I got the book a couple of weeks ago, but I was very hesitant when it came to reading it. I’d seen reviews saying that it’s a poor follow up to The interpreter of maladies and I was a bit unwilling to face the disappointment. Encouraged by capricornk‘s review though, I’m here now to say just how much I loved it, how easy it is to find bits of myself in characters with which, objectively speaking, I have nothing in common and how amazing ms. Lahiri’s prose is.
The book is practically a series of tableaux from the life of a 2 generational Indian immigrant family. Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli came to America shortly after their arranged marriage – he has a fellowship at MIT and she has to follow him. The first part of the book focuses on their gradual adaptation to the American way of life – Ashoke, more exposed to the culture is more willing to embrace it and Ashima, while at first retreating in letters from her family, longing after the only place she felt home in (Calcutta), finally building a life, and an ever expanding circle of Bengali friends in a cold city in new England. The birth of their first child, a boy, shifts the focus towards him – he will be the hero of this book, torn between his heritage and his adopted culture, never completely at ease in any of them. This separation of egos is underlined by the story of his 2 names: Gogol and Nikhil. In Indian tradition, a child’s official name is the responsibility of the eldest relative, while within the family, everyone uses a nickname, a namesake. When the letter containing the name sent by Ashima’s grandmother gets lost in the mail and the American beaurocracy pressures them, the Gangulis use “Gogol”, their child’s namesake, as his official name. Gogol – a reference to Nikolai Gogol, his father’s favorite writer whose book truly saved his life in a terrible train crash – once grown up, will consider the name a burden, will reject it and will eventually officially change it to Nikhil, a name his parents had once chosen. This is how he will spend his whole life – Nikhil in NYC where he studies to become an architect, Gogol back home in the suburbs, always feeling displaced, always feeling uneasy. He goes through several relationships, mostly with Americans of whom his mother disapproves, until he marries and eventually divorces an Indian woman who ends up cheating on him.
This small sequence of facts doesn’t do justice to the book. Ms. Lahiri has a knack for depicting domestic scenes with distance, accuracy and attention to every detail, and the evolution of the Gangulis lives is narrated through a series of moments – sometimes months, sometimes years apart. The ability to start over – Ashoke leaving India behind, Ashima renouncing her comfortable house in the suburbs after her husband’s death to travel back and forth between Calcutta and New York, Moushumi (that’s Gogol’s wife) moving to Paris, Sonia (Gogol’s sister) going to school in California – seems embedded in everyone except him. Coming back for the last party in the house where he grew up, Gogol realises that, as much as he rejected his parents’ culture and involvement, he was never more than a 4 hour drive away from them. His mother’s departure and the discovery of a long forgotten present from his his father end the book but perhaps start a new chapter in Gogol’s life: the acceptance and embracing of who he really is.
Nothing feels fake about this family and nothing extraordinary. They’re not a crazy dysfunctional family (although Gogol’s return home after his father’s death got me thinking about the first Six feet under episode 😀 ), they’re not dealing with extraordinary circumstances and they’re not prone to drama. They could be your next door neighbours, they could be your own family – they really could be anyone. Their universality is really what makes them special.
There’s a 2006 movie made after the book (starring Kal Penn of the Harold & Kumar fame, who’s now apparently some sort of consultant in the Obama administration 😛 ) – if anyone is interested. I’m definitely not, I’m quite sure the movie won’t be able to capture the whole feeling of the book.
NYT review – here. My sole issue here is not with the book itself, but with the translation – or, to be more precise, with the many annoying misspellings in the Cotidianul edition. I know they go for cheap, but I’d gladly pay more for better.