misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jhumpa Lahira: the difficulty of finding, creating, holding to an identity

Dear Friends,

This term I assigned Lahiri's The Namesake to my classes, and thus read it for fourth time, and from a set of audio-cassettes listened to Sari Choudury read it aloud beautifully a second time. I found I liked it much more than I had previously, partly because I'm beginning to understand it better.

Tabu as Ashima at the close of the film: now grown middle aged, a widow, she rests on her strength and memories (Namesake)

I've come to realize her subject elaborated, developed, explored is people who are outcast in some way (sometimes caused by their own gifts and personality within), who don't fit in and have trouble with the identity their culture gives them or the one they acquire.  Until recently most novels about immigrants coming into the US would be about poorer people and how they struggled to assimilate and succeed in a worldly sense too. By contrast, neither Gogol or Moushumi in Lahiri's The Namesake has trouble getting into a good American school and becoming a respectable professional; discuss how their equally complicated problems in assimilating in other aspects of social life lead to their decision to marry and the break-up of the marriage.  Finally the new generation finds their identity in books and their fields of study. The old one slips away (Ashoke) or finally breaks free (Ashima, whose name means without borders).

I see her as yet another descendent of Austen, partly for her use of free indirect speech, partly because she writes as a woman and (in the words of Terry Castle) “a certain strengthening awareness is passed—from woman to woman —through the genre of the novel itself." Paradoxically, the last part began to fall off when the character to the fore was a woman type I usually can’t identify with: Moushumi. 

Zuleika Robinson as Moushumi receiving phone call from lover, Dimitri (Pierre in the film), her mother-in-law, Ashima i the next room

The first third of the novel was the traditional virtuous heroine, suffering: Ashima, the wife in the traditional marriage.  The last third is the woman who breaks her marriage deliberately by having an affair and keeping her life apart from her loving husband, Gogol. I found myself furious oddly the first time because she seemed so cold; I felt sorry for him: I hadn’t liked her as amoral somehow and so easy in life. Yet the second time I read it I realized in some ways she was me; I was gripped by her story and what she would do next. I couldn't' predict.   I was dialoguing with Lahiri through this book, and also looking at two women: Ashima and Moushumi. I could never be Ashima nor Moushumi -- two extremes I was dialoguing with the author through.

Jhumpa Lahiri, recent photo

Lahiri was born in London, but grew up in Rhode Island, with a teacher and librarian for parents, upper class Indians, Bengalis to be exact, just like in the book; she went to Barnard for a degree in English and then studied creative writing as a graduate student, and now lives in New York City.  Attracted to Calcutta from whence her family comes. 

I've read all three books thus far: Interpreters of Maladies (short stories), and Unaccustomed Earth which I think shows a growth in power and realism from Namesake; it's even better, shows the hardnesses of people to one another which not really found in Namesake; Jhumpa is her nickname (pet name), not her formal name (good name).

Most of the stories are about Indian immigrants in the US; but some are about Indians in India, or Indian-Americans returned to India, or Anglo-Americans interested in India, or...well, the national categories are themselves part of the complexity she's trying to explore and explode.  Most of the stories are about women, or couples, or young girls.  Two that last long after reading are about outcast/displaced women in India, and their uneasy relationship with the communities surrounding them.  There are comic touches, but they're not funny stories; they're carefully constructed, beautifully told, realistic accounts of the ways human beings come to identify themselves, or not, with a family, a culture, a nation, a place on the map.

I've read all three books thus far: Interpreters of Maladies (short stories), and Unaccustomed Earth, which I think shows a growth in power and realism from Namesake; it's even better, shows the hardnesses of people to one another which not really found in Namesake; Jhumpa is her nickname (pet name), not her formal name (good name).  The characters find adjustment to life itself and real people's emotions and dreams an obstacle to finding meaning for themselves.  They can't get accustomed to earth. We see parents and children at intense odds, with the parents wanting freedom and to pick a new partner late in life and leave the child; with breakups of arranged marriages

There is much allusion to different and other books and culture in the novel. The most obvious is to Gogol's "Overcoat," the story Ashoke was reading in the train when it crashed, and which saved him because his hand moved near a page and it called attention to him. Akaki Bashmachkin, returns to the earth and steals back his overcoat from the powerful official.  He is a shy, humble, easily bullied clerk who is kindly, dutiful, and therefore ridiculed by everyone; he saves a long time to get himself an overcoat; it is very cold in Russia. Having finally achieved his overcoat, he goes to a party (so full of himself), allows drink to befuddle him and leaves; his overcoat is brutally stolen from him on the way back; he can get no help from the police, and grief-striken he tries to get a powerful man in a department to find the overcoat and arrest the thieves and fails. He dies.  Then his ghost appears on the streets of St Petersburg grabbing coats from people; the important personage is on the way to his mistress's house, assailed by Akaki as a ghost and terrified.  He rushes home and ever after is not such a foolish snob as he had been.  Early on in the story a fuss is made about Akaki's name: and the mother after rejecting all sorts of possibilities chooses his father's name, alas it means shit. It's a remarkable story which combines satire and mockery with great tragedy, a critique of society and human nature which is devastating.

