; a narrative of intersecting lives that never quite come together other than in brief, shining moments of tranquility, conflict, remorse and love. 

Slowly tracing the life of the orphaned Jim through the heroes of his childhood, the harsh winters on a Prairie farm, the struggle between acquired 'class' and inherent desire for joy, offering glimpses of Antonia's struggle to settle down into an ‘American’ life, adjust to the realities of her life, the losses she faces with quiet, powerful dignity, Willa Cather paints a moving portrait of lives that were destined to grow apart but never lost their love for each other.

The supporting cast is memorable too, whether it's the old-world grace of Mr, Shimerda or his wife's loutishness, the villainous Wick Cutter or his toxic-dependent wife. She retains a special love for the 'farm girls', the 'hired hands', the ones who came from afar to make their lives in early-20th century America, and set down roots there. Tiny Soderball, the 'Bohemian Marys', Antonia and Lena Lingaard each show in their different ways, aspects of womanhood shaped by toil, cowed by circumstances, but never without hope and happiness. Antonia, of course, as the heroine stand out, but Lena too gets her moments under the sun, and both feel alive and real, portrayals of nuanced, complicated womanhood. 

Lena, indolent, seductive, slandered far and wide, drawing men under her spell without even trying, but virtuous as only a woman of principle can be; Antonia, animated, beautiful, adored by one and all, fated to disgrace and strong enough to rise above it. 

I've known a Lena Lingaard, I've known an Antonia, drawn from landscapes far removed from the western prairies, but no less remarkable, no less strong. Willa Cather captures their natures, their beauty, their power as she does their caprices. Perhaps they represent the country and the changing seasons; harsh and lovely in turns, pliant and stubborn in turns, but never less than magnificent.

The book ends on an open, uncertain note, the loss of innocence and childhood mitigated by the emergence of a new generation, just as spring's flowers supplant winter's bones. Yes, Jim can never go back again, for Optima dies prima fugit; in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee, but at the end, Jim Burden's Antonia still stands tall. 

She is older, perhaps very little wiser, her beauty is a thing of the past, but her strength still resplendent. For she is more than a woman, just as the book is about more than what is written on the page. She is womanhood, and the earth, and nature, the loves and losses of childhood, and she remains, like My Antonia, 'battered, but not diminished'.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Book Review: Help the Witch, by Tom Cox

Book Review: Help the Witch, by Tom Cox

When I joined Twitter a few years ago, my hellacious cat, Ser Pounce-a-lot ensured that I followed several luminaries of the feline twitter-verse. He assured me that about 40% of the non-pornographic traffic on the WWW is cat-related and as such, if I wanted to stay abreast of current trends, following prominent cat celebrities was absolutely essential. 

One of the most interesting cat celebrities turned out to be @MySadCat, a.k.a The Bear, a mournful black senior-citizen feline, whose philosophical, poetic Twitter feed was a source of much joy. Occasionally, The Bear would mention that he had under his wing a human, an author named Tom Cox, and he shared the said human with three other cats—Shipley, who swore a lot, Ralph, who was a rockstar-cat, and Roscoe, a businesswoman-cat.

Following Cox’s Twitter feed and reading his work on his website was a joy, for he was clearly a seriously talented writer, combining wit, humour and quirkiness with a taste for the slightly macabre that made his work unpredictable in outcome, but always enjoyable.

Help the Witch, Cox’s first short-story collection, came out in October 2018 and while I bought it almost immediately, it took me till a recent train journey to finally read it, and it turned out to be…well, different.

Help the Witch begins in an epistolary format, with a narrator excerpting from his diary about moving into a new home in the north of England. Gradually, two neighbours are revealed, his landlord and a tenant farmer, and the narrator comments on the mysterious behaviour of his cats as well as the tendency of his wooden Owl figurine to end up in the trash. The village itself has a darker past than is at first apparent, and by the time the source of the strange happenings around the narrator are revealed, you settle in for what looks like being a very different sort of spooky novel…

And then it becomes something else entirely.

For Tom Cox is clearly not writing to his audience, even if he is writing for one. Help the Witch is, nominally, a collection of short stories, but it is not quite that simple. All conventional ideas about how a collection should be compiled are thrown out of the window, and stories jump from horror to humour, from charming ghost stories to slice-of-life narratives, from first-person to omnipresent third-person viewpoints. Through all of it, the only constant is Cox’s amazing ability to pitch the language in just the right way to keep a reader interested in the moment. 

