I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, Interpreter of Maladies: a collection of narrative portraits of Indian immigrants to America. Good writing. I consciously avoided her subsequent novel, The Namesake, about a young, Indian-American man who has a hard time understanding his Indian parents, and himself.
I’m sure it’s well written too. The thing is, personally — I have no ethnicity. I am an indistinct shade of suburban white. I grew up with kids named Andy, Scott, and Jason and did not celebrate any non-standard holidays. I could not refer to the predictable European countries my grandparents came from as “the old country” and keep a straight face.
Since I’d already seen The Joy Luck Club, I was pretty sure I’d gotten all I was going to get from sagas of American kids not getting their immigrant parents (and visa versa.) This is all by way of saying that didn’t expect director Mira Nair’s new film adaptation of The Namesake would have much to say to me. And, that I was wrong.
The Namesake is an exquisite novel of a movie — uncluttered and emotionally comprehensive, lush with behavioral detail — that follows the Ganguli family on their multigenerational, yet never quite complete, journey between continents. Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) is an inscrutable pioneer. On a train to Calcutta in the early ‘70s, a stranger tells him to go and see the world. The gangly Ashoke prefers to travel through books. The train derails. Ashoke is a lonely survivor. Years later, he’s temporarily back in India from studying in the U.S., and hoping to become the arranged husband of bubbly young Ashima (Tabu). It looks to be a long shot, but soon Ashima is gripping his arm and climbing onto the plane.
Khan seems to be hiding at least two novels behind Ashoke’s charmingly taciturn expression and heavy eyes. An organic chemistry bonds him and Tabu, cast well together and for the stolid immigrants they play. Both big in Bollywood but inexperienced here, neither affects wide eyes about America. Underlying all the new couple’s cultural vertigo (sprinkling curry powder on Rice Crispies, etc.) is a decidedly pragmatic relationship with their new country. Nair broaches no schmaltzy foreigners-learn-to-love-America romance.
Instead, the film’s modus operandi is a subtle and lingering disorientation. It fixes its gaze on a set of unpretentious symbols in both Calcutta and New York and shuffles them poignantly. Even as Ashima is giving birth to their first child in a cold Manhattan hospital, it’s not exactly clear where she is. Vexed by American birth certificate customs, the Gangulis improvise a temporary name for their son: Gogol — Ashoke’s favorite writer.
From here the story is supposed to belong to the Ganguli’s hyphenated American children, Gogol (Kal Penn; of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) and his ancillary sister, Sonia (Sahira Nair.) You can imagine what a kid named Gogol Ganguli would think about his name when he’s 17. Penn makes his screen reputation as the cartoonishly adolescent Kumar work for him, as a petulant, had-it-with-his-family teen Gogol. Ashoke tries his hesitant best to explain important things to the boy. But Gogol grows up, bolts to Yale, starts dating an Upper East Side WASP named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and never calls.
Familiar cross-cultural hijinx continue throughout. Gogol warns Maxine to reign in her breezy informality when he finally brings her to meet the parents. She greets them bear hugs anyway. Off by the side of the story though, it’s Ashoke and Ashima that you can’t ignore. Khan and Tabu play decades older than they are. With their quiet, dutiful way, it seems like centuries. Finally alone together, the mystery of why she married him starts to come together. They flirt with the tenderness of experience. Time, however, is not on their side. Eventually, the physics of human life will draw almost everyone back to their family, and from there, to a more elusive sense of where they come from. Gogol too.
At this point in the screening something unusual happened. Great drama involves you so completely with its characters that you submerge your boring self and begin to wish you were them. Not because it seems fun or cool, but because they are feeling things, good or bad, with an intensity you covet. As Gogol has to reexamine everything and everyone he had taken for granted, I wanted (momentarily) to be Indian.
Lahiri has written, and Nair directed, an intelligent exploration of the private, unanswerable pains that immigrants have to face, even when the journey goes well. Simply returning to his ethnic group’s customs doesn’t really help Gogol. In the end, the colorful variables that allow us to tell and re-tell stories of ethnic America melt away and what’s left is a singular point The Namesake makes impressively. Regardless of background, children and parents are always from different countries. Each have a vast desire to understand the other; so large that it seems to dwarf the ability to understand by orders of magnitude. The contrast is starkest in immigrant settings, where families don’t share the same attitudes and language. But what separates Ashoke Ganguli from Gogol Ganguli isn’t much different from what separates Tom Smith Sr. from Tom Smith Jr. Gogol’s name, after all, didn’t come from India. It came from Ashoke, who had knowable (but unknown) reasons for giving it.
How we bridge this defining gap, The Namesake suggests, is with memory. Toward the end of the film we’re flashed back near the beginning. The Gangulis are at the beach on a cloudy day. Ashoke is walking his toddler son out along a jetty. They come to the end, but Ashoke has left his camera in the car. He tells Gogol they will just have to remember this.
“How long?” the child asks.
“Forever. We will have to remember the time we came so far that we could not go any farther.”
Forever may be a bit long. But The Namesake is, in the best way, memorable.