The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri brought out a nice crowd for our meeting. The room seemed smaller than usual, the atmosphere both relaxed and animated. Although we had a few observers, almost everyone contributed and I was impressed by how naturally and respectfully members disagreed, expounded, and added to the discussion.
Our first responders enthusiastically liked the book. One member had seen the movie, considered it a close adaptation, and had been so impressed by the acting and imagery that she was still moved just thinking about it. Most reviews I have read about this book considered the son, Gogol, to be the main character, but many of our group seemed most impressed by the parents. Gogol seemed distant, passive, unambitious, compared to his father. We discussed whether or not this was common to second-generation immigrants. Many of us identified with the story, not as immigrants, but as humans. And some of us did consider him the main character, the namesake, the representative of the journey.
One member had been struck by the symbolism of the train, used throughout, as a sign of self-discovery. Gogol’s father is nearly killed in a train; his mother loses and then abandons her gifts to her father on a train; Gogol meets his first girlfriend and then loses his wife on a train. Certainly there are more. I had been struck by the incongruity of Gogol’s Indian relatives not having indoor hot water and other “conveniences” while still having servants. Other members shared stories – from the Philippines, where not dropping trash on the ground could be considered depriving someone of a job, to a not-so-distant past when people in the United States would take in family, friends, and immigrants in exchange for services.
Although everyone seemed to agree that the novel was easy to read, some of us found the story to be more detailed than necessary regarding everyday experiences while not describing Indian clothing, food and experiences in enough detail. We differed in how immersed we felt in the story, in the language, in the culture. Understanding references and symbolism can make a big difference in our appreciation of any novel, but particularly when we are trying to learn about a different culture. This particularly highlighted the benefit of e-readers in allowing instant definitions of unusual words. Looking things up continually can interfere with the flow of the language, though, even with an e-reader.
We had the longest discussion about names, which is appropriate given the novel’s title! Two members had been given different names at school because of how common their names were. Another identified with Gogol because she had hated her first name. One man asked how the women in the group felt about changing their names for marriage, and we had several interesting stories, including that in Sweden a man may choose to take his wife’s last name.
We covered many more things. In retrospect, it seems impossible that we discussed so much in just an hour.
Our snack for the evening was Jhal Muri, adapted from the book with help from Ally Johnson in “Reading, and cooking, with The Namesake”:
- 2-3 cups Rice Krispy Cereal
- 1 cup diced red onion
- ½ cup dry roasted peanuts
- ½ can mild, diced green chiles
- ½ tsp garam masala (spice)
- Juice squeezed from one small lemon over the top and then stirred—not so much to make it soggy. Just enough to hear it “snap, crackle, and pop!”
Other works discussed:
- Chef  (film)
- Chocolat  (film)
- Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol  The overcoat, and other tales of good and evil by Nikolai V. Gogol 
- Eat, pray, love : one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert 2006 (also 2010 film version)
- The hundred-foot journey : a novel by Richard C. Morais  (also 2014 film)
- Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize Winner 2000)
- Life of Pi : a novel by Yann Martel  (also 2013 film version)
- Like water for chocolate : a novel in monthly installments, with recipes, romances, and home remedies by Laura Esquivel  (also 2000 Spanish-language film version)
- The Lunchbox  (Hindi-language film)
- The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall-Smith 
- Tortilla Soup  (film)
- This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz