"For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy - a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts."
~ Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Seven winters back when I had first read The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's heartrending tale, it had stirred and brewed a little storm inside me. Since then I have gone back to it, in chunks and bits, like a fate-worn lover who has to return to the memories, living and losing at the same time. The love affair continues, only this time I am one of them from the pages. Ashima - a demure Bengali woman born in Calcutta, brought up amidst a fierce sense of culture and draped in unpretentious tangail sarees. She marries Ashoke, an engineering student at MIT and accompanies him for a new life to America - "the land of opportunities".
Ashima's life in the States is shaped out of many realities - the regular calls to Fulton fish market in the hope of a lucky catch of rohu or ilish, the much dreaded driving lessons when she would cringe her face and push the accelerator uneasily which would result in a beeline of traffic honking impatiently behind her, the mounting vexation during the customer care calls when she has to spell every single alphabet of 'Ganguli' unfailingly and with examples. Prior to my life as a foreigner, this futile yet continuous search of one's identity and the reluctant unraveling of oneself to blend in, both physically and mentally, had not been this huge a part of me. Now I, too, am ashima - one who does not have boundaries - for one simply cannot afford any in the desperate confusion of the old and the new.
My solidarity with Ashima transgresses the boundaries of age and experience. A surge of tender pity grips me when anxious and alone in the final trimester of pregnancy she craves for jhaal muri (an East Indian snack of puffed rice and spices) and quite helplessly tosses chopped onions into a bowl of Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts. There was not much choice for an Indian's culinary comforts in the America of the 70s. Ashima's most intimidating task, more so because she wears her Indianness with aplomb, is to understand and accept the American ways of her children who are themselves trapped in a huge chasm of cultural mores. How much could one fight one's way out of the linguistic and cultural barriers back then?
Even after a good thirty years nothing much has changed. Foodwise, yes, a lot has. With the mushrooming of Indian grocery stores and restaurants in almost every corner of the States, pleasing one's taste buds isn't a questionable dream anymore. Also, what was once the struggle for existence has undergone a vast change over the last twenty years resulting in an unbecoming vanity fair. But the old haunting feeling of rootlessness sits still in the same dusty corner of the heart. Festivals come and go, seasons spring and fall, but the ache remains. I have been walking in Ashