06 December 2008

The Namesake

One of the benefits of having cable TV is how it can surprisingly come in between you and your work. Today as I was planning my lecture on poststructuralism I couldn't help switching the TV on. Having found that The Namesake was on the Star Movies channel, I didn't have any choice but stop all my work and concentrate on watching the film. Part of the reason is that I was bored of work. But of course the name Jhumpa Lahiri also guarantees that the film that I was going to spend my next two hours on would be worthwhile, considering the fact that her Interpreter of Maladies was one of the most subtle stories I taught in the last semester. Her work is highly relevant, timely, and moving, especially to those who find themselves straddling more than one culture.

Based on Lahiri's bestselling novel, The Namesake focuses on an Indian couple, Ashima and Ashoke, who choose to migrate to the USA with the hope that their family will be freer and able to lead a better life. Despite her loneliness in New York, Ashima is eventually able to adjust herself to the new home and make new friends. They have two children and are later able to move to a new house in a better neighbourhood. It is not too far-fetched to say that they manage to follow the path of becoming a respectable middle-class family. However, things are not as easy as it seems. Their children, Gogol and Sonia, are Americanized and belong to a different world. They find arranged marriage and other Indian customs weird, if not obsolete. Gogol himself has a white girlfriend and doesn't appear to be able to relate to his parents that well, preferring to spend time with his girlfriend's family.

The moment when Ashoke dies seems like an epiphany for Gogol, who suddenly realizes his own Indian root and chooses to marry another Indian girl, whom he spurned when he was young. Had the film ended here, I would've turned my TV off and burned the set, as the whole film would then have been nothing but a propaganda for ethnic revivalism. But Lahiri's work surpasses this. Gogol's new relationship with his Indian wife doesn't work out either. Like Gogol, she's anything but traditional. Years in Paris have transformed her into a sophisticated, urban girl who knows better. The marriage with Gogol seems to restrain her intellectual growth and vibe, as Gogol still yearns for a traditional family with a wife who waits for his arrival from work and cooks samosa for him every Thursday. It goes without saying that the influence of Ashima remains strong as she retains the role as an ideal wife to Gogol's father. The ending therefore is open-ended, with Gogol travelling to find himself (like what his father did in the past) and Ashima deciding to live six months in her birthplace, practising the activity she loves best -- singing.

Of course, I need to say here it's virtually impossible to tell the whole story of The Namesake, but it's a really touching story that deals with such issues as homeland, root, and belonging. We've already gone past the age where cultural pluralism was blindedly celebrated. The Namesake reflects not only on the happiness but the problems this cultural pluralism may entail, such as the loneliness on the part of Ashima and the identity confusion on the part of her children. Even though the film seems to suggest that a marriage of people of different ethnicity doesn't work, it doesn't portray the same-ethnicity marriage in the positive light either. This is simply because, no matter what ethnicity one has, one is bound to change if one lives like a transnational. Lost, lonely, and lovelorn may perhaps be the three 'L's that best describe this new rootless, globe-trotting tribe. However, at least there's a benefit to be had: freedom. Even though life will be full of trouble caused by lack of or difficulty in communication, Ashima can choose to be who she is and dictates her own life. It's the sacrifice she's willing to take.

What's the message of the film? Although the film portrays the idyllic space of Indian past, it's no longer possible to return. Globalization and transnationalism have destroyed such disparity between Eastern vivacity and Western independence. You can't expect children of this new generation to be doting wives or highly responsible husbands; their easy lives have made them cynical and lost. But of course there's one thing that perhaps links the two generations together: their thirst for life. But isn't this just another American ideology?

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