Somerville Reads is a project that promotes literacy and community by encouraging people all over the City to read and discuss books on the same theme. For our third annual program, the subject is food—local, sustainable, delicious!

Friday, May 6, 2011

How It Begins

For my second commentary on a passage from The Namesake, I'm choosing the very start of the book. As I mulled over various parts of the novel, I kept coming back to the first pages, because they're a great example of Lahiri's skill at narrative, characterization, setting.

On a sticky August evening [in 1968] two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves.

"On a sticky August evening..." Lahiri puts us there immediately. Everyone knows what a "sticky August evening" feels like. And when she tells us it's two weeks before her due date, we feel tension. We know something's going to happen. And the snack Ashima makes isn't just about the odd cravings of pregnancy: Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts, chili peppers.... It's the best substitute she can devise for a common Indian snack food, and it's emblematic of her life. She's adapting to living in America as best she can, but India is where she wants to be. She can barely take in food anymore, but she still wants this snack. She literally hungers for India. On this very first page, Lahiri establishes the conflict and yearning that's at the heart of Ahsima's adult life.

Then Lahiri takes us further into the discomfort of the August night—and of pregnancy:

She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her sari. Her swollen feet ache against gray speckled linoleum. Her pelvis aches from the baby's weight...a curious warmth floods her abdomen, followed by a tightening so severe, she doubles over, gasping without sound, dropping the onion with a thud on the floor....

The reader empathizes with Ashima now, especially if the reader is a woman who's ever had a baby. The reader knows what Ashima is feeling in her own body. And as if Lahiri hasn't done enough to grab the reader, she ratchets everything up a notch by taking the reader into Ahsima's very alien consciousness—alien at any rate to non-Bengali readers:

She calls out to her husband, Ashoke...[but] she doesn't say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband's name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname, but refuses, for propriety's sake, to utter his first. It's not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or a caress in a Hindi movie, a husband's name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke's name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as, "Are you listening to me?"

The baby Ashima is about to have is going to be born in Massachusetts. He or she will be an American. This kid will watch The Muppet Show and Schoolhouse Rock, listen to Fleetwood Mac and eat Snicker's bars. And this is his mother, a woman whose culture doesn't allow her to say her husband's name, who will never stop longing for a country on the other side of the world.

Generation gap doesn't begin to describe the gulf waiting to open between this child and his parents.

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