November 5, 2020 | Arts and Culture
tea, coffee, and the dying day
the namesake by jhumpa lahiri
Returning to the Bay Area in the midst of the global pandemic, I dedicated a weekend to decluttering my room. Unlike my college dorm, where every mug and plant pot had been carefully deliberated over, my room at home was a haphazard constellation of objects: a globular mess of pasta and dried glue (my physics bridge project from junior year of high school), the G-Dragon CDs my mom brought me from Korea in ninth grade (which I can no longer listen to, having donated my CD player years ago), and the paperback books I read and re-read in elementary school, smudging chocolate on the pages and spilling crumbs into the spine. This accumulation from my childhood and teenage years felt like the residue of previous lives I’d lived, lives I have since shed like skin. Dumping the papers from my desk drawers onto the floor, sorting everything into three piles—“keep,” “reuse,” and “trash”—I felt as though these objects were picked up from another world and tossed into my present, as though I was encountering them for the first time again.
Reading The Namesake is like cleaning up my childhood bedroom. The Asian-American classic demands detailed attention and humble observance to its telling of a multi-generational immigrant narrative without Orientalist drama. The novel chronicles the life of the Gangulis, a Bengali-American family who immigrates to Massachusetts from India. Although the book covers a large expanse of time, it resists becoming a fetishizing tale of “the American dream” or a case study on “foreign cultures” for white audiences. Rather, Lahiri’s writing dedicates the necessary care and attention to each character’s story and the complexity of their beings.
The first half of the book focuses on Ashima, the wife and mother of the family, beginning with the day her son is born. Ashima and her husband Ashoke are taken aback when the hospital informs them that they must select a name for their son before they take him home. They had been awaiting the arrival of a letter from Ashima’s grandmother, which contains the “good name” they are supposed to give the child. Alarmed, the couple decide to give their son a “pet name” in the meantime—Gogol, after a Russian writer with whom Ashoke feels a special connection.
The way that Ashima misses her family and her life across the Pacific in these first months and years feels so familiar to me. For example, she imagines her family’s evening routine back in India as she is at the hospital about to give birth: “In the kitchen of her parents’ flat on Amherst Street, at this very moment, a servant is pouring after-dinner tea into steaming glasses, arranging Marie biscuits on a tray. Her mother, very soon to be a grandmother, is standing at the mirror of her dressing table, untangling waist-length hair…Her father hunches over his slanted ink-stained table by the window, sketching, smoking, listening to the Voice of America.”
I love the array of textures at work in this scene. I can smell the fragrance of the tea, feel the steam lightly rising onto my face, and taste the quiet contentment of the evening. In moments like these, immersing myself in Lahiri’s descriptions, the reading experience becomes a kind of remembering, filled with unfamiliar-yet-familiar colors and flavors. There’s both pain and sweetness in this memory, which is also a longing for a wildly different everyday existence. As someone who lives in a different country from most of my relatives, I can relate to Ashima’s imagining of her family’s everyday life, missing and grieving for a mundane existence that is so different from her own (what would it be like for visits to be casual and frequent, instead of feeling like stolen time?). I watched the characters with a sense of loss, as if watching an old film where I already knew the ending. I became acutely aware of the simple habits and objects that create the contours of an ordinary life.
The second half of the book follows Gogol as he grows up, goes to college, and falls in and out of love. When he leaves for Yale, Gogol changes his name to Nikhil, wanting to assert a new identity distinct from the one his family has given him (although Nikhil is the “good name” his parents decided on—they just never called him by it). Against his parent’s wishes, he becomes an architect and dates a number of white women before ultimately marrying––then divorcing––Moushumi, a childhood family friend.
Gogol is taken aback when he initially falls in love with Moushumi, having always been seeking the unfamiliar in his previous relationships. It’s their shared experiences of growing up as Bengali immigrant children, however, that allow them to be their most comfortable selves in one another’s presence, not having to explain or justify anything. But only a year into their marriage, Moushumi becomes restless, thinking about what could have been with her former lovers. Despite the overall pleasantness of her marriage with Gogol, she grows tired of the smallness of their life and compares their lifestyle to some of her artistic white friends who buy organic meats and host dinner parties.
The couple travel to Paris together as Gogol struggles to hang onto an intimacy that is slipping away from him. On the last day of the trip, he is overcome with nostalgia as he takes a photo of Moushumi in a café: “She looks beautiful to him, tired, the concentrated light of the dying day on her face, infusing it with an amber-pink glow. He watches the smoke drift away from her. He wants to remember this moment, the two of them together, here. This is how he wants to remember Paris.” I’m struck by the active way Gogol chooses to preserve this moment to represent this person and this place. There are moments when I, too, become acutely aware that this present time will only be a memory in a matter of weeks or months or hours. Rather than allowing that awareness to make him desperate or anxious, however, Gogol allows the moment to die away without fuss or strain, leaving behind a pleasurable memory.
The Namesake shows that there is beauty in the ordinary, and courage in survival—a comforting notion to me. It paints the immigrant narrative without fanfare or extravagance, but rather, with quiet introspection. Reading these passages, I am reminded of my nostalgia for each of the three locations that triangulate my life: Brown, San Jose, and Korea. Brown is the rich nitro cold brew served on tap at the Blue Room, the late nights of karaoke and hard cider in the lounge, and hours of furious typing in the Hay, in the company of white figureheads. San Jose brings to mind an ivory-colored dog with lemon ears licking my knee in passing, sharing sour cheese crackers straight from the bag with my sister, and the bright effervescent green of trees at golden hour. My most full-bodied memories are of Korea: the salty fried potato-and-leek patties my grandmother serves with soy sauce and rice, the burning in my thighs as I struggle up the hill on my grandfather’s “light” morning walk, and the sticky hands of my cousins as they lead me to the next game (me hiding my exhaustion, them giddy with excitement).
There are different parts of me that come in and out of the shadows as I transition into each mode of existence, like switching the game cartridge on a Nintendo DS. None of these places carry the “true me” and none of them are completely unblemished by sad or painful memories. And in moments of loneliness, like Gogol and Ashima, I sometimes mourn “what could have been” and find myself wrapped up in my desire for other lives. However, I am lulled into a hushed contentment by remembering the places I carry with me and the memories they have left. I choose to believe that it’s these stolen moments—ripe with longing, pleasure, and sweetness—that make immigrant lives like ours rich and complexly beautiful.
*Original cover art for The Namesake by Philippe Lardy