Day 698: The Namesake

Cover for The NamesakeIn 1968, Ashima Ganguli gives birth to her first child. She has travelled from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to live with her husband, whom she barely knows, and is missing her family in India. When she has a boy, she and her husband Ashoke run into difficulty because they are waiting for a name to arrive from her grandmother. But the American hospital needs to put a name on the birth certificate. Finally, Ashoke picks Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, a favorite author whom he credits with saving his life after a horrendous train accident when he was a young man.

Gogol grows up embarrassed by his name and rejecting the traditions of his Bengali parents. He is bored through the endless Saturdays spent with his parents’ Bengali friends and the biennial trips to India where they do almost nothing but visit family. His mother, on the other hand, has never stopped missing India. His parents want him to observe the customs of his homeland, while he just wants to be American.

This novel insightfully explores the stresses for Indian immigrants adjusting to American ways and the tensions between the traditional and the present for their first-generation American children. Lahiri’s prose is full of minutely observed details as well as empathy for both generations.

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Day 471: Unaccustomed Earth

Cover for Unaccustomed EarthBest Book of the Week!

Although all of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth feature characters who are immigrants and first-generation Americans of Indian descent, they are about a lot more than that. They are about the common problems of all people.

In the story “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma grieves over the loss of her mother while her father fears she is making the same life for herself that embittered his marriage to her mother. In “Hell-Heaven,” a girl observes her traditional mother’s infatuation with a young graduate student in light of her mother’s detached marriage with her father. Amit and his wife Megan try to create a romantic weekend while attending the wedding of a woman Amit once had a crush on in “A Choice of Accommodations.” The best of the stories are the last three, interlinked, about two people who meet each other several times at significant junctures of their lives.

Lahiri’s stories speak to us deeply. With details of life and human behavior so finely observed, they become stories about characters for whom we care.

I am generally a novel reader, because short stories often feel to me as if a lot is missing. But Lahiri’s gift is for saying so much in so few words. You find yourself pondering her stories and characters long after you stop reading. They reveal a profound insight into the human heart.

Day 416: The Lowland

Cover for The LowlandBest Book of the Week!
Today we have a treat–one of the novels that made the short list for this year’s Booker Prize.

As boys in Calcutta, brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable, even though their personalities are so different. Udayan, the younger boy, is bold, reckless, and charismatic. Subhash is quiet and responsible.

As they reach college age, Subhash dedicates himself to his studies while Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalites, an obscure radical leftist group that takes its name from solidarity with the poor farmers of Naxalbari who rose up against their landlords in 1967. Subhash, who is apolitical, stays away from these activities and soon goes to Rhode Island to attend graduate school.

Subhash is called back to India because Udayan is dead. He returns to a home of grief, where his parents hardly speak to him or move from their balcony overlooking the street, where his mother goes out periodically to tend the small stone marker in the Lowland, a marshland where the boys had played and where the police shot Udayan in custody.

Subhash’s parents do not speak to his brother’s wife Gauri, and soon he understands that they hope to drive her away and take custody of her unborn child. So, Subhash offers to marry her and bring her back to the States so that he can care for her and the child. Gauri agrees.

Although Lahiri chooses to begin her novel in turbulent times, both in India and the United States, where demonstrations against Vietnam are taking place, her characters seem distanced from this activity, even though their lives are irrevocably changed by what happened in India. Incidents are described, but at a level that seems far removed from their reality. Only at the very end of the novel do we understand Udayan’s viewpoint, and it is just of the last few moments of his life.

I don’t know if this is a criticism, though. This novel is not so much about these political activities as about Udayan’s actions and their results, about the emotions that arise from them. The novel is about the complexities of grief and how they evoke other emotions–anger, isolation, inertia. As Maureen Corrigan remarks in her review of Unaccustomed Earth, “All that lushness electrifyingly evokes the void.” In The Lowland, we’re not so much faced with lushness as a marshy wasteland. This wasteland is in itself a metaphor. In the monsoon season it is one marsh, but when it becomes drier, it is separated into two ponds, just as Subhash and Udayan, and later Subhash and Gauri, are together and separate, each failing to comprehend the other.

Finally, the novel is about betrayal. Spanning more than 50 years and four generations, this novel, apparently broad in scope, is actually more concerned with private and personal tragedies. It evokes an atmosphere that is at once poignant and arid.