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     Volume 4 Issue 2 | July 2, 2004 |


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Living in aHome Away fromHome

Jackie Kabir

Starting with Ashima Ganguli's labour pain, the chronological events that occur throughout the course of the novel Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, depict an Indian- Bengali family. This is a brilliant tale told by an author who has a candid grasp on expat life in the United States. In her previous book Interpreter of Maladies, she writes about many intricate relationships in a backdrop of the American lifestyle. But nowhere before did she portray the life of a woman so truly entangled as well as alienated from her Bengali way of life.

Many of her readers would argue that a shelf-full of books have already been written with the same theme. However, no novel has ever talked about certain aspects as this one--one of which is our very own culture of keeping a "dak nam" and a "bhalo nam". The title of the book is derived from this idea also.

When Ashima and Ashoke were waiting for their son's name to be given by Ashima's grandmother and the letter got lost somewhere between Calcutta (now called Kolkata) and Boston and they were compelled by the legal system of the foreign land they inhabited, to give him a name before leaving the hospital. Ashoke was also compelled to give his son a name, which saved him from an accident that happened when he was 22 and nearly killed him.

Jhumpa Lahiri like other Diaspora writers shows the struggle of the Bengali people to keep their identity with a considerable dexterity. As Ashima feels homesick and urges her husband: "I am saying hurry up and finish your degree. I am saying I don't want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It's not right. I want to go back."

Her eagerness is displayed. But eventually the same Ashima learns to believe that this foreign land has become her home away from home. The children, however, feel the three-bedroom apartment and the surrounding environment as their true home. And when Gogol's mother persuades him to go to a gathering of Bengali young people (who took pride in calling themselves ABCD (American Born Confused Deshi) he feels astonished by their eagerness to celebrate the functions which his parents forced him to celebrate.

The book captures one's attention and is hard to put down once begun. Gogol is an embodiment of young American Bangali boy who thinks of his own country as the Americans do "India". These boys are more comfortable in the company of American girls rather than a deshi girl. He changes his name to Nikhil once he is old enough to do so. He feels that the love of his parents which is private and uncelebrating is very depressing. He rather enjoys all the things the Americans do when in love.

"During the days he sits with Maxine's (Gogol's girlfriend) family on a thin strip of beach, looking out onto the gathering jade lake, surrounded by other homes, overturned canoes. Long docks jut into the water. tadpoles dart close to the shore. He does as they do, sitting on a folding chair and reading, a cotton cap on his head, applying sun block at intervals to his arms, falling asleep after barely a page."

As he compares his own holidays with his parents, he feels no nostalgia for the vacations he has spent with his family, and he realises now that they were never really true vacations at all. Instead they were overwhelming, disorienting expeditions either going to Calcutta, or sight seeing in places they did not belong to and intended never to see again.

Finally Gogol finds (or so he thinks) his true soulmate who is also a Bangali by birth but American by upbringing. In fact, she is an independent, hard-working, headstrong woman who doesn't let anyone else rule her. They were attending a party one night: "Gogol can't shake the feeling that half the people in the room have slept with one another". Gogol finally learns to appreciate nomenclature of his parent's in his thirties.

In England, another novelist, Monica Ali, who's a Bangladeshi-born British, had used the same theme in her novel Brick Lane where a young Bangali young woman is married to a man much older than herself living in the UK. She describes the homesickness and later brings herself to like her home she struggles to make. And finally when her husband wants to leave for Bangladesh, she decides not to go with him.

Similarly, Anita Desai Bharati Mukherjee all have used the same theme in different books. Using this theme is not new phenomenon in the literature of South Asian Diaspora. But the inner conflict of identity within the characters of all these novels doesn't seem to wither away even over time. Searching for an identity in a foreign land is becoming the subject of more and more writers who are being recognised by the literary world. This trend is likely to stay some more decades.


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