Kids Corner

Jhumpa Lahiri





Straddling The Great Divide

A Film Review by MEETA KAUR

The packed film houses, media buzz, and the plethora of film reviews point to The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's novel and now Mira Nair's film adaptation of it, as a "must-see" film. 

The general consensus is that it goes beyond the experience of a Bengali family in America and addresses the question, "What does it mean to be an American family?"

I agree. For me, that very question is as relevant to the Sikh-American community as it is to the specific family portrayed in the film.

In The Namesake, Ashoke Ganguli (played by Irfan Khan) is advised to "see the world", promising him that he will not regret it. So he heeds the advice, after surviving a life-defining train-crash.  He migrates to New York for academic work.  Ashoke returns to Calcutta to meet Ashima (acted by  Tabu) and travels back to New York with her after their arranged marriage, to unpack and organize their immigrant lives. The Gangulis give birth to their son Gogol (Kal Penn) and daughter Sonia (Sahira Nair), and the generational saga of assimilation begins. 

Through Lahiri's narrative, Nair focuses on Gogol's romantic relationships and "the clash of cultures" he faces within his family when he brings home Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), a blonde, blue-eyed, Manhattan socialite.

Inter-racial and inter-religious relationships are nothing new to society, but the way they are interpreted by each community is a point for exploration.  On Kal Penn's blog about the movie, he insists that Gogol does not struggle with his identity as a South-Asian American; rather, it is everyone around him who struggles with his personal choices in his relationships.  This can be Penn's interpretation of the character from his own personal lens or it could be true to form. 

I suggest that this rings true of the initial reactions Sikh-Americans too have to their own youth  who are presenting inter-racial, inter-religious relationships to their families and peers.  The judgments include phrases such as "the young soul that is lost", "disconnected from the community" or a "losing of identity". 

Like Gogol, perhaps many young Sikh- American adults are not confused about their cultural identities; maybe they have found a comfortable way to straddle their American and Sikh roots. Belonging to both cultures allows them to claim both communities equally, so it is not surprising that more and more young Sikh adults are cultivating these inter-racial relationships. 

In addition to cultural balance, I believe Sikhs have to make that extra effort to not only negotiate their cultural hybridity, but also reconcile identity within their spiritual faith. From here, we can reframe the obvious question: "Are we losing our young Sikhs to the dominant society or are we gaining future Sikhs in all different colors, shapes and sizes?" 

Some of the Sikhs in these mixed race and religious couples do not see the race of their partners, they merely see the character.  To find the seeds of Sikh character in a different race, cultural or spiritual background may lead to a greater awareness and effort to sincerely become a Sikh.  Maybe the Sikhs choosing partners outside of the community are forging a path that is in line with Sikh thought because they do not see race or culture as a barrier to deeply connecting to another human being.

In the movie, Gogol tries to make a go of it with a Bengali-born Moushimi (Zuleikha Robinson), but the marriage fails.  When Moushimi lets Gogol know she is having an affair with a French man, she states that maybe being Bengali was not enough and Gogol responds by letting her know that being Bengali was not why he loved her.  Gogol's response reveals the touchstones that reverberate between two people can have everything to do with the necessary human connection for love to flourish and thrive, and have nothing to do with cultural trappings. 

It might be time to open up the dialogue with young Sikh adults to not only support Sikhs finding partners outside of the community, but to help them deeply explore how they and their partners will walk together towards Sikhism. 

As for The Namesake, it's worth seeing.  It is a visually stunning story that unfolds across the global cities of Calcutta and New York City.  Nair acknowledges that she blurs the visual lines between the cities, so they become one for the viewer the way they are one in the hearts of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli. 

Nair captures the love between Ashoke and Ashima in a tender way, while creating the emotional and cultural dance between American-born children and Indian parents.  There is some disappointment around character development, because Nair shoe-horns the novel's narrative into a two-hour film; why not just take the three hours to fully develop the necessary story tension?

In those moments that Nair does not fully explore the emotional depth of these characters, the film is motivating enough for viewers to want to go back and read Jhumpa Lahiri's book. 

Conversation about this article

1: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (Española, New Mexico, USA), March 28, 2007, 11:11 AM.

A Sikh marriage is two bodies and one soul. The focus is on the Guru. I don't think it's practical to marry somebody who is not a Sikh and hope that they will come towards the faith. Marriage is serious, it requires work and needs a foundation. Sikhi is a foundation as solid as rock. It is not a set of beliefs but a way of life. Those who hold this way of life as their own (Sikhs) will require a marriage partner who practices the same lifestyle. Cultural Sikhs should have no problem marrying someone who doesn't practice the faith, but those who live a life dedicated to Sikhi will require their partner to be in sync with them. Being Punjabi doesn't make somebody Sikh, and being Western doesn't mean somebody isn't a Sikh. I'm a "Western" Sikh and inter-racial marriage is very normal to me. However, encouraging marriage amongst those on different paths seems to me like a recipe for disaster. The Sikh marriage is about love for the Guru and commitment to a life of Sikhi. That's what we should encourage, no matter who the couple is.

2: Laurie Bolger (New York, NY, USA), March 28, 2007, 2:12 PM.

Meeta Kaur's review of "The Namesake" is fantastic. She is an enormously talented writer. Her piece is not only flawlessly composed, but most thought-provoking as well. It was a wonderful pleasure to read.

3: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, USA), March 29, 2007, 12:19 AM.

I commend Meeta Kaur's courage to focus on a subject often shunned by Punjabi Sikh families so that their children may not become involved in interracial marriages. Parents' greatest fear is about loss of Punjabiat and not necessarily loss of committment to Sikhism ... which is very sad indeed.

4: Navjot Kaur (New Jersey, USA), April 02, 2007, 10:47 PM.

In her review of the movie, "The Namesake", Meeta Kaur writes with some thought to provide comparative in-sight into inter-religious marriages in the Sikh community but her analysis fails greater reflection and consideration on an important fundamental - the Path of a Sikh. The path of a Sikh has been described as finer than a strand of hair and sharper than the edge of a sword's blade. This way of life, the path of being a Sikh, becoming a Sikh, and living a Sikh Way of Life is not an easy path, and it would be naive to assume that when a Sikh marries a non-Sikh, we are gaining Sikhs in different colors, shapes and sizes, as if through simplistic addition and geometric rhetoric, the Sikh faith thus gains Sikhs. Another statement that requires some more thought is the notion stated by Meeta Kaur that Sikhs who marry those of other religious backgrounds have gone beyond race and religion and have found the seeds of Sikh character in another person and that those who chose such partners are forging a path that is in line with Sikh thought. It is our karmic mistake to re-align the Sikh way of life based upon our own needs and desires. Lately, it seems that the objective has become this reconciliation of sorts, to reconcile the Sikh way of life with American, Canadian, Indian or British cultures. How would it be possible for a Sikh of the Guru to reconcile identity within the Faith? The sacrifices of Sikhs, of the countless men, women and children who walked the path with their heads on their palms, is not a path of cultural compromise. As a Sikh who was born and brought up in America, I agree with Prabhu Singh when he states that the Sikh marriage is about love for the Guru and commitment to a life of Sikhi. That's what we should encourage, no matter who the couple is. There is no confusion as to what it means to follow the Sikh path, it is not a path that one can straddle, it is not a path of claiming communities equally, it is a path of claiming the Guru solely.

5: gagandeep Singh (new delhi, India), April 16, 2007, 3:05 AM.

The answer to the inter-marriage question is not so simple. Sikhi is not visible ... but the Khalsa roop is. Feelings, emotions, love and respect for the other person are not visible. It is the energy within which draws us to people, at which point certain differences dissolve. However marriage is one thing, and being in love is another. If you are a Sikh, you cannot impose Sikhi on anyone else; not on your parents, friends, siblings, spouse, no one. I feel it is a choice which should be left to the individual, if that person can balance his or her faith in Sikhi and at the same time be married to someone outside his religion, because it's not about increasing the number of Sikhs but finding the truth within.

6: Ajit Singh (Toronto, Canada), April 22, 2007, 9:57 PM.

An important distinction should be made between a person who is born to Sikh parents, and one who actually lives the faith. The latter is a person who is a practicing Sikh by his or her own choice. I feel the majority fall in the former category. They just happen to be 'Sikhs'. For them it is easy to have any partner and they readily give up their identities too to make the relationship work. But for a true Sikh, giving up the Sikh way of life is out of the question.

7: Jaspal S. Soni (Hacienda Hts, USA), May 09, 2007, 9:10 AM.

Meeta's review is very well composed. I have neither seen the film nor read the book. Reading her review has given me added motivation to do both. Reacting and reflecting to an American friend's answers to questions of spirituality rekindled my connection with Sikhism many years earlier. I could therefore appreciate and relate to her comments quite well.

8: Simran (Oceanside, U.S.A.), July 27, 2007, 12:54 AM.

Meeta's review got me interested in watching the movie and/or picking up the book. I can easily relate to Jaspal's and Gagandeep's comments. Thank you for sharing!

9: Jatandera Singh (Dehradun, India), November 05, 2008, 7:11 AM.

All comments are comprehensive and depict great belief in Sikhi. The message should spread across the Sikh community that Sikhi is not a set of beliefs but a way of life as practiced by our Gurus.

Comment on "THE NAMESAKE -
Straddling The Great Divide"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.