That said, the sheer non-linear, unstructured nature of the stories and the book overall, is likely to be a turn-off for some readers. The horror elements are unconventional, and Cox’s humour relies on absurdity and clever turn of phrase rather than satire or situation. What holds the disparate tales together is their deep love for the environment from which they spring; a viewpoint that sees nature as neither a deified mother-figure or an unimportant part of the background, but as a living, breathing element in symbiotic co-existence with us. Sometimes, she is scary, and sometimes, she is stunningly beautiful, and that, really, is what Cox brings out best in his writing.

Help the Witch left me smiling, and even from a third of the way across the globe, the environs and people Cox wrote about came to life very vividly. All said and done, a quirky, meandering trek through a fascinating corner of the world that I would only recommend to those who don’t mind getting their brain slightly scrambled by the end.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Book Review: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, by Manu Joseph

Book Review: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Manu Joseph thinks you are trash.

It does not matter if you’re male or female, young or old, rich or poor, upper caste or lower, or somewhere in the middle of each duality; he thinks you are trash.

If it’s any comfort, he thinks he’s trash, too.

Why does it matter what Manu Joseph thinks, though? 

Fair question, that. He’s a journalist, as are many others, and not being on TV, is not important enough to issue certificates of nationalism either. So why does his opinion matter?

It matters because he has a voice and he is not afraid to use it. It has become quite common among right-wing commentators to brand writers as ‘liberals’ and lump them into a corner alongside the ‘intellectuals’, whose opinions must be discounted as driven by ideology. This is quite ridiculous, really, because India’s greatest literary giant, Chetan Bhagat, has broadly been a cheer-leader of the current government, as has Amish Tripathi, which makes it quite surprising that the ‘writers’ are reviled thus.

But Manu Joseph, ah well, now that’s another matter. He does hate the right-wing, you know. Enough to make them the apparent antagonists of his book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Indeed, on the surface of it, this short novel, featuring two quite sympathetic female protagonists and two quite unsympathetic male protagonists, seems to be an attack on the current dispensation. Thinly-veiled references to the Great Leader Modi, his caporegime Amit Shah and the mystical AK Doval abound. The extent to which the party and more importantly, the RSS, have infiltrated higher echelons of the security apparatus is hinted at, and much of the set-up of the story would, or should, make a reader nod his head in quiet agreement—tinged with pride or disgust, perhaps.

So what’s the story of Miss Laila?

Given that much of Joseph’s non-fiction writing lacks a comprehensible argument, flow or point, it is important to mention here that, short though it is, this novel does have a story. But to talk about Miss Laila’s story would be to give away much of what makes the book so interesting. Suffice to say that it exists. 

It is based on a not-so-recent event that was fairly controversial when it occurred—back when there needed to be a reason for killing a Muslim—and constituted a minor blip in the meteoric rise of India’s man of destiny. But I am getting ahead of myself. Miss Laila doesn’t appear in the narrative till much later.

Instead, we are introduced first to Akhila Iyer, stand-up comedienne and maker of prank videos. A minor tremor in Mumbai leads to Akhila venturing to check on the damage in the neighbourhood. Instead, she ends up embroiled in a strange, complex terror plot, becoming the only connection the ‘establishment’ has to a member of a terrorist sleeper cell. 

Then there is the erudite old bachelor Professor Vaid, the prominent intellectual backbone of the Sangh, able to articulate more shades of bigotry in one line than his foot-soldiers can through essay-length Facebook posts. 

Finally, there is Mukundan, the government heavy in charge of tailing Miss Laila,  when she is revealed to be armed and dangerous, who is not quite sure if he’s driven by duty or ideology and is apparently trying to be a decent bloke according to a very flexible definition of decency.

As Akhila zips between her present mission and her chequered past, as the Professor expounds mentally on the various shades of indoctrination that he has at his command and as Mukundan debates the ethics of premeditated murder versus accidental collateral damage, we find that we are laying bare not just a one-time political hot potato, but the casual bigotry that infects our society and the ease with which institutions, scruples and laws can be subverted and brought to serve a toxic, hate-filled ideology.

The characters follow their pre-ordained literary paths, converging into an unexpected ending that is suitably disturbing. Whether it leaves room for hope, or is a monument to despair is something that I think an individual reader will have to decide for himself.

Oh, and it reminds the reader that Manu Joseph thinks he’s trash. 

You see, the right-wing reactionaries and the bigots and xenophobes are the obvious targets of Joseph’s words. But his sharper weapons—his satire and his cutting wit—are reserved for the other side of the aisle. Left-leaning writers, rich upper-caste liberals who sympathise with peasants, self-proclaimed male feminists, all the apparently well-meaning members of the chattering classes are skewered and roasted with far more gusto than the Professor and his cadres. One can almost visualise the pleasure in the writer’s face as he attacks the leftists and the liberals (who are not, contrary to what your WhatsApp forwards tell you, always the same people), the NGO-types and the intellectuals.

However, the great weakness is Miss Laila remains its lack of intensity. Hovering over the political and social implication of what he writes, Joseph steadfastly refuses to delve deeply into any of the issues he raises, whether the hypocrisy of the intellectual class or the depravity of the religious ideologues. Despite the felicity with language, the pacing, and a proven ability to use words to evoke an emotional response in readers, Joseph steps back and avoids making it truly hit home in the way he surely could.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to say that, though. A writer, especially one as good as Joseph, is entitled to write what he wants, and his frankness and willingness to speak the truth as he perceives it is worthy of appreciation for its own sake. To expect more, to want a more compelling, more evocative narrative from him is like asking a Wizard not to be late—a Wizard, as we know, is never late; nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to—and we must trust that Joseph gives his readers precisely as much as he means to.

After all, he thinks we are trash, so why should he give us more? 

Buying Links: 

That's right, you're trash.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Book Review: Death Watch, by Ari Berk

Book Review – Death Watch, by Ari Berk

We have always been fascinated by ghosts. In myth and legend, art and religion, they come to frighten, sometimes to amuse, always to raise questions about our own mortality. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father that sets in motion the events of Shakespeare’s famous play, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, that enliven Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.So when Aindrila Roywas kind enough to gift me a book whose central theme appeared to be ghosts, I settled myself down for what I hoped would be a grand read in that hoary tradition. 

I was not disappointed.

In ‘Death Watch’,Ari Berkpresents a stirring, creepily atmospheric tale of the living and the dead, and those whose job it is to take souls from the land of the one to the other. Drawing upon various ancient and medieval mythologies and more modern beliefs, the book takes the readers on a truly goosebumps-inducing journey over the course of its 500-odd pages. 

Silas Umber is an introverted American teenager who does not seem to be particularly unusual for his type—shy, believing in imaginary friends, having few in real life, and caught in the middle of his parents’ unhappy marriage. His father Amos is a mortician, and his mother Dolores a housewife, and while they live in the town of Saltsbridge, his father’s work usually takes him to Lichport, a nearby coastal town where Silas was born.

But when his father disappears suddenly, Silas is forced to confront the reality that perhaps his father was something much more than a mortician, and his mother is little more than a barely-functioning alcoholic. As their money runs out, Silas and Dolores have to return to Lichport to stay with Amos’ elder brother, Charles. Silas finds himself distrusting his uncle and the more he meets and befriends the other people of Lichport who knew his father, the more he learns about the line of work he has been born into—for the Umbers are an old family, and for long have had the responsibility of easing the passage of the living to the world of the dead, and other things besides.

In Berk’s deft prose, Lichport itself comes alive as a vast sprawling necropolis, a town dedicated to the dead and those who linger beyond death. Silas, as the heir to the Umber profession, is received by the town as one of its own, and as he takes on, literally and metaphorically, his father’s mantle, we are taken with him on a journey where the borders between life and death blur in ways that are often sad, and sometimes frightening. 

Here we have the lovely Bea who Silas loses his heart to, the strange Mrs Bowe and her ghost lover, Mother Peale of the Narrows, ever on the lookout for the Mist Ship, which comes to take the souls of the damned, the three women of the Lichport Sewing Circle, who weave a tapestry and unweave it as events unfold. But just as much character comes from the Umber House, the Beacon HillNewfieldswith its giant bronze lion, the millpond and the Narrows where the Sorrowsman wails out his horrifying tale.

The book is essentially about Silas’ search for his missing father, and to some extent about his relationship with Bea, but those end up being like a hiking trail—existing mostly to give us an opportunity to revel in the beauty of the world Berk creates. Indeed, so immersive is the world of Lichport that as a reader one can almost forget, at times, that there is the matter of Silas’ father to clear up; it seems almost secondary to the broader story about what death is, and what it means to ‘Rest in Peace’.

Despite the morbidity of the subject, Silas is a character who embodies hope, and has a deep-rooted desire to make the world of both living and dead better. His enduring love for his father, his simple and almost-pathetic feelings for Bea, even after he realizes who she is, all make for a likeable protagonist, while the handling of the subject means that even over its considerable length, the narrative rarely becomes boring, even if there are passages where very little seems to happen.

All said and done, Death Watchis an enjoyable read, especially for those who enjoy horror (though you know, probably not at night in an empty house and so on). It is possible that removing a POV or two might have made for a tighter story, but that will always be a matter of opinion. Also, some aspects, such as Silas’s relationship with Bea and the significance of the Mist Ship, are perhaps not as well-explored or as well-concluded as I might like, but with this being the first of a trilogy, perhaps these are to be seen in more detail later. This does not mean that the book does not work well stand-alone, because it does, but it has certainly also piqued my interest to read its sequels. 

Ari Berk deserves praise for his handling of characters and settings, for weaving myths that we know in a refreshing way and for taking a subject of such morbidity and managing to write a story that feels alive. None of the horror relies on cheap tricks or gimmicks, and like its characters who linger beyond death, Death Watch is a book that seems determined to stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Buy the book here:

Images from

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Of Greatness, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Baz Luhrmann

Of Greatness, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Baz Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby, as most people know, is a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann.

It is also, as most people also know, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the foremost authors of the first half of the 20th century.

I read 'Gatsby' a long time ago, and I still have memories of the freshness of the prose (though I was reading from a well-worn book that had once belonged to my uncle), the natural-ness of the writing and how Fitzgerald could careen from the sordid to the sublime through the power of his words. For a long time to come, I could recall the imagery of the green light glimpsed through the fog at the end of Daisy's dock, the fantastic parties at the Gatsby mansion, and the spooky eyes of TJ Eckleberg overlooking the Valley of Ashes. 

And yet, having seen at least two Luhrmann films, I had a disinclination to see this book, that I had loved so much, in its film adaptation.

The reason for this? First and foremost, ‘Moulin Rouge’, which I saw in a small theatre in Bandra with one friend whose defining characteristic is to be stoic to the point of sometimes resembling a tree, and another whose idea of high art was ‘Comedy Circus’. The former watched in silence and maintained that silence to the point of waving us good-bye after the film, while the latter kept his gimlet eye fixed upon the acres of cleavage on display on the screen and seemed to remember nothing else after. That film, a regurgitation of colour and hamming onto the screen in a way that tries so hard to be beautiful that it could only fail, stands as a reflection of how an otherwise ordinary film can be uplifted by a brilliant performance. I am referring, of course, to Nicole Kidman, who played Satine with such sensitivity and skill that the fact that she wasted that performance on this film was a bigger tragedy than what was depicted on-screen.

Secondly, of course, ‘Australia’, in which even Kidman’s talent and Hugh Jackman’s charm cannot deflect for long from the tiresome mish-mash of tropes and stereotypes that it is.

But Netflix, in its infinite wisdom, decided that Gatsby was the sort of film I’d like to see, and since DiCaprio’s visage, holding up that champagne bottle, had some sort of psychic hold over me, I ended up clicking through, and seeing the film in three or four instalments over a week.

It begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a nursing home, on a typewriter, writing out the events that will constitute the film, and one quickly realises that not only does this give Luhrmann the ability to insert passages from the book verbatim into his film by having Carraway narrate them, but is also the exact same framing device he used for Moulin Rouge. We are introduced to Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan). Daisy is Nick’s cousin, Tom is a wealthy old-money heir, and they live across the bay from Nick’s little outhouse-cottage. Nick himself is not quite as rich and has to make his living working in the bond markets on Wall Street, while the Buchanans appear to live off their inherited wealth in a gorgeous life of ennui. Nick is also introduced to Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a friend of Daisy’s and a well-known golfer. 

All the while, a great mystery is kept up about Nick’s neighbour, however, a fabulously wealthy young man named Jay Gatsby who has never been seen in person, but whose mansion hosts the most incredible parties, attended by all of New York’s bold and beautiful. It is at one of these parties, to which Nick seems to be the only man with a proper invitation, that he meets Jordan Baker again and then, his host, played with typical earnestness by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Nick quickly becomes friends with Gatsby, who takes him to the City to meet his friends in a speakeasy behind a barbershop, introducing him to his friend Wolfsheim (a cameo from Amitabh Bachhan). It’s the first hint Nick gets that Gatsby might not have made his money through strictly legal means, and also that some parts of the story he tells about himself may be untrue. Tom Buchanan also seems keen to befriend Nick and even takes him along on a romp with his mistress Myrtle(Isla Fisher), a car mechanic’s wife who lives above the garage in the ‘Valley of Ashes’, a stretch of sordid, slovenly land between the elegance of where the Buchanans and Gatsby live and the glitzy, looming skyscrapers of the city; a town marked by the tall billboard advertising the services of TJ Eckleberg, Oculist (optometrist), which shows a pair of bespectacled eyes looking down over the whole expanse.

The crux of the film is Gatsby—his past, his wealth and his feelings for Daisy—but it is also the relationship between Tom and Daisy, with Tom’s infidelity and Daisy’s unhappiness being like an open secret, a chasm between them as wide as the bay that separates the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock from the one that extends from Gatsby’s estate.

In portraying the tragedy that unfolds, the film never rises above the glitz and glamour of Gatsby’s parties. For a book that is often interpreted as a stinging critique of both classism and conspicuous consumption, all that this adaptation achieves is to seemingly celebrate those exact values. Scratch the surface of Luhrmann’s exquisite costumes and hairdo’s, the sets and the lighting and what you have is something of a ham-fisted morality play or an un-ironic love story, neither of which is really what The Great Gatsby, as Fitzgerald wrote it, was trying to be.

DiCaprio and Edgerton, nevertheless, act well and are convincing as the hopeful upstart and the pampered boor respectively. Edgerton in particular, hams magnificently in a role that demands hamming. Carey Mulligan is disappointing as Daisy though, capturing but little of the character’s Southern charm and less of her conflicted carelessness. Tobey Maguire’s Nick is sadly forgettable and Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan even more so. Indeed, by jettisoning much of Baker’s role (as in the book) in the adaptation, it can be said that Debicki was dealt a harsh hand.

With one exception, Jay-Z’s soundtrack is forgettable and incongruous, though that exception—Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful” fits perfectly into the film like the book sleeve on that old copy of the book on my shelf. Sung with a lingering sorrow permeating every note, Del Ray’s smoky, nasal voice embodies Daisy’s pathetic existence better than Mulligan’s dialogue or expressions do as she utters her plaintive plea:

“Will you still love me, when I am no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me, when I got nothing but my aching soul?”

With all this said though, I still find myself thinking that it is a film worth watching. If for no other reason, than that the book is not widely-read enough outside the US, and within that country, being taught in schools has ruined it for generations who might see in Luhrmann’s colour-laden, excess-laced version, a reason to visit and re-visit it, and find something to love, hate, or fear.

For me, the images Fitzgerald’s words conjured will continue to outweigh the images that the film depicted, whether it was that light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the hollow sham that was Gatsby’s wealth or those ever-judging eyes of TJ Eckleberg.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Book Review: The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

“We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat'”
-       Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Far Pavilions
It was the mid-nineties when I visited the USA for the first time. I have vague memories of the trip, of meeting relatives who I normally saw for only a few weeks once every three years, and spending nearly two months with them, in their houses. I remember my joy at finding a TV channel that showed cartoons all day long. A house with an upper floor. A perpetual supply of fizzy soft-drinks in the fridge. A backyard lawn with seemingly endless place to run around and play. For a kid living in a one-bedroom house in Mumbai without cable TV, it felt like the promised land. In many ways, I suppose it was. But the mind, even of a young boy, is a pretty unpredictable thing. Three weeks in, I was homesick. For my tiny house, for my TV with only two channels and the little kitchen garden about the size of a billiard-table where my cousins and I played stump-cricket, always fearful of our ball going over the wall and falling into the open drain just behind the compound. I don’t know why. At the time, I mistook the feeling for patriotism. In hindsight, it was probably more about missing the routine, maybe even apprehension about the school year to come, or even just my lungs unable to deal with the unpolluted air of the Philadelphia suburbs.

