Reading The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, has been appreciated by desis (Indians) and non-desis alike, to the extent that it has been made into a film in India and appreciated worldwide. The book deals with the cultural situation of first generation and second generation Indians in foreign countries, in this case America. I am in a bit of a strange situation when it comes to cultural categories, as I am neither a first nor a second generation Indian… I am somewhere in between, having been born in India and having grown up in the west (something like a 1.5 generation migrant). Stranger still is the fact that, after living in England, making friends there, graduating from college there, getting married there and having a home there, I have revisited my motherland after all these years. My partner and I are currently working in India for a couple of years… My husband is in the second generation migrant category, and we speak to each other in English (with British accents), he watches the football, we eat a mixture of western and Indian food at home, we don’t practise the Hindu rituals our parents practise and we wear mostly western clothes. So, that’s my situation as I begin reading The Namesake

The book begins with an account of a Bengali couple’s journey to the USA, the wife’s (Ashima’s) sense of alienation as she learns to accept her distance from her family, the lack of authentic Indian food, the cold climate and the sense of being different from those around her. The couple have two children, Gogol and Sonia. The story centres around Gogol’s experience. He hates his name, which was given to him as a pet name but which stuck as his ‘outside’ name. He does not initially know that his father gave him this name because he had been reading a book by Nikolai Gogol when he experienced a serious train accident; waving the book from below the wreckage was the act that allowed him to be seen and rescued. Gogol later changes his name to Nikhil, a name his father had wanted him to adopt for school, but which he had not liked as an infant. The act of naming becomes integral to the book’s exploration of cultural identity. Unlike his mother, Gogol embraces Amercian culture effortlessly, to the extent that he dismisses and discards his Indian identity. He has premarital relationships, goes out with friends and only engages with the rituals of his childhood – of speaking Bengali, attending ‘pujos’ and eating mostly Indian food – when he visits his parents. He visits his parents less and less as he grows independent, preferring his separation from them. This is until his father dies suddenly, when his perspective begins to change. As if in retaliation to his ‘foreignness’ from his parents and from his white American friends, he marries an American-Bengali like himself. But the marriage fails because the couple cannot maintain a sense of connection with each other; Gogol’s wife begins an affair with a man who has the same intellectual interests as her, and Gogol eventually finds out.

The book ends at the point Ashima, Gogol’s mother, is about to return to India to enjoy her retirement. She plans to divide her remaining time between India and America. Sonia is about to get married to an American man who Ashima knows will make her daughter happy. The story is simple but deeply moving, showing the struggle of those who start a life in a foreign country whilst being unable to fully let go of their own cultures and customs. It also shows the more subtle pain of the second generation immigrant, who feels divided between two identities.

What struck me most about the book was that things I thought were specific to my own experience of growing up are actually typical migrant experiences. Such as the loud Indian get-togethers Gogol’s parents have, and his mother’s fussing. It seems to me that the book is ultimately trying to say that however important culture may be in shaping our experiences, it is not the thing which makes us who we are inside. Gogol and his Indian wife have the same cultural experience, but their personalities do not complement. Ashima builds her life around her Bengali community, but when she grows older she realises that America has also become her home, and she cares about her American friends at the library where she works.

The saddest thing about the book is that it is a reminder of cultural fragmentation. People living far from their families and friends in pursuit of new opportunities. But in such a global situation, it becomes even more important to stay connected with loved ones and to be open to unlikely friendships.

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Reading An End to Suffering

I recently read Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering while I was travelling in India. I stumbled across the book whilst visiting my sister in Delhi, and it turned out to be synchronistically relevant for my journey to McLeod Ganj, a Tibetan Buddhist settlement nestled in the lush mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh.

An End to Suffering is a semi-autobiographical narrative which tracks the writer’s growing understanding of Buddhism as he meets different people, visits holy sites and reads more about the life of Gautama Siddhartha, who later became a ‘buddha’ or ‘awakened one’.

The book combines factual detail with personal insight with a fine balance that compels the reader to turn its pages. We learn as much about the writer’s personal aims and ambitions as we do about the Buddha’s renunciation of his desires. The prose flows smoothly and delicately from one chapter to the next, and before you know it, you’re mourning the ‘end’ of a good book. Pankaj Mishra’s writing style is very easy to get into: it is simple yet effective.

I had read about Buddhism before, but I had never understood it in as much depth as I did during my trip to McLeod Ganj. The tiny hill station accommodates hundreds of monks, nuns and almost as many tourists. In a humble and serene house inside the main monastery resides the present Dalai Lama. I wasn’t able to meet him during my visit, but I did get a chance to learn about Buddhist teachings. What became very clear to me was the dichotomy between Buddhist practice and Buddhist culture. As with any religion, the paraphernalia of culture and ritualism overshadows the philosophy that the Buddha related in north-east India a few centuries ago.

