Book Review: The Namesake

Well! I promised I’ll do this. And I don’t think I regret having made the promise.

The book is much better than the movie (of course). Somehow, things seem to fall more in place when you read the book (but, of course). Gogol does come across as an idiot, but not so much. Ashoke seems more mature. And Ashima, true to what her character should be, seems as lost as she should seem. The sister’s character has some sense (Sonia). Moushumi has a more meaningful role to play. Her past, present and future makes more sense. So does Maxine’s.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”,
as opposed to Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” is an extremely mature book written in a style that bridges the gap between India and America, just as Ashok and Ashima’s life tries to. At times, it moves into the narrative style of an Indian author, where there are graphic details around the mundane details of everyday life, the way people walk and talk, their cultural heritage and how that impacts their way of thinking. At several other occasions, she is at consummate ease with the American accent, style and ways. Jhumpa gets into the skin of these characters completely, and everyone is identifiable.

GOGOL: Gogol, coming across as an ABCD in the movie, is pretty much an American with Indian parentage. He is not a wannabe American, as ABCDs are supposed to be. On the contrary, he is as Indian as anyone else. His way of thinking, getting frustrated with weekend Bengali parties, are not something that I won’t see in an Indian metro of today. Just because the setting is that of USofA, it does not make Gogol any different

ASHIMA: Ashima is the quintessential taken away from her roots, Indian woman, so diminished in identity already, being forced to find/create a new identity in an unfamiliar land. She does not share the eagerness of new-gen IT geeks who would probably hang by the wheels of an airplane to go to the States, if that could take care of the H1B issues! For her, its about speaking a language, talking about things that seem so alien to her. Especially, when you are coming from a country where talking to your relatives and neighbors is the biggest social activity. Her ordeal as her children move from her side of the world to their side of the world is very subtly laid out in the book.

ASHOKE: A very mature, and subtle individual, wizened through the age, experiences and literature he devours, Ashoke comes across the most compromising and far-sighted individual in the book. He talks in a language that smells of the future, handles situations in a way that tells you how much he is thinking, has an unwavering integrity about his character, and a simplicity that you end up loving. And his character, somehow, is one the least covered and most powerful characters in the book.

MAXINE: What the movie failed to do is to highlight Max’s lifestyle and her family. From the word go, in the novel, you can feel that their relationship is doomed, despite all love and comfort between the two. Unlike the movie, the breakup does not happen at a time when Gogol is not able to think about anything, but beyond that time, when Gogol is still not able to think of anything. A severed relationship at the time of crisis can be mended, but a relationship severed because of a drastic change in life, probably cannot.

MOUSHUMI: Does get a bit of attention in the novel. The movie again, does not do justice to the complexity of her life. The presence of Dmitri in her life, a long time fetish, her love for Paris, her inability to fit Gogol in her social life, and a dying relationship (which still survives in India because of the social boundaries) are all well detailed in the book.

Starting off with the birth of Gogol, and explained through Ashoke’s accident while he still had Nikolai Gogol in his hands, Namesake explains the need of some people to remain commoners and not really stand out in a crowd. Gogol’s biggest grudge against his name is that it makes him stand out. Nobody names their children Shakespeare, for instance. Gogol wanted to be a part of the crowd. In addition to the brown skin, which never really stops him from dating or being accepted by whites, he has a unique name to contend with. While I think about this, I am sure there must be a lot of people out there who would love to explain the history of their unique name. It makes them stand out and they probably love that!
This struggle to be a common man makes him the son of Ashoke and Ashima, common Indian people, who have a preference for being a part of the crowd. Isn’t that what defines, in large parts, what Indian society think like.
Gogol struggled to find his own place by keeping both the worlds happy. When he could not, he chose one over the other. At times, he tried to understand what the other world is like, and at times, he gave up.

For me, there are 4 things that I like to see in a book

1. Content- story – I would not call it a great story, but its high on content. The story does not tell me something that I, as an individual, have failed to notice. But it does present itself beautifully. . What does make the whole story intriguing is the way people handle their own set of challenges.
2. Attention to detail – Awesome! This is the area where Jhumpa Lahiri nails it. Even the rituals of walking, driving around the blocks, switching on the lights when Ashoke dies, the use of rooms on different occasions,
3. The pace of the book – is a little slow, but in tune with the mood. There are pages that you can quickly run through because they are quick. There are times when she wants you to devour the details, and the pages are a little slow there. But not meaningless.
4. Loyalty to the genre (a thriller should thrill, a classic should have something to stand the test of time, and should be reflective of the times when it was written) – I don’t know where The Namesake belongs. But it seems to be in place! That’s as vacuous a statement as I don’t know if Tendulkar should continue to play cricket, but I think he is playing well. Bottomling – it’s a nice book to read! It does not give me a feeling of reading a boring thriller

Read it.. especially if the movie disappointed you. At least you won’t blame Jhumpa Lahiri for writing a mundane story!

