I’m nearly through reading The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I find myself slowing down as the pages dwindle. I want to sit a while with Gogol and his loves, his struggles, his growing awareness of what his parents’ lives were like. It occurs to me that Gogol, like all teenagers, cannot appreciate his parents or their culture while he in the throes also of puberty, identity searching, and walking the gangplank of being born in America even while his parents are so entrenched in their own country of origin.
Lahiri’s writing is evocative and fraught, her words as she weaves the story like a loose gossamer thread, just taut enough to support the weight of the idea, and loose enough to let us float on the ideas of ideas underpinning her web. Family, cultural clashes, belonging, yearning, growing and confronting our own past. She takes us where she wants us to go, and gives us also the freedom to follow our own subtexts.
What I mean is this. Memory plays such a strong role in The Namesake, especially after certain characters pass. As they leave, and Gogol remembers scenes of life with them, we learn more both about Gogol and those people. I found myself wonderings, “But who is Gogol,” with each new phase of his life; who is he really? Why does he make the choices he’s making? Why can’t he understand his father’s incomplete, hesitant approaches? The memories fill in these gaps for me, and they take me to my own memories.
I woke this morning remembering our childhood baby sitter, Lori Sailor. When Lori was coming over, we got ready for her all day long. We loved to have her as a sitter, but I also could never understand why my parents would want to leave us, alone and with a stranger, just so they could go to dinner. And goodness, these dinners took forever! They could last hours, well beyond my bedtime. When Lori came, my mom wrote out a list of instructions in her unique hand – she has this way of making her Rs that I still haven’t mastered. On the list was always Stauffer’s chicken pot pies for dinner, then games and popcorn, then baths and bed. Lori always brought a little, wooden Santa Claus, just small enough that she could wrap her hand around the thing and pretend like she didn’t know where it was. We played a game called Hucka Bucka Beanstalk. My siblings and I huddled on the stairs, our sticky hands over our eyes, and wait while Lori hid the Santa somewhere in the downstairs. She was a sneaky hider, finding little niches in the house no four-year-old could find fast, but easy enough that we weren’t left frustrated and angry. As we wandered the house giggling, she told us, “You’re getting warmer…” with anticipation rising in her voice. Or “you’re FREEZING!” if we got farther away.
Eventually, one of us found the knickknack and beg her to hide it again. And again. Eventually, it was time for lights out. That’s when the fun of seeing Lori gave way for impatience for my parents to return. I tried so hard to stay awake, to hear the sound of their footsteps on the stairs, their murmurs as they pulled blankets up to our faces and pressed kisses into our foreheads with their fingertips.
Lahiri lets memory stand, for what it is and for what it is not. She allows it to mean more by painting pictures, showing us how much Ashoke loved Gogol without his ever saying so. She pulls me, too, into my own stories, mining for meaning, and just for pleasure.