I have always been drawn to books about the South Asian immigrant experience. These books are an opportunity to explore the emotions around the experience of my grandparents, and to see a small part of myself reflected in the media I consume.
The prolific writer Jhumpa Lahiri has been on my reading list since I learned Mindy Kaling named her character in The Mindy Project after her. Her name was added to a long list of works that I tell myself I’m going to get to, but seldom do.
However, when Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan passed away, I made it my mission to work away at his filmography – and I came across Lahiri’s The Namesake once again.
Images of Khan in the film adaptation of the novel on a train, holding a copy of The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol flooded the internet, and I decided that it was only right to read the book before watching the movie.
Before I knew it, the book arrived at my doorstep and I spent days engrossed in the journey of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli — from their immigration from Calcutta to Massachusetts in the late 1960s, to the upbringing of their inquisitive son, Gogol.
The book shines light upon the delicate interactions, micro-aggressions and experiences that South Asian immigrants face in America.
The Namesake depicts the cultural practices that many South Asian immigrants hold sacred, and the new Western ones taken on for the sake of their children, such as reluctantly celebrating Christmas despite the family being Hindu.
The reader feels Gogol’s afflictions while navigating his identity as a second-generation immigrant — one who feels not entirely American, but in many ways not Indian, either.
This is shown through the protagonist’s ever-changing relationship with his parents, and his responsibilities as a son, while simultaneously tackling the challenges of living on his own and choosing a romantic partner.
It shows the powerful bond of family, despite heart-wrenching circumstances.
The book beautifully captures the process of deconstructing one’s identity throughout a lifetime. Lahiri gives us deeply human characters, who remind me of people I grew up with.
Even characters that remind me of myself.
The novel articulates experiences and emotions that are precious because we so rarely see them reflected in print.
The Namesake is an opportunity to unravel one’s own relationship with their identity, and to learn more about the experiences of those around us. For me, it was a blessing because to read The Namesake is to feel seen.
For those of us who aren’t big readers, check out the film adaptation directed by Mira Nair and starring Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Kal Penn—it does not disappoint.