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 clichés 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.

 Purchase links: 

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Book Review: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

Around half-way through Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the titular protagonist, an orphan raised on the streets of Lahore by an opium-seller, talks to himself as he contemplates his training to become a member of the Secret Service. As he thinks about his own identity—as a student of St. Xaviers School (a stand-in for La Martiniere), he refers to it as ‘Nucklao’ (a dialectical noun that is in use to this day by Hindi-speakers), but as he completes the thought, reminding himself that he is white, it becomes ‘Lucknow’. 

In that subtle interplay of identity and language lies the essence of what makes Kim such a remarkable literary achievement, for throughout the novel, Kipling wrestles with the dilemma of who, precisely, the chameleon-like Kimball O’Hara is. Is he a white boy, unfortunately lost in childhood to the natives, now coming back into the fold of privilege and colonial dominance? Or is he a son of India, a natural fit into all its myriad cultures, raucous and colourful, at once both deeply superstitious and completely practical? With a masterful and deft use of language, Kipling sharpens this debate in our minds, leading the readers on a delightful journey through the terrain—and heart of India.

For you see, while the word ‘Great Indian Novel’ might be bandied about less recklessly than its American counterpart, it is a term that is today applied to two books—Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. 

But long before Saleem Sinai made his convoluted way into our minds, beginning from of course, his grandparents first meeting, or the Kapoors and Khans showed up at Savita Mehra’s wedding, Kim ‘sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.’

The boy and the Godly men

The novel opens with Kim playing on the streets of Lahore, outside the Museum, with two of his friends, one the son of a wealthy Hindu merchant and the other the son of a Muslim sweet-seller, while the law, in the person of a Sikh Policeman, turns an indulgent eye upon the shenanigans of the boys. The appearance among the milling crowds of a stranger—one that readers immediately recognize from the description as a Buddhist lama, but who is a mystery to the children—breaks up their game, and when Kim appoints himself a helper to this foreigner, turns the course of Kim’s life. The Irish orphan tags along with the lama, who speaks of Buddhist philosophy and a quest for a mythical ‘River of the Arrow’ with an innocence that is at once affecting and profound. As the lama’s chela, Kim begins his first journey in search of the river, travelling by train and then on foot along the Grand Trunk Road. But he is not only a lama’s chela. There is another mission that Kim seeks to fulfil, given to him by his old friend and sort-of-mentor, Mahbub Khan the horse-dealer. Mahbub is the first glimpse we get of the influence that is to contrast the lama’s Buddhist teachings—he is a horse-dealer, but he is also an agent in the Indian Secret Service. 

As Kim travels with Teshoo lama, the theme of Kim’s dual identity comes to the fore. Intelligent, resourceful, and wise, Kim proves to be an excellent helper to the lama, helping him navigate the confusing panorama of India, and also a very competent messenger for Mahbub. We also get a glimpse of how this dichotomy affects Kim, as he, like the reader, wonders—Who is Kim?

The journey in search of the River is interrupted when Kim and the Lama encounter the regiment in which Kim’s father had once served. When a series of events leads to Kim being discovered by the regiment’s two men of God, one Presbytarian, clueless and odious and the other Catholic, also clueless but at least sincere, he finds himself at the mercy of fate, of which he had hitherto thought himself the master. 

The men of God will not let this child of a white man consort with the ‘beggar’, as they call the lama, and insist upon separating him from the Buddhist monk and sending him to school at Lucknow to educate him. But this is also, obviously, about initiating Kim into a colonial identity, and making him ‘white’. 

Who is Kim?

The novel continues to pursue the central theme of identity even as it continues to follow the adventure plot. Kim is pulled at in different directions, as Mahbub, the Lama and Colonel Creighton, head of the Secret Service, all observe and monitor his progress. It is fairly evident though that while the lama does so for love, as does Mahbub in his own way, the white Colonel’s interest is transactional, seeing the boy as a potential asset and nothing more.

From school in the colonial safety of Lucknow to the heat and dust of the road, from learning Mathematics and English from his professors at St. Xaviers to carousing with Mahbub Khan’s caravan, from the wondrous games he plays at the shop of Lurgan sahib to learning the story of the Wheel of Life at the lama’s feet, we see Kim adapt and change, grappling with questions of identity and morality. 

The final act of the book is breath-taking in its measured intensity, a juxtaposition of the ‘Great Game’ (as the contentious struggle between the British Empire and the Russian for control of what is now the Af-Pak region was known) with spiritual quest that makes a reader laugh, and at times, brings a tear to the eye, right up to the conclusion. When the book ends, we tear ourselves away from it, as reluctantly as the lama withdraws from his meditative trance—As the egg from the fish, as the fish from the water, as the water from the cloud, as the cloud from the thick air, so put forth, so leaped out, so drew away, so fumed up the Soul of Teshoo Lama from the Great Soul.

Players of the Great Game and the Wheel of Life

Under Kipling’s deft handling, each character comes alive, with a vibrancy that is otherwise seen only in vernacular-language Indian writing. 

Kim himself is a superb representation, clever and fundamentally principled without being boring or a caricature. His struggles with identity are never overbearing or overwrought, and the character development is natural and easy to identify with. 

So is Mahbub Khan, the hot-headed Pathan brought to question his own orthodoxy over the course of the novel, and even accept, however hesitantly that 'It must be true, as the Tirah priest said when I stole his cousin's wife, that I am a Sufi [a free-thinker]; for here I sit,' said Mahbub to himself, 'drinking in blasphemy unthinkable ... I remember the tale.’

There is also the Lama, benign and naïve, oblivious to caste and creed, who believes Kim to be heaven-sent, and struggles to reconcile his religion telling him that a man must have no attachments with his paternal love for his chela.

But it is not just these main characters.

Hari Mukherjee, another Secret Service agent, is a superb caricature of a man who on the surface appears to be a cowardly ‘Bengali babu’ but is also an astute spy, and has a bravery in him that, while not physical, is no less powerful.

The Maharani, a rich woman from the hilly regions who ‘loves to talk’ to the point where even the lama’s patience is tested, but is nonetheless a perfect portrait of the ‘Indian grandmother’, whose love is expressed through her cooking and whose sharp tongue hides a truly affectionate personality. 

The Rissaldarstaunch supporter of the Raj, proud to be among the few men in his regiment who did not mutiny, and in his clinging to that past glory, both pathetic and poignant.

Even those with but a few lines are perfectly brought to life. There is ‘the man from Ao-Chang’, on whose actions the final twist of the plot hinges. There is Lispeth, the Woman of Shamlegh, who “Once, long ago…was Ker-lis-ti-an and spoke English” until her white lover abandoned her. There is Colonel Creighton, who knows so much of the land and people of India and loves them so little, and Lurgan Sahib, as mysterious a hill-magician as you could hope to find in the most exotic adventure novel.

More to the point, every character in his or her way shows an aspect of life in India, a place on the ‘Wheel of Life’, as the Lama terms it. 

Growing up with Kim

At one level, Kim is a straight adventure story; a spy novel from a time before the spy novel was a genre, full of narrow escapes, coded language, disguises and shadowy plots. With his unique combination of white ethnicity and ability to slip in both Hindu and Muslim culture and appearance, Kim makes for a perfect spy, and indeed carries out his espionage work with style. 

But Kim’s journey through the Grand Trunk Road in the First Act, and then in the mountain-paths of the Shivaliks and Himalayas in the Third, is also some of the finest descriptive and interactive writing I have read. Kipling brings out the varied cultures and castes of India, the superstitions and silliness, and yet, somehow, without seeming to assume an air of superiority. For much of the novel, in fact, Kim rejects the ‘sahib’ culture that his skin colour makes him a part of, and each time he does, it comes across as an assertion of his better self. The best part of the orphan’s nature is that which is grounded in the benevolence of the lama, and even in the friendly acceptance of all cultures, and ‘Friend of all the World’ as he is known, is not just a title, but a reflection of who Kim is.

And at this level, Kim becomes more than an adventure novel, it becomes a search for identity—for Kim, for Rudyard Kipling, and perhaps also, for our country as a whole.

All the while we are peppered with language whose effervescence is unmatched. To evoke a delightful sense of earthy vernacular while writing in English, to give each character a distinct voice that is truly Indian, is a truly astounding feat of writing, and this is what puts Kim up there with other great Indian novelsA special mention for the insults—the surest measure of how well the writer understood the Indian medium of communication, which are some of the funniest writing in a book full of humour.