It never occurred to me then to think too deeply about how my counterparts—my cousins—felt about their lives in the US and their trips to Mumbai. They are Indian, desi, as the lingo among Indian-Americans goes, but they are born there, native citizens of the United States, who have grown up learning about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, reading Wilder and Melville, playing baseball and ‘Football’, hosting Wrestlemania and Superbowl parties. What it meant to them to have the odd names among their peers, of being pulled into doing ‘Indian’ things and forced to try and connect to that heritage while their peers would surely have been in a different, quite culturally removed mind-space.

It occurred, even less, to me to think about their parents, my Aunt and Uncle, transplanted from their lives in India, the one in pursuit of his ambitions, the other following her husband, leaving behind a college degree and a bank job. It never occurred to me to think of how they might have lived, might have adjusted, what it meant to him, to her.

By the time I was back from that vacation, though, India was on the cusp of what would become a cultural revolution. Sure, economic liberalisation had already happened, but that was only really having an effect now, and one of the ways it manifested itself through the blossoming of the ‘NRI Film’. Bollywood had discovered that Indians living outside India, their numbers growing in tandem with the IT industry, were a lucrative market for their films, but also that Indians in India saw that life in some ways as an aspired-for ideal, and in other ways wanted to assert India’s cultural supremacy. So Bollywood showed a vision of NRI life that was trite and unbelievable, a transposition of Bollywood clich├ęs to the foreign milieu, and even with my limited understanding and even more limited intelligence, I could sense that these films did not even caricature their subjects properly, let alone compose an accurate picture. 

But while switching through channels on a bored Sunday afternoon in the late 2000’s, I chanced upon Mira Nair’s The Namesake, and though it was about half-over, I ended up sticking at it through to the end. It was different. As a movie, not particularly engaging, perhaps, and offering only glimpses of what I now realise is the strength of the underlying text. But it had me intrigued enough for the film’s name—appropriately—to stick in my mind.

Unfortunate, then, that it took me until now to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

Under Gogol’s Overcoat
The Namesake is the story of Ashoke Ganguli, who survives a train accident with massive fatalities, clutching a book of the collected short stories of Nikolai Gogol in his hand. The fluttering of a page from the book is the reason to search-and-rescue team finds him, and with this gift of life, Ashoke takes himself to study at Massachusetts. 

The Namesake is the story of Ashima Ganguli, a self-effacing Bengali woman who marries a man she has never met or spoken to before and makes a new life in a new country, searching for happiness and belonging in a strange, indifferent environment.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol ‘Nikhil’ Ganguli, their son; named for the writer his father admires and credits for his rescue (though there’s more to it than that). His struggles with his ethnic and cultural identity, his life and loves.

The book begins, nominally, with Ashima being rushed to the hospital for Gogol’s birth. Flashbacks bring us up to speed with who they are, where they come from, the messy, congested roads of Calcutta quickly becoming as familiar to us as the wide-spaced streets of Cambridge, Mass. 

A letter lost in the mail leads to the burden of naming the child falling to Ashoke, and he picks ‘Gogol’, figuring that the ‘real’ name can be given later. But as time passes, the boy becomes more and more accustomed to Gogol and though they try to change it to Nikhil (after all, Nikolai was the first name of the legendary Russian writer) when he enters school, their son is having none of that, answering only to the name he knows.

While the events and tone of the book remain largely light-hearted so far, we already see Lahiri’s expertise in bringing out the daily dissonance of the life of an Indian family abroad. Ashima’s longing for home, the dread she feels when there is a phone call from India, the little things like shopping, cooking, entertaining, finding people to talk to, inevitably other Bengalis in this case.

As Gogol grows, however, and immerses himself more with his peers and their culture, the name becomes a millstone around his neck. More than its uniqueness, it symbolizes a difference, a sundering from both India and the US, which weighs heavily on his mind. 

Through the rest of the book, we remain mostly with Gogol, who takes on a new name, and charts his own career and life path, searching for an elusive sense of belonging. We see him fall in love, once, and twice, and then once more, we see his difficult relationship with his parents, his embarrassment at their way of talking and being. We see him seek comfort in the women he loves and their families, especially Maxine, whose wealth and sophistication draws him farther away from his family for a time, until tragedy brings him back.

