When Ashoke Ganguli, a Western-educated Bengali with a PhD in fiber optics and an American job in Cambridge, returns to Calcutta for a traditional arranged marriage, he offers his bride-to-be Ashima a life unimaginably different from the one that marriage opened for her mother.
“Can you go halfway around the world,” Ashima’s father asks her, half in English and half in Bengali, “and live in a cold city with freezing winters? Can you leave your family? Would you be lonely?”
Ashima eyes the suitor she has only just met. She doesn’t even know his name, soon to be her name. Nothing more personal or intimate than the gold “U.S.A.” label on the insides of the shoes he left at the door of her parents’ house, into which she surreptitiously slipped her own feet before entering the room where he sat with their parents waiting for her.
“Won’t he be there?“ she replies uncertainly.
This exchange, which occurs nine pages into Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel The Namesake, and perhaps about as many minutes into Mira Nair’s adaptation of the same name, hints at how little Ashima really understands what she is being asked.
Her father might also have asked: Can you live in a country where bureaucrats insist on recording a name for your child before allowing you to leave the hospital, whether or not you have heard from your grandmother on what the child’s name should be? In which a child can tell school officials what name he will or won’t answer to? In which your son may grow his hair longer than your daughter’s, or may bring home a young woman with long blond locks to meet you? In which a young woman may address her beau’s parents by their first names, and even touch their son right in front of them?
The Namesake is knowing and observant regarding the vagaries of cultural collisions that are a perennial part of the immigrant experience. Yet the basic issues are not cultural, but universal and human. Although at first Ashima feels ready to raise a family in this brave new world, once she actually becomes a mother she discovers that she feels quite differently.
“I don’t want to raise Gogol in this lonely country,” Ashima (Bollywood superstar Tabu in a nuanced performance) protests to Ashoke (Irrfan Khan). “I want to go back.” I’ve never lived in another country, but I smiled knowingly at this change of heart, remembering how my wife Suzanne was ready early in our marriage to settle down several states away from where she had grown up, but later found that the thought of raising a family hundreds of miles from her mother and sister was unthinkable.
Ashima will never completely belong to this world — certainly not the way that her children will. And yet, in a strange way, Ashima will always know who she is and what she wants, while her children flounder about, perhaps for the rest of their lives, trying to craft identities for themselves. Indeed, it will be decades before her son Gogol, or Nikhil (Harold & Kumar’s Kal Penn, gracefully transitioning to a more dramatic role), will be quite sure what his name is.
Although Ashima finds that life in the U.S. is lonely — lonelier than she had imagined — she and Ashoke know very well where they stand with one another. When, in a rare sentimental moment, he asks her decades later why she married him, she smiles and replies, “Do you want me to say I love you, like the Americans?” Unburdened by American ideas of romantic love, Ashima is content in her arranged marriage to a man she once knew only by the labels in his shoes.
Gogol finds the emotional and physical restraint of his parents’ relationship depressing; yet even in America this traditional Bengali marriage may ultimately hold out more hope for lasting happiness and stability than the homegrown sort of relationships Gogol pursues with all-American girls like Maxine (Jacinta Barrett). Even meeting and settling down with a nice Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson) may not be a buffer against the selfish, heartless side of American romance.
What’s in a namesake? Although to native English speakers “Gogol Ganguli” might sound like a perfectly respectable Indian name, Gogol is a Slavic surname, borrowed from the Ukrainian-born Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. At first “Gogol” is only meant to be a pet name, given in lieu of a “good name” to be chosen by Ashima’s grandmother. As a boy, however, Gogol insists on being known only by his pet name, displacing his good name. “Here the children decide,” Ashoke laments. “We live in a country with a president named Jimmy. There is nothing we can do.”
Well, there is one thing: wait for Gogol to change his mind. As a young man, Gogol — no, call him Nikhil, or better still, just plain Nick — can’t believe his parents named him after some frustrated, depressed, paranoid, friendless Ukrainian writer. “Did you guys know all this stuff when you named me after him?” he demands incredulously.
Ashoke has personal reasons for the connection he feels to the writer, who spent most of his life outside his native Ukraine, and in particular to his celebrated short story “The Overcoat” (which happens to include an early aside justifying the seemingly unlikely and idiosyncratic name of its protagonist). Trying to explain all this to his son, Ashoke quotes a line often attributed to Dostoyevsky. “We all came from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’ ” he says, adding, “One day you will understand.”
For a long time Gogol doesn’t want to understand. His name is as pointless and irrelevant as his parents’ old-world customs and traditions; they have nothing to do with him. But then comes an incalculably momentous event of the sort that demands a ritual response, and Gogol finds that he has nothing else to fall back on, nothing that will answer but what has been always done at such times by all Bengali families. It’s one of the film’s most touching moments, and it brings tears to his mother’s eyes. “You didn’t have to do that,” she says when she sees him, but he knows he did. Later, there is a different sort of impromptu ritual in which Gogol unknowingly recapitulates his mother’s first moment of contact with her future husband, slipping his feet into a pair of shoes not his own.
At the end of its 122 minutes, perhaps, few if any of the story’s various partial threads have really been resolved. Open-ended and somewhat scattered, the film is generally engaging but feels elusively incomplete. One could say it is about the journey rather than the destination. It doesn’t match the delights of Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, but it’s a return to form after the misfire of Vanity Fair, and aided by strong performances.
A more disciplined approach to the screenplay might have distilled Lahiri’s 300-page novel into something more satisfyingly focused. Instead, frequent Nair collaborator Sooni Taraporevala chooses to sketch in and gesture at as much of the book as possible, trusting viewers to supply the rest.
The result is perhaps a rare adaptation that works better the more familiar one is with the source material. Most adaptations compete with their source material, so that the stronger one feels about the original work, the more conflicted one feels about the adaptation. The Namesake may be best enjoyed by viewers most able to connect the dots and fill in the gaps wherever Lahiri’s creation hasn’t quite made it to the screen.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.