Movie Review: The Namesake

I saw the movie more than a week back. However, I was thinking of writing the review only after I have read the book as well. As Diamond would have it, the book has taken steam in the last day or so, and the review has been pending a while.

Yenniways, back I am. To talk about Gogol, Goggles, Ashoke, Ashima, America, India, Bengal, and all their Namesakes.

Of all the classical literature I have followed, somehow, I never ended up reading Nikolai Gogol. Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy were as much a Russian repertoire as I could get comfortable with. Anyways, the plan is to read and figure out if I have also come from Gogol’s overcoat.

The movie seems to have impressed a lot of people, but yours truly wasn’t really impressed. And for a change, the biggest disappointment was Tabu, who just doesn’t seem Bengali enough. IrfanKhan is extremely convincing in his accent and demeanor of a Bengali. Kal Penn disappoints (with due respect to his comic timing and my appreciation of his several other movies). Others don’t really have a role.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli (or, Nikhil Ganguli) (Kal Penn), the namesake of the great Russian author Nikolai Gogol, with his unique name bestowed upon him by his father Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan) given his love with Russian literature and a past haunted by an accident.

However, rather than getting into the story, which I will definitely get into in my other post on the book review of The Namesake, I will focus on the movie.

The things I did not like about the movie (there are n number of blogs talking about how good the movie is!)

A. Settings

  • Calcutta (then, and now Kolkata) of 1974 hardly seems authentic.
  • Ashoke’s accident occurs in 1974, and he is bed ridden for one year. He goes to the US for 2 years, and that would take us to 1977. Getting married in 1977, and with a son who is nearing 25+ years at the time of going to Maxine’s house in New Hampshire, would take us to something like 2003+. I am surprised that neither Max nor Gogol had a cellphone. Surprisingly, no one in the movie had a cell phone till the time Moushumi flips one open. And even at that point, she is the only one with a cell. Everyone else uses landlines all the time.

B. Performances & Characterizations

  • Tabu’s accent is just not Bengali enough. Her accent reminds me not of a Bengali turned American, but the recent metro English movies like 15 park avenue, etc. where the artists add a musical tinge to their English. “What Rahul! I tell you. These kids no! They are just taking our generation down the drain. You don’t trust me? How mean?”
  • Kal Penn doesn’t look young enough to be a 14 year old (at the time when Ashoke gifts him the book). And he never seems irritated enough! More importantly, the story belongs to him. Somewhere Mira Nair has gone wrong in showcasing the conflict between Nikhil and Gogol.
  • His sister’s character is totally sidelined. With her first half looks, it was a good ploy, but the second half is where she should have had a role to play. However, the book is about Gogol. And Gogol’s sister probably is not important for Gogol’s existence.
  • The events are simplified a bit too much – Gogol’s hatred for his name is long drawn phenomenon where he doesn’t hate the name as much as its strangeness, its un-indianness or something like that. The trauma on his face (for the first 5 minutes after Ashoke tells him about the accident) is lost without any further analysis. And guess what – changing his name from Gogol to Nikhil is the most important thing he has done ever.
  • The divorce between Gogol and Moushumi just happens. Moushumi’s side of the story is never explained. And she does look pretty hot in some of the sequences. So my sympathies are with her. Not with the confused brat Gogol.
  • Breakup with Max! but why? What went wrong? In her own way, she wanted to be a part of the family. What went wrong there? No explanations given!
  • Gogol’s choice of being an architect. Again, too simplistic. What was he doing till the time he saw Taj? There is only one point where he is shown sketching. But what about the career shaping forces known as Indian parents, who want their kids to become doctors/engineers!!
  • I can go on and on and on. But the point remains. Some of the underlying struggle of being a namesake, a fact that haunts Gogol forever, are hardly dealt with.

I feel, as I write this review, and as I walked out of the theatre, that The Namesake is another book turned movie gone average, a fact I would never understand. When a novel is written, the authors usually creates exquisite detail around who a person is, their life, their environment, their dresses, the walls, the colors. Someone converting it into a movie, needs to be honest to the spirit of the book. But they edit and re-edit it. Thinking they are making more logical sense than the original. They underestimate the viewer. Moreover, they make the mistake of assuming that the viewer has read the book.

However, having said all this, let me take some of the harsh words back. I am being overcritical because I had high expectations from the movie. I don’t remember having the feeling of walking out of the movie during those 2 hours. SO, its definitely worth a watch. It’s a decently narrated story in chunks. Its a collage of small snippets that Mira Nair tries to walk us through in her journey of understanding Gogol. Or, maybe, that’s her understanding of Gogol. It’s a reader’s interpretation!

Overall Rating -5-6 out of 10. Bulk of that 6 is Irfan Khan. And the fact that the movie is not a bore!

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