Gogol’s search for identity receives jolts from betrayals and death, and though his attempts to distance himself from his Bengali heritage might make him unsympathetic…we understand

But even more we understand Ashima and Ashoke, their uncertain peace with life in the foreign country, their building of a Bengali community in this distant land, an ‘adopted family’ for their children, and their resigned acceptance of their children’s drift away from them and their culture.

Over the sweep of the three decades or so that the book covers, Lahiri succeeds in making the reader see and experience America as her characters do, as indeed the thousands of immigrants who have travelled there, and their children after them have. For that is one of the many things that succeeds spectacularly in The Namesake—the way so many of the experiences of Ashoke, Ashima and Gogol are universal. 

The Portrait
In telling the tale of these three (though there are other characters too), Jhumpa Lahiri brings forth a powerful, often stunning intensity and insight. Her gaze into their lives is sharp and focussed, drawing contrasts from the lives of the parents to the son with a deftness that speaks of her impressive skill. 

The writing itself is detached, even clinical. A characteristic of modern Literary Fiction writing, perhaps, is that the narrator’s voice must be subdued to the point of being little more than a camera, and Lahiri follows this trope faithfully. Yet this verbal camera focusses on the actions and lives of her characters with a clarity that is perhaps more powerful for being so impersonal. Imagery, from the houses that the character live in or visit, the intricate details of their possessions, is used to illustrate feelings and situations rather than being told through narrative flourish. Distance and travel become important motifs as well, with trains recurring through the novel—it’s in a train-wreck that Ashoke Ganguli nearly loses his life and takes the life-changing decision to immigrate, that Ashima Ganguli finds and then abandons the gifts she had bought for her father, in a train that Gogol Ganguli meets his first love and loses, in a way, his wife.

It could perhaps be said, in criticism, that too many of the major events in the character’s lives seem to happen off the page, being related rather than told in real-time. Yet even this feels consistent; after all The Namesake is about reaction rather than action; circumstances bearing upon the Ganguli families and how they are shaped by them. Ashoke’s accident, Ashima’s marriage, Gogol’s unusual name—all come together to make a story that perhaps most of us would not consider worth telling, the ordinary experiences of ordinary people in an ordinary milieu. 

What Jhumpa Lahiri does, is to take this very ordinariness and infuse it with her keen observation, attention to detail and that glaring intensity that I spoke of earlier, making a book without a ‘big reveal’ or a huge sweep, geographical or historical, not only readable, but something that remains with a reader for long after. This is not plot-driven, action-oriented writing. This is not cheap sentimentality. 

This is Jhumpa Lahiri painting a portrait of what it is to be an Indian outside India, and if the colours are grey and the subject unlovely, it is no less a work of art.

Revisiting the New World
That boy who visited the US in the mid-nineties and stood atop one of the buildings of the World Trade Center would come to visit the country again, years after the towers fell, and after the action of The Namesake (the film’s events conclude just before the dawn of the new millennium). The older me found the Indian diaspora to be often ridiculous, sometimes shallow and weirdly conflicted. If I were to write about them, I knew, it would be with the brutal wit of Nikolai Gogol, watered down only by my lack of genius. 

But that would be, I think, unnecessarily cruel. As The Namesake illustrates, and Jhumpa Lahiri so eloquently brings out, the key is understanding the experience of these Indians abroad. Knowing why there was a black-and-white TV set at the foot of the bed in my aunt’s room. How she must have felt bringing her children to Mumbai for the first time, then the second and the twelfth, with the number of relatives coming to receive her always dwindling, the ties to home growing ever-more-tenuous. How she must have dreaded a phone call from home, those horrible, horrible seconds before the voice at the other end said, “No, everyone is fine, I just wanted to talk to you”, her cold despair when the voice at the other end did not start with those words. 

I wonder, right now, what it must mean to my cousins to live in that world, prisoners of their skin; to come to our world, prisoners of their accents.

The Namesake is, in the end, a validation. Of the bright-eyed hopefuls who left India in the sincere belief that they would make a better life abroad, of the spouses who followed on little more than a wing and a prayer, and their children, bound to two cultures by fraying gossamer threads. A chronicle of the bravery of their ordinariness, their victories and failures, their loves and lives. All that, and more, peeks out from beneath Lahiri’s Overcoat, and for that, we must all remain thankful.

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