When Ashoke Ganguli, a Western-educated Bengali with a Ph.D. in fiber optics and an American job in Cambridge, returns to Calcutta for a traditional arranged marriage, he offers his bride-to-be Ashima a life unimaginably different from the one that marriage opened for her mother.
"Can you go halfway around the world," Ashima's father asks her, half in English and half in Bengali, "and live in a cold city with freezing winters? Can you leave your family? Would you be lonely?"
Ashima eyes the suitor she has only just met. She doesn't even know his name, soon to be her name—nothing more personal or intimate than the gold "U.S.A." label on the insides of the shoes he left at the door of her parents' house, into which she surreptitiously slipped her own feet before entering the room where he sat with their parents waiting for her.
"Won't he be there?" she replies uncertainly.
This exchange, which occurs nine pages into Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel The Namesake, and perhaps about as many minutes into Mira Nair's adaptation of the same name, hints at how little Ashima really understands what she is being asked.
Her father might also have asked: Can you live in a country where bureaucrats insist on recording a name for your child before allowing you to leave the hospital, whether or not you have heard from your grandmother on what the child's name should be? In which a child can tell school officials what name he will or won't answer to? In which your son may grow his hair longer than your daughter's, or may bring home a young woman with long blond locks to meet you? In which a young woman may address her beau's parents by their first names, and even touch their son right in front of them?
The Namesake is knowing and observant regarding the vagaries of cultural collisions that are a perennial part of the immigrant experience. Yet the basic issues are not cultural, but universal and human. Although at first Ashima feels ready to raise a family in this brave new world, once she actually becomes a mother she discovers that she feels quite differently.
"I don't want to raise Gogol in this lonely country," Ashima (Bollywood superstar Tabu) protests to Ashoke (Irrfan Khan). "I want to go back." I've never lived in another country, but I smiled knowingly at this change of heart, remembering how my wife Suzanne was ready early in our marriage to settle down several states away from where she had grown up, but later found that the thought of raising a family hundreds of miles from her mother and sister was unthinkable.
Ashima will never completely belong to this world—certainly not the way that her children will. And yet, in a strange way, Ashima will always know who she is and what she wants, while her children flounder about, perhaps for the rest of their lives, trying to craft identities for themselves. Indeed, it will be decades before her son Gogol, or Nikhil (Kal Penn), will be quite sure what his name is.
Although Ashima finds that life in the U.S. is lonely—lonelier than she had imagined—she and Ashoke know very well where they stand with one another. When, in a rare sentimental moment, he asks her decades later why she married him, she smiles and replies, "Do you want me to say I love you, like the Americans?" Unburdened by American ideas of romantic love, Ashima is content in her arranged marriage to a man she once knew only by the labels in his shoes.