In The Armchair

The Namesake

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on December 9, 2006

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel aspires to capture the loneliness and confusion felt by Indians emigrating to the United States, and the second generation of immigrants, who are a mix of two worlds, India and the USA. It is a successful attempt. Like many Indian authors, Lahiri writes in simple prose, develops her characters carefully and pays an astonishing amount of attention to detail. Unlike many Indian authors, the timeline in her novel flows mostly in one direction; she does not include “flashbacks” to elucidate a character’s makeup.

One peculiarity about this novel is that her characters identify themselves as Bengali rather than Indian. India is a little like a continent: it is composed of states which are completely different in language, customs, cuisine and even dress. Yet there is also a shared commonality that allows one Indian to identify with another: little details of similarity which together add up to more than the differences. Lahiri seems to miss this completely; her characters have no sense of being Indian, only a sense of being Bengali. This is manifested not only in the life of the family (which one would expect to be of Bengali nature), but also in the peculiar fact that her characters know no non-Bengali Indians. While like still gravitates towards like, Indians in the US also tend to associate with other Indians generally, irrespective of location within India.

Overall, the novel works well. Lahiri’s attention to detail and her ability to bring out common things that we don’t always think about make it very interesting. The ending, as is common in Indian books, is open – but not in a way that frustrates.