Kim is indeed more than an adventure novel, but it is more than even a philosophical one. It is an experience, yes, and it is also a book that questions many of the deepest assumptions of identity for an individual. And just as the titular Kim asks himself, “But who is Kim—Kim—Kim?” we find ourselves wondering who, indeed, concocted this fascinating tale.

Rudyard Kipling, the boy who had to be reminded to speak English when company was present, the adult who wrote about India as his home, never England, or Rudyard Kipling, passionate advocate of the Raj and writer of ‘The White Man’s Burden’?

Who are you, Mr Kipling?

Rudyard Kipling, as we know him today, was often an apologist for the British Empire, seeking to support some of its worst excesses and seeing it as a benevolent and necessary boon to the natives who suffered under its yoke.

At the same time, this Mumbai-born lad, most of whose work is set in the territories of the British Empire, from Afghanistan to Myanmar, wrote about India and its people with a deftness and understanding that few have matched ever since. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, and at 41 years of age, remains the youngest-ever winner of that prize.

As Kim draws to a close, laying bare the true nature of this novel, the reader is left with more questions than answers. What will Kim’s ultimate fate be? Will he accept his place on the Wheel or will he stay true to the Lama? 

And what, we ask, did Kipling believe? Was he a racist colonialist whose literary genius covered up for his true feelings, or a man torn between head and heart, much like Kim is, yearning to follow the Lama, who rejects caste, colour and race, indeed does not even see it?

Somewhere in the lines of Kim, somewhere between the wonders of Lahore museum and the teeming bazaars of Benaras, somewhere on the Grand Trunk Road and the hill-paths of Uttarakhand, somewhere between the opulence of Lucknow and tiny Shamlegh, perhaps, lies the answer, but I—I cannot see it.

So I turn, rather, back to Kim and The Jungle Book, to If— and The Road to Mandalay, and leave that question unanswered, preferring to take refuge in the one thing that can be said with certainty—whoever Kipling the man was, Kipling the writer was a genius.

Illustration by JL Kipling, the author's father.

Available free on Project Gutenberg

Friday, 23 March 2018

La La Land, where dreams rise and fall.

A bright, colourful and tragic ode to all that is vulnerable in us. Why do we dream? What makes us hold on to some dreams and give up on others? What makes some of us reach for the stars even when our feet seem to be encased in concrete? Can you be happy in failure or at best, content? Can you be devastated in success or will your heart achieve a compromise with your head with the passage of imperceptible little slivers of time?

La La Land pays obvious homage to the big-budget musicals of the MGM era and to the golden age of Jazz. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone try, with varying levels of success, to emulate Fred & Ginger, and for brief flashes, they do. Emma Stone's Mia Dolan is tragically real, vulnerable and beautiful, a word I use with zero reference to Miss Stone's physical appearance. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian whines as a true jazz aficionado should, an inversion of the trope which normally would have his character be the female protagonist.

But what La La Land really calls to mind is the sadness of creativity. To wish, to want, to dream, to create is a calling, and not a career and in that lies its unlimited potential and its heart-breaking tragedy. The fact that for most of them—the poets, the artists, the songwriters, the singers, the authors—their art...our art, is shouting into a silent, cruel void. That success will be defined by the outside world, that personal relationships will never be for us as they are for others, that in the end, even happy endings are fleeting, a single possible scenario that will be tinged with the sadness of those foregone.

I seem to have lost the temperament to remember songs anymore and though I liked much of La La Land's soundtrack as it played on screen, I don't know that I could recall any of it a week from now. Which is not to say it is not good—it is. Justin Huritz does a fantastic job of the original songs and the camerawork and cinematography is striking even to a philistine like myself.

As the final scene draws to a conclusion, as Mia and Seb exchange a ghost of a smile, I could sense that Damian Chazelle was giving that knowing smile to us. To each and every one of us in the viewing audience, whether in grimy theatres or in cozy sofas at home, he was saying,

“I know. This is you, and this is me.”

And that, ultimately, is La La Land. It’s the Hollywood of ‘Top Hat’ and ‘Singing In the Rain’, of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’, of bright boys and manic pixie dream girls. Is it trivial? Perhaps.

But it is enough. It is enough for us dreamers.