The Namesake

Should I watch the movie or read the book first? Once upon a time there would have been no doubt. It’s odd that I even have to ask myself this question but our preferences change with time. The Namesake used to be one of my favourite books, and Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favourite authors. I saw The Lowland many times in the book fair but didn’t buy it. Recently in the library I picked up the book again thinking my feelings might have changed but after reading a few lines I put it back on the shelf. I am beginning to question if there are some things we can’t return to. It’s not as easy to explain sometimes you know, and that’s okay.

Let me confess this post has been sitting in my drafts for quite sometime now – Irrfan Khan’s loss hit me hard. It’s a film which meant a lot to me, and it was his portrayal of Ashoke, a man whose quiet gumption made it so beloved to so many of us. I loved Jhumpa Lahiri’s book on which the film is based but he adds something to the character which will forever be how I view Ashoke. And it was reinforced while rifling through the pages of The Namesake (the book opened to the chapter where Ashoke dies)

The film is about freedom and alienation, and the difference not only between generations but in cultural backgrounds. I wouldn’t call them clashes but differences which crop up when one doesn’t understand something. No one truly understands their parents because the children have never lived through the transitions their parents have lived through. Tabu is masterful, and makes you weep with just her expressions doing the trick. Irrfan and Tabu age gracefully which gives a lived in feel to the film.

The movie released 14 years ago and I revisited it more than a decade later. Warm and emotional, it takes you on a journey. This film by Mira Nair is special for many reasons. She was the one who plucked Irrfan out of obscurity and gave him a break (That’s what I heard in an interview she gave after his demise).

Gogol, Ashoke and Ashima’s son, is played brilliantly by Kal Penn, who refuses to sit on a rickshaw because it is pulled by a man. Such cruelty is unthinkable to him but no one bats an eyelid in India. I have sat in rickshaws as a child, and sparingly as an adult in ancient cities where they still ply. It is also a cultural education of sorts to those who have never lived abroad as much as it is an eye opener for their children visiting India. Born abroad they will always be visitors in their own homeland. When he goes jogging his grandmother sends a servant after him not to keep an eye on him but to keep him safe. He may be lost in the streets of his homeland which never felt like home to him anyway. The milieu, the culture everything is alien to him.We sense his unease and disorientation.

“Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night”?

“Not at all”, his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”

Like Bones who kept the clock from the blast (Temperance Brennan of Bones to the uninitiated) he chose to see the bright side, and to take his life in a different direction after he met with an accident. He took to heart the words of his co-passenger who had urged him to travel.

“Will you remember this day, Gogol?” his father had asked, turning back to look at him, his hands pressed like earmuffs to either side of his head. “How long do I have to remember it?” Over the rise and fall of the wind, he could hear his father’s laughter. He was standing there, waiting for Gogol to catch up, putting out a hand as Gogol drew near. “Try to remember it always,” he said once Gogol reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater, to where his mother and Sonia stood waiting. “Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”

I read the above lines in the middle of the night yesterday and felt goosebumps. This scene has remained etched in my memory, unchanged over the years.

Unlike her parents, and her other relatives, Ashima’s grandmother had not told her not to eat beef or cut off her hair or forget her family. Her grandmother hadn’t been fearful of such signs of betrayal; she was the only person to predict, rightly, that Ashima would never change. This is so beautiful in the book but in the film her grandmother tells her to remember her roots. O ye of little faith!

I am no longer as angry or annoyed as I used to be at adaptations (especially if there is a gap between watching the film and reading the book which is now deliberate. I can’t waste energy over such things as an adult anymore when there are other things that need my attention. Also, dealing with various losses an awareness of mortality creeps in so you know indulging in comparisons is a colossal waste of time. Also, the book is the author’s domain and the film is the product of the director’s vision primarily. He can take it any way he chooses, modify it as per his sensibilities and what he wants to present to the world. Art should not be cloned or restrained not least by the source material.

Yes, I have come a long way from hotly debating all the points the film veered off from the book and how it’s such a disgrace. You see as an adult you pick your battles. You are no longer riled up by things so easily. Well, that’s a better explanation than questionable energy levels so that’s what I tell myself and the world.

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