Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Namesake—Immigrants Through Time

Some things in life start making more sense once we grow up. When I was in school, I read Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Since then, she has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are brimming with solitude and melancholy. "Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again," she writes in the story A Temporary Matter about a couple dealing with the loss of their child. I liked her stories earlier, but at this age in my thirties, when I am in a different stage of life, I can understand and connect with them a little better. It is why I have been re-reading and re-watching The Namesake. It is profoundly moving, not in a cathartic way, but more in the sense of leaving a tiny lump in the throat, making me think about life itself.
The Namesake is directed by Mira Nair with the screenplay adapted by Sooni Taraporevala from Jhumpa Lahiri's debut novel. It is about the Gangulis, a Bengali immigrant family living in the US, and their lives across a span of decades. The family comprises Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), his wife Ashima (Tabu), and their two kids, Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair). Once on the train, a young Ashoke meets a fellow traveler Mr. Ghosh (Jagannath Guha), who tells him that he is young and free. Therefore, he should pack a pillow and travel the world. He will never regret it. An accident ensues in which Ashoke almost dies. He is saved when someone identifies him by the fluttering page of The Overcoat by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. After the accident, Ashoke envisions a life for him abroad in the US. He marries Ashima, has two kids, and becomes a professor. He builds a life in the West while maintaining his connection with the East.
Books and names play a unique role in The Namesake. Ashoke names his son Gogol after the Russian author's book miraculously saved him. But once his son grows up, he prefers to keep his other name Nikhil as he is embarrassed by Gogol. Nikhil is also similar to the first name of the author Nikolai. Nikhil Ganguly. Nikolai Gogol. It reminds me of Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha where the old storyteller had said, "Brahma hai ya Ibrahim, Moses hai ya Musa, Hindu hai ya Indus, Jesus hai ya Isa, Jamuna hai ya Yamuna." It does not matter, as all stories have the same underlying elements. Likewise, there is Ashoke, who forged a connection with his favorite author. Like Nikolai Gogol, Ashoke, too, had spent most of his life outside his home. Ashoke gifts a copy of the collected short stories of Nikolai Gogol to his son Gogol on one of his birthdays. He writes a message for him, "The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave your name." One day, he would understand its significance that we all came from Gogol's overcoat. While a young Gogol does not get all the fuss, an older Gogol understands it later. He reads the book and follows his father's advice. Pack a pillow and blanket. Go, see the world. You will never regret it, Gogol. It is the same feeling I get when I read The Namesake now. I understand the book and the film's emotions much better.

The Namesake is also the love story of Ashoke and Ashima, where many of us can find the stories of our parents in theirs. In the first meeting, Ashoke and Ashima sit opposite each other, but their parents do all the talking. When Ashima enters the room, Ashoke tries to steal a glance at her but keeps his eyes down. After some pleasantries, Ashok's father probes Ashima if she understands that she will be going away to a far-off land where she will be alone. Ashima replies that "Won't he be there?" It is then that he looks up towards her and smiles. The story of Ashima and Ashoke is made up of these quiet and beautiful moments. In another lovely scene, Ashoke shows Ashima the way to the fish market when they move to the US. She replies, what if she got lost. And, Ashoke casually replies, "You think I'd let you get lost." These expressions display their love and affection as physical affection does not come easy to them. When they go visit the Taj Mahal, Ashoke holds Ashima's hands. Moments later, Gogol comes to chat with them, and Ashoke quietly lets go of Ashima's hands, feeling shy in front of his son. When Gogol invites his girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) to his parent's house, he warns her with no touching and no kissing. However, Maxine does not bother. She even gives a peck on the cheek to Ashoke and Ashima, leaving them flustered. At another moment, when Ashoke is in the security line for his flight to Cleveland, he keeps glancing and smiling at her. Before he leaves, he waves his head that he is going. These tiny moments with the beautiful background music accentuate the film's longevity in my mind.

Jhumpa Lahiri's entire oeuvre comprises themes of loneliness and solitude. In The Lowland, she writes, "Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night." In Whereabouts, she writes, "Solitude: it's become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it's a condition I try to perfect." In The Namesake as well, the feeling of loneliness can be felt throughout the book and the film. Early in the book, Lahiri writes about the time when Gogol is born. "As she [Ashima] strokes and suckles and studies her son, she can't help but pity him. She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived." She also says to Ashoke that she does not want to raise her son in this lonely country. Before Ashoke moves to Ohio, he asks Ashima to come along as she will be alone for the first time in her life. But she tells him that she will manage. After he passes away, Ashima tells her friend at the library that she realized why Ashoke went to Cleveland. He was teaching her how to live alone. Even the poem Ashima recited when Ashoke met her is about loneliness, "I wandered lonely as a cloud."
The snow and the cold evoke an intense feeling of loneliness. After Ashima and Ashoke's wedding, they move to the US. In their apartment, a newly married Ashima feels visibly cold and drapes a shawl. She wonders about the presence of her husband, who then enters the room. Later, when she hears about Ashoke's death, Ashima feels extremely cold in a scene reminiscent of the earlier one. She walks all over the house as if looking for something. Ashima moves out of the garage and is left standing in the cold. Her Ashoke is no longer there in her life. His warmth is no longer there in her life.

The Namesake also uses the symbolism of shoes. The book has a lot more passages on shoes, but we see a few in the film. In her first meeting with Ashoke, Ashima sees a pair of brown shoes that belong to him. She puts them on and walks a few steps in them. It is a sign of the way she will step in his shoes and become his life partner. In the book, Lahiri writes, "Ashima, unable to resist a sudden and overwhelming urge, stepped into the shoes at her feet. Lingering sweat from the owner's feet mingled with hers, causing her heart to race; it was the closest thing she had ever experienced to the touch of a man. The leather was creased, heavy, and still warm." When Ashoke asks her why Ashima decides to marry him, she replies that she liked his shoes. Later in the film, Gogol goes to Cleveland to bring back his father's body after he passes away. He enters his father's room and steps in his shoes, reminiscent of the earlier scene with his mother in the film. Now, he is stepping in his father's shoes, becoming the son that he never was. When Ashoke's father passed away, he had shaved his head while a young Gogol watched him. Now, it is the turn of Gogol where he tonsures his head after the death of his father. Life has come a full circle.

Tabu and Irrfan are brilliant in their roles of Ashima and Ashoke. A favorite word of mine is grace, and there is genuinely abundant grace in their performances. It is hard to believe that they are acting. The greys fit perfectly on them. Irrfan is excellent in the scene when he explains to Gogol the reason behind his name. Every day since the accident has been a gift, he says. Tabu shines in the scene when she gives the speech before she leaves for India again. It is their silence that makes The Namesake one of the best performances for both of them.
The Namesake is about transcending boundaries of geography and culture. Like Mr. Ghosh, Ashima's grandmother advises her to embrace the new and not forget the old. Even her name Ashima means limitless, someone without borders, explains her daughter-in-law Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson). The Namesake makes us think about where is home. It makes us ask questions as to where one really belongs. It is a question that we all deal with at some point in life. Before Ashima leaves for India, she speaks movingly about her life. She says that when she came to the US, she missed her life in India. When she is moving back to India, she will miss her life in the US. People. Friendships. It was the place where she learned to know and love her husband.
It is so relatable to anyone who has moved across countries or cities. When I am in my present city, I miss moments of life in India, the festivals, the vibe, the functions. When I am in India, I start missing the quietness of life in the US. For the last two years, I have been in another country outside the US. Before I moved there, I was nervous about the life ahead, whether I would survive or not. When I got there, I missed my life before I moved. I started comparing everything between the two places. I have come back now, and I now miss the life in that country. I miss my friends. I miss the place. I keep wondering what if I stayed there longer. The heart keeps feeling restless. I struggle to call any place home now. I wish I had a sense of belonging. Maybe we leave behind a little part of ourselves in the different places we live. Like Ashima says, that even though Ashoke's ashes are scattered in the Ganges, it was here in the house, in the town, amongst the people that he will continue to dwell in her heart. I guess we belong everywhere, and we belong nowhere.

The movie ends with a credit that reads, "For our parents who gave us everything." Mira Nair said that she made the film after the death of her mother-in-law, who died in a different country. In the film, Ashoke gets a call where he learns that Ashima's father has passed away. Ashima learns about it a few hours later. After some time, Ashoke's father also dies. In the book, Lahiri writes, "In some senses, Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost, those who survive and are consoled by memory alone. Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch. Voices on the phone, occasionally bearing news of births and weddings, send chills down their spines. How could it be, still alive, still talking?" It is so beautifully written, but it makes me think of living a life without our parents. The guilt of not being there never goes away. Is it abandonment? But is it wrong to have a life of your own without them? When Ashoke left for studies, his mother refused to eat for three days. Again the circle of life has been completed. His own children are moving out the way he did.

In the novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid writes about the thoughts of an old woman in Palo Alto who has spent her entire life living in the same house in the same city. However, the woman still feels that she is a migrant. While she stays the same, it is the city that changes around her. The priorities she grows up with don't match those of her children, as seen by their desire to sell her house for a considerable sum of money while she has no interest in the money. The culture and the people around her changed. Hamid writes, "We are all migrants through time." In today's world, we, too, are all immigrants in some way or the other. A bit of everything changes daily. We become a little bit old daily. On some days, I feel so left behind in life while the world is moving ahead. The Namesake provides a glimpse into those changing worlds—of culture, of geography, and also of time.

Trivia:
1) Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake.
Books In Movies:
1) Moushumi reads Armance by Stendahl which was the same book that Oliver read in Call Me By Your Name.
2) Ashoke reads The Village of Stepanchikovo by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Dialogue of the Day:
"Remember that you and I made this journey and went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."
—Ashoke, The Namesake

2 comments:

  1. Beautiful writing. This is one of my favorite movies of all time and you have captured the loneliness and warmth in both the movie and in Lahiri's books throughout her career. It's amazing how much she has grown as a writer, yet a common thread of her ideas have lingered across the years.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for reading. Indeed. It is a beautiful film and book. I just wish that Jhumpa Lahiri goes back to writing in English. :)

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