There are some very diligent Buddhists in McLeod Ganj, but most of the monks are swayed by the western tourism which supports and influences the settlement. It is common to see monks with mobile phones, garbed in maroon robes and perhaps wearing rollerskates too. I do not mean to judge the choices of free individuals, but more to teach myself to see the difference between spiritual practice and cultural influence. In Hindu worship, we see blind ritualism occurring all the time, when people follow age-old customs whilst refuting the underlying spiritual values through their daily actions. We all do it to some extent.

Reading An End to Suffering whilst in McLeod Ganj made the Buddha’s teaching come alive with meaning. The Buddha’s observations are very relevant to our modern world, where, due to forced Chinese occupation, Tibetan natives face grueling conditions to leave their country, only to be trapped in ‘democracies’ where drugs and capitalism serve to numb the pain of consciousness. This is just one of many examples that show how we are destroying ourselves and our planet in the present age.

The Buddha taught that life is ‘dukkha’, which means restlessness (commonly translated as ‘suffering’). This restlessness arises from our own cravings to either attain something or be free of something. But whatever joy or pain we feel in our chase for things, it is all temporary. We want our joy to last and our pain to fade forever, but both these things keep coming and going. The Buddha’s answer is to awaken to this reality, the reality that is flux and change and nothing more. He suggests that by awakening, our cravings will ebb away and we will find an end to suffering.

Pankaj Mishra’s reminiscences of his own childhood, travels and achievements provide the backdrop of an example for the Buddha’s explanations. We see Mishra confront his own cravings and the flux of his changing life. But all the while, do we notice the flux in our own lives as we read? I would recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing Buddhism in a personal light.

Reading Family Matters

Rohinton Mistry is one of the finest Indian writers, and this novel is no exception to his skill. Everyone ages and dies; there’s nothing particularly intriguing about the fact of life passing. But there seems to be something exquisite about the bare reality of life when Rohinton Mistry writes about it. Family Matters is the story of a Parsi family living in modern Mumbai, dealing with the day to day gravities of youth, age, duty and desire.

The novel opens with an account of Nariman Choudhary’s birthday. Nariman is old and frail, constantly haunted by memories of his past. He lives in Chateau Felicity with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy. There is a bitter distance between Coomy and Nariman, mainly because she blames him for destroying her mother’s life. On Nariman’s birthday, the family is visited by Nariman’s daughter, Roxana, with her husband and their two young sons. Roxana is Jal and Coomy’s half sister, the product of their mother’s second marriage to Nariman after her first husband passed away.

Gradually we learn that Nariman had loved a Christian girl, Lucy, but gave into family pressures by marrying Jal and Coomy’s Parsi mother. Yet, Nariman was unable to deny his love for Lucy, and the family suffered a grave tragedy due to the love triangle. Nariman is plagued by what happened, and Coomy’s anger is a perpetual reminder. After Nariman has an accident on his daily walk, Coomy cannot bear the extra burden of caring for her old and infirm step-father. She convinces her brother Jal to tell a lie that would require Roxana to take Nariman into her tiny flat. Roxana loves her father and accepts the responsibility, although it is a great strain on her family. Roxana and her husband, Yezad, live a modest but happy life with their two boys, Murad and Jehangir. Having to care for Nariman in their crammed flat and the need to provide his expensive medicines puts pressure on their finances as well as their relationship. But with great perseverance, they accommodate him by making sacrifices in their own lives.

The best parts of the novel are the simple accounts of everyday family life: Roxana’a morning preparations for her family, the children’s endearing jokes and the rituals that form a part of family life. The prose slips in and out of different perspectives: sometimes we feel Nariman’s pain, sometimes Roxana’s concern or Jal’s guilt. The novel begins with Nariman, but the final word goes to Jehangir – from the old to the young.

This is a mammoth novel, tracing the lives of many individuals and how they all fit together. In it, you can find tragedy, comedy, mystery, suspense, romance. The scenes are painted in careful detail and the words flow seamlessly together. There is no ingredient lacking in this novel, but it is written with such temperance that it doesn’t become overbearing either. If you’re about to read it then I have just one precautionary advice for you: be prepared to both laugh and cry. You might want to find somewhere that is not too intrusive to read this one.

