Now I am the first to admit that I may have my quirks. One of them, according to my family, is my need to find the longest, as opposed to the most efficient journey time by train....We live in the London commuter belt, and so I find myself heading to the capital for various training courses and occasionally, a fun day out. It was this latter motive that took me there last Friday, to meet a very dear friend for coffee, mooching along the Kings Road, and lunch at The Gallery Mess alongside the Saatchi Gallery. So, mindful of the arrangement to meet said friend at 10am at South Kensington tube, I checked the train times. I could choose from a wide variety, taking from 23 to 50 minutes apiece. I chose the 50 minute stopper, which, as I say repeatedly to my husband, is the only sensible option! Why? Well... no-one wants the stopper, so you always get a seat, but mainly I maximise my guilt-free reading time. We don't allow ourselves the luxury of slowing down enough to relish a good book. Many of my family and friends only really read on holiday. I can't bear to sideline my books to a fortnight of the year, but I concede that getting good reading time is difficult. You can tell by the intermittent nature of my posts, that I have fits and starts. School holidays usually give a boost to the novel content, but so do train journeys!
So it was that I found myself engrossed in Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake. The book had appeared on my new A level specification and I was intrigued. Although I enjoy the nineteenth century novels and the accepted canon of literature, modern students also need exposure to good, modern texts. And this is a good one. Lahiri draws utterly convincing characters and the tone is typified by gentleness. It opens with an account of Ashima who is in the late stages of pregnancy. Her cravings, and her respectful references to Ashoke, her husband, immediately draw attention to Indian culture and tradition. The setting is however, America. The novel focuses on this family and explores identity and roots. The protagonist is the unborn child of chapter one, who becomes known as Gogol after his father's favourite Russian author. That this was never supposed to be his "good" name forms the central idea of identity. The good" name is lost in the post, the revered Grandmother denied her chance to name her grandchild. Patient and ever hopeful that the lost letter will arrive, he remains Gogol, neither Indian nor American, a burden that Gogol himself feels is too much. Thus he re-invents himself, choosing to use the good name his parents eventually opted for but never used.
The novel is bildungsroman in structure, following the development from baby to boy, from boy to man. We understand his struggles and simultaneously empathise with his parents. They remain Indians in America, demonstrated by their frequent need to visit Calcutta. This pilgrimage has such significance, that they cannot comprehend the reluctance of their American born children to participate; they fail to see the awkwardness of missing weeks of school in order to see their Indian relatives. The children feel neither one thing nor the other.
And it is this confusion of identity that is exposed as Nikhil begins his path to independence. His choices are marked by his desire to be himself, whilst not really knowing who he is or who he is trying to be. His relationships typify his search. Maxine is lovely, and an archetypal American girl. She is kind, she is relaxed. There are few rules and expectations in her parents house, and Nikhil embraces this freedom. And yet the call to his Indian culture tugs. A bereavement turns him back to his family and the conflict between cultures is exposed as seismic. Moushima follows, and she seems to be the compromise he needs. She is also born of Bengali parents and is living in New York She seems to embody the composite experiences that Nikhil has struggled with, allowing him to be fully Indian and fully American. Their story brings the novel to a close.
This is not an action novel, there are no climactic moments or tense page turning conflicts. Instead we have humanity; flawed people attempting to live the best they can and to love the best they can. It is a testimony to what it means to be living in this global world with its conflicting pulls, and it is the story of one family's attempt to muddle through.
And to my London day? Well 50 minutes wasn't quite enough, so it was with eagerness that I climbed aboard the 9.59 from Reading to Temple Meads the following day to take child 2 on a university open day in Bristol. We understand each other. He allowed me the space to read whilst he happily listened to music. Perfect!