Irrhan Khan as the young Ashoke reading "The Overcoat" on the Indian train

Ashoke is right about this story: you could say the heights of comic anguish and tragic despaire are there, the presentation of social life as cliques run by strong domineering types (of which Gogol is not one). It's as if instead of getting into her book through the characters she shows us, the abysses of grief, loss and displacement one can know, she alludes to it through the book that means so much to Ashoke. In Ashoke we have an early encounter with death, saved by Gogol's Overcoat and it makes him want to flee the old country and set up life in a new safer one. He is a man apart like Akaki. We don't see enough of him within.

Lesser allusions to Sand's He and She: Moushumi reads and Gogol is drawn to. Dimtri goes round reading Man Without Qualities; Moushumi when young reads Pride and Prejuduce, now she's read so much French (or pretends to); Ashoke read Graham Greene's The comedians.  Intellectual education means a lot in this novel: it saves Ashoke and he goes to the US for it; Gogol and Moushumi find themselves; worlds to belong to, Ashima rereading her magazine at the opening, becomes a part-time librarian.

Ashoke and Ashima (Tabu)

Gogol taken by architecture, the Taj Mahal, finds himself in Italy too

Sal Penn as Gogol entranced

There are problems with her presenation of with arranged and romantic marriage plot-designs: some flaws:

What makes the importance of arranged marriages in Indian and other traditional cultures is it's what's held onto to keep the family system intact. The whole idea is to make a large family system where it's in the prudent interest of the individual to conform as the whole family supports the individuals in it.  You can only keep this up if the older people get to choose the new members. The younger ones may have a veto, but they cannot pick someone who the parents or family group would not see as advantageous to them socially and financially.  I stress how in Indian such marriages don't break up, but that they do in the US and Lahiri was idealizing.

Gogol reacted against arranged marriages and his Indian culture but could not find it in himself to like upper class American culture which (without the big family group) can be lonesome, anonymous, end in broken relationships and depend on things, money, prestige items for individuals.  That after all Ashima really assimilated better than he did. She created a new family; he could spend time with Maxine, but not enter into her world and follow it the way Moushumi does with Donald and Astrid in Brooklyn.

Moushumi's sexual infidelity is something people are uncomfortable talking about except to call it "cheating."  But she is there, alternates with Gogol, and I think is a contrast to Ashima and we are not supposed to dislike her. Myself I did for her coldness. I think she reflects aspects of Lahiri just as strongly as Gogol, and Ashima.  Lahiri has said she took a pet name because people couldn't pronounce her formal or good name -- as Moushumi's name is hard to pronounce.  We are not told enough about Ashoke. Like Decclan in Toibin's Blackwater Lightship he is kept from us, the painful center of the novel, the man who after coming near death, left India.

In Gogol and Nikil and later Moushumi and his sister Sonya, we see assimilation the ideal, but we see in Gogol and Moushumi this breaks them.  Gogol struggles with and against both his Bengali and American heritage: he goes for upper class whites and yet doesn't know how their families work; see them as individuals living alongside one another.  He keeps his distance from his father while his father is alive because it's a threat -- he loves the man too much.   To go for a Bengali girl was to try for a ready-made solution his own lifestyle didn't fit.  Moushumi was even more unbalanced:  forbidden dating and white men, she becomes overweight; she opts out of stupid American vulgar culture too; she finds herself in Francy but only through abject sex (promiscuity). She tries the upper class white life but is rejected by Graham who can't bear the Bengali tight model. She thinks she can accept the Bengali ways but finds herself bored silly with Gogol.   Her identity is through her French studies; for Gogol he combines a distanced approach to Bengali culture and his mother with an identity as an architect loving Italian architecture.

I've realized I was misreading the book and found myself very much liking the promiscuous secondary heroine. Her problem like the young hero's is they are so conflicted they almost have no identity. ON top of that she's a young woman; to obey is repression; to take a Bengali husband, never to date, to obey her parents completely.  She has much more to contend with and the only way to overturn it is to become extreme in the other direction, i.e., promiscuous.  The novel is the problems and conflicts of assimilation on a rather profound level.  the book also shows the young man and woman trying to free themselves of the group.


Ashoke and Ashima with Gogol, the first baby

On some flaws or problems in the novel. it's a contrast between arranged and romantic marriage. We see this looming large, and there it's very revealing too, with the proviso that

            she does not herself show that the purpose of an arranged marriage is to make a family alliance which then can be used to network and in the story of her upper class characters lives (who get very good positions high in university and semi-glamorous jobs, like curating textiles at the Metropolitan Museum) and she presents their getting jobs as if it's the easiest thing in the world.  In other words, she avoids the hard stuff that causes such arrangements. Also that sometimes people marry for such reasons and then they don't manage to get that great niche.

        She also makes the arranged marriage couple good and kind of tenderly loving people so avoids the central problem: a lack of compatibility is only part of the reason for hard core misery: if you get stuck with a cold, abusive, indifferent, or mean-tongued person for exmaple, it's not the incompatibility of intellectual interests that's the problem.  It does matter terribly who you have sex with and how their temperament affects yours and vice versa, can you do things together beyond taking care of children and a house.  Ashima and Ashoke find their meaning in continually going out to others; they don't stay with one another in small circle that much.  As in Anne Chanan’s A Good Indian Wife, we have an arranged marriage and it goes well, because Ashima believes in it and Ashoke is a gentle tender man. But we do have a woman pulled out of her culture and set in a place she has no understanding of or ties. But she is the strong one of the pair

Unfortunately Maxine and her parents, Lydia and Gerald, are a caricature of upper class New Yorkers. So too Donald and Astrid.

Lahiri stays away from Sonia too.

    For me problems in the book include keeping Ashoke away from us; my own problems in sympathizing with Moushumi. Not enough of them. 

    In comparison to J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country which I read with my classes this term), and like Patchett in Bel Canto, Lahiri is something of an escape because than escape (which Lahiri allows) I find myself in these books confronting messy cruel life where there was nothing redemptive or consoling. There is because some of the characters stay together in Bel Canto and most of them in Namesake. They stay together in A Month in the Country but it doesn't always help.

Landscapes analogously used; along with emphasis and use of food show how much this is a woman's book.  Here is a remarkable moment in the film, Nair gives away how alienating she finds Christmas decorations, all neon on lawns: Ashima in the center just received news of husband's death, somehow made more jarring by unreality of these commercial absurd lights


Technique and structure:

Structure of consciousness in story: in A Month in the Country we had a first person narrator in retrospect; in Bel Canto a third person narrator telling the story as a flashback who is detached and ironic; here we have a third peson narrator but she enters into the consciousness of her characters so we see and feel the world from the point of view most predominatly of Ashima and Gogal (Nikhil), a few important moments for Ashoke, a couple of extended pieces for Moushumi.  We never see the world from Sonia's point of view. 

This is not the same as the first person because the author is not there, and leaves us to be at a distance from Mr Birkin; here the author moves in and out of the characters, and sometimes uses free indirect speech which can have her comment gliding into the character and also next to the character.  It was first done very successfully by Austen in Emma. She's not the first to do it; others had in 18th century novels, but Emma is the most controlled and obvious and one still most read from earlier period.  We are going to have another third person where the novelist moves in and out:  Daisy Miller (Mr Winterbourne)

Chapter 1, 1968: Ashima's consciousness, pages 10-22, Ashoke's (and we learn of this devastating motivating train accident). Ashima's consciousness lasts until p. 66
Chapter 2, pp. 22:   boy is born, Gogol, still 1968.  On p 66 (Chapter 4) we make our first move into Gogol's consciousness as a young boy and that lasts until p. 159. 
Chapter 3, 1971, p. 48:  On p. 73 we first meet Moushumi, reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen rather than watching TV conventionally.  I suggest  is used to characterize one of the younger heroines as both highly intelligent and quietly subversive. She reads it at a young age.  It's a kind of joke.
Chapter 4, 1982, p. 78.   I'm not so sure how to take the reference to "The Overcoat" where story is retold to Gogol and he hears this jaundiced account in school, pp. 89-92.
Chapter 5, p. 97: Still Gogol.
Chapter 6, 1994, p. 125  Still Gogol.
Chapter 7, p. 159: sudden return to Ashima's consciousness, with Gogol's returning upon the event of Ashoke's death, p. 169 and we stay heavily with Gogal until p. 246 (Chapter 10 given wholly over to Moushumi), with two exceptions: 
Chapter 8, p. 188.  Between pp 211-14, we have a brief glimpse of Moushumi, and a few few pages of her consciousness, pp. 211-14
Chapter 9, p. 219. Also of p. 219 the narrator moves back and forth from Nikil to Moushumi as we begin to see she is hiding from him her dissatisfaction. We see his with her friends, but it remains a minor irritation supposedly.  It's not told from her point of view so much as we slip into her mind and out of it and are given a feel of her detachment.  Gogol from pp,. 229-45.
Chapter 10, 1999, p. 246-67.  Here we have the opposing consciousness, Moushumi's. I'm uncomfortable because she's such a liar.
Chapter 11, p. 268.  Back again to Gogol on p. 268-73 and we feel very much for him as pathetic
Chapter 12: Ashima pp.l 273-79, and it ends on the quietly lost Gogol, pp. 280-91  He has lost his overcoat too.   Same kind of desolate atmosphere as "The Overcoat"


The family (Gogol a boy, Sonia in the carriage)


Imagery of the novel is important:  Lahiri is into things; the surface of her book dwells on things and whatever is the fashion of the moment. Skeins of images: what happens on trains. How houses and landscapes reveal aspects of their characters and where they individually are in the plot-arrangement.  Trains: Ashoke nearly dies and decides to go to the US; Gogol meets Ruth, travels to her, at night leaves Bridget, reads on the train in the movie at the end.  Airports there too, to the US, to India, to Cleveland (to death). Babycarriages.

The point is ephemera and our landscapes matter; they define and shape us.  The food, shoes, what people wear, and trains and modern buildings and houses and landscapes as opposed to traditional ones back in India.

Houses and landscapes: each figures forth some portion of the character's journey and by the way they behave in the house, and their attitude towards it tells us a great deal about them.

       The small cold apartment in Massachusetts where Ashima is taken to:  dismays, disappoints, not what she dreamed was US, and yet she tells relatives only good things;
        Pemberton Road (as in Pemberly), the suburban house, the dream house for middle American, they do not move and she begins to create world of Bengalis around them, no grass at first, all new, no history;
        The homes of relatives in Calcutta, no privacy, no air conditioning, how miserable the children.  As Ashima reread her magazine, so they reread their books and listen to records.
        Gogol's tiny apartment in NYC as bare of personality as his father's in Cleveland: they are alike in their lack of imposing themselvse on environment; urge to go within;
         Maxine's parents' apartment, an ideal to Gogol, only Maxine a child in it and they don't look to see for her comfort (in summer); the lakehouse again an ideal, but Maxine in a shack and after all the Bengalis would have been miserable. Ashima and Ashoke need a living world of continual presences to be together in;
       Gogol and Moushumi's upscale apartment at odds with their Bengali wedding, a crack in ceiling;
        Donald and Astrid 's brownstone undergoing expensive renovation again something of a caricature of upper class whites in NY.
         No house for Ashima at end; Ashoke slipped away into death; Moushumi returns to her French books and identity, Gogol to his archectural worlds (and Italy) and no longer threatened to his father in The Overcoat.

I've written about the film by Mira Nair on my previous blog.  There I omitted how the movie makes something of an intense ghostly presence of Ashoke at its close (resembling the ghost story aspect of "The Overcoat.") ; its scenes are rearranged so as to keep Ashoke before us in the minds of the characters, like the one where Ashima with Sonia in her arms watches Ashoke walk Gogol out to the end of a barrier in the ocean and tells him how you can come to the end and see there is nothing beyond.  It also (I now realize) in the way of Indian movies, begins with a crash, a scene of terror, and then builds a contrast between traditional ways of life, especially in India and modern (in both India and the US -- there appears to be no traditional family life in the US in this film, a result of the book's caricature of upper class white family life, the only family life beyond that the Bengali families we see).

Ashoke with Gogol as a child

One of my students wrote two good essays on it which I've put on line:  Fathers and Sons (about the novel); the use of landscape, past, and dramatic scenes in the film. Natalie Friedman's "From Hybrids to Tourists: Children of Immigrants in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 50:1 (2008) is an stimulating essay.

Gogol and Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) upon their marriage

A fun scene: Moushumi and Gogol rise and begin to dance Bollywood style in their white robes and then fall on one another and go to bed to make love.


Tags: film adaptation, indian cinema, women's films, women's novels

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.