Reading Brick Lane

The story of an immigrant family in inner-city London is bound to entail some pain, some humour and a lot of cultural adjustment. Brick Lane includes all of that and more.It is told from the perspective of a Bangladeshi village-girl, Nazneen, whose tale makes her the imperfect heroine of the novel. The young Nazneen is married off to Chanu, an aging opportunist who takes her back with him to London. Chanu never seems to get his big career break, and gradually becomes more and more disillusioned with life on Brick Lane. Nazneen, meanwhile, is trying to adjust to life in an alien culture, without any family and with a husband she finds unappealing. She tells herself that she must resign herself to her ‘Fate’, the way her mother did at the time of Nazneen’s birth, when the baby Nazneen nearly died. But, gradually, the force of will begins to grow in Nazneen. After losing her first child to a sudden illness, Nazneen feels anger towards the attitudes she was raised with, which encouraged women to swallow their ambitions and inclinations and accept whatever was thrown their way.

Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister, Haseena, who is abused and disgraced by a string of men until she gives in to the pressure of prostitution in order to survive in Bangladesh. Nazneen longs to help her sister, but her situation in London renders her incapable. This is until she decides to work for a sewing business, through which she meets the young radical, Karim. Nazneen’s affair with Karim marks the beginning of her rebellion from the oppressive values she was brought up with, but all the while, Nazneen bears an affection for her homeland which she cannot abandon.

The resolution of the novel creates a sense of realism – there is no simple way to live ‘happily ever after’, but there are hard choices that leave us with traces of hope. Nazneen refuses Karim’s offer to marry him, because she tells him that they ‘made each other up’. Their affair was an attempt to escape or uncover parts of their own identities, and Nazneen knows that it does not have a future. Nazneen chooses to stay in London with her two growing daughters while her husband goes back to Dhakka. It is not easy to sum up why Nazneen makes the decisions she does, but the novel conveys all of this in its own subtle way. As alienating as the East-end once was to Nazneen, it grows to become her home, and the home of her daughters.

The prose of the novel is versatile and colourful, full of humorous dialogues and entangled sub-plots. Although the novel is written in the third-person, it is expressed from Nazneen’s perspective as she grows from a naïve immigrant into a conscientious and independent woman. Monica Ali writes in a style that is full of description and detail, about a predicament which most immigrants can identify with.

Months after reading the novel, I can still picture Nazneen with her daughters, carrying out her responsibilities with a mixture of faith and determination. I find it hard to believe she does not actually exist in real life, but then I guess she might exist in more ways than I realise.

Reading The Pilgrimage

I have recently had the pleasure of reading what I think is Paulo Coelho’s most amazing book, The Pilgrimage.

In this autobiographical narrative, Coelho explores and shares his spiritual awakening.

The book is not easy to get into – it requires a degree of patience to begin with, as the pace is fairly slow at first – but then the gems of revelation begin to ensue and captivate the spiritually-inclined reader. The prose is tempered beautifully so that it never sounds preaching (some of the credit for this goes to the translator, Alan Clarke, whose English version I read).

Although not as widely known as Coelho’s Alchemist, this I feel is his finest work. Of course, it would not appeal to every reader, and I would only recommend this to you if you have an interest in matters of the soul.

The main message of the book is about ‘agape’, or the ‘love that consumes’. The writer’s spiritual guide, Petrus, explains that there are three forms of love. These are:

-eros: romantic love which does not last

-philos: a more enduring friendship which can be perfected by agape

-agape: the love that consumes, allowing us to lose our ego self, in divine sublimation

I have been doing a bit of research, and the Greeks did use three words to differentiate forms of love; they referred to eros, philia and agape. If you look ‘agape’ up in a standard English dictionary, you will probably find the definition ‘open-mouthed’ rather than the Greek etymological definition. There is actually very little information available about what agape really means and how it can be reached, which explains the rarity of the experience and the profundity of Coelho’s work.

Reading The Goldilocks Enigma

‘Somehow the universe has engineered, not only its own awareness, but its own comprehension.’ – Paul Davies.

From page one, The Goldilocks Enigma by Professor Paul Davies had me absorbed.

It deals with the inexplicable fact that everything in the Universe seems to be operating according to numeric codes. Although these patterns are not obvious in our everyday awareness, if we look further into the physical, chemical and biological structures of life, we see that there is a code to the way things are working. There is a very detailed ‘design’ to the way things are working in order for conscious species such as ourselves to come into existence and to thrive. Davies suggests that human consciousness is vital in this whole process, because it is as if the Universe wants us not only to have an awareness of ourselves, but also to have ‘comprehension’ of how things work and how we came to be.

This book is an exploration of some of the deepest questions we ever ask ourselves: Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? But it is not a philosophical meandering of various different beliefs and possibilities; it is a scientific explanation of what we know for a fact so far, related through the laws of physics. Davies’ way of articulating so much information with such simplicity allows the lay person to enjoy this book as much as any physicist or mathematician.

A brief review on this blog can’t possibly do justice to the amount of information and intrigue contained in this book, so I strongly recommend you to read The Goldilocks Enigma yourself if you are at all interested in some of humanity’s most fundamental questions.