When a few friends gifted me The Interpreter of Maladies in 2001, I was thrilled. Reading a latest, prize-winning novel was a luxury not many of us had experienced. I read through the book, quickly and hopefully. I loved the first story, but as I kept reading, I was steadily dejected. I did not recommend the book to anyone, like I mostly did with books I read. I always replied luke-warmly when anyone asked me about the book. I didn’t know what it was that I did not see that others did.
After I finished reading The Namesake over the weekend, I read the online reviews and kept coming across words like – “subtle”, “riveting”, “touching”, “saga.” I would not have used these words to describe the book. Yet again, I am perplexed what these reviewers find enthralling about a book that only left me mildly touched. To Lahiri’s credit, I ravaged the book in a few days – I am a slow reader. But the book was a simple read, in spite of having lengthy chapters. It spans over thirty years, yet is not in anyway like other stories that span that time. Reviewers have called it a coming to age story, but Gogol’s bildgunsroman escapes me, just like the fact that the book does not receive one true protagonist. The story begins from the point of view of Ashima Ganguli, a newlywed young woman, having had to leave her home country and settle in Boston with her doctoral student husband. Soon Ashima gives birth to their son, who in a contingency gets the name of Gogol, his father’s favorite Russian writer. Hence, the premise of the story, the namesake. The book, for me, was truly enjoyable when it was through the eyes of Ashima. Her ruptured life in the US, her struggle to make a home in a foreign land, her homesickness, was truly something I could identify and empathize with. But as Gogol begins to grow up, the narrative shifts to focus into him, and suddenly Ashima is forgotten, and seen through the eyes of this ungrateful son.
Okay, so I have to admit, I didn’t really warm up to Gogol. He is self-centered, confused, and does not show many signs of maturing. He dislikes his parents, hates even talking to them. I found it hard to believe that Gogol’s discomfiture is only due to the fact that his parents are not “American.” Children, during adolescence, do hate their parents. But a son who perpetually avoids his parents seems like an anomaly in himself, not worth the heavy burden of being a central character. Lahiri does not explore why Gogol is so dissatisfied with his life. The Gangulis as a family seem dysfunctional for no apparent reason, making the reader feel like Ashima and Ashoke’s arranged marriage might be the reason why no one in their family is happy.
What bothered me most, was that in spite of having read 290 odd pages about the Ganguli family, not a single character was completely exposed, not one character seen in depth, not one character laid out bare for me to dissect. Maybe that does not happen in many other books, but sometimes a writer can say more by not saying. But Lahiri does not do that.
Habitually, it is tougher for me to critique a book negatively. I love literature related to India and Indians and I am very loyal to it. But something was amiss in The Namesake. I would recommend it to potential readers, it has its good moments and you might be able to point out that one beautiful thing about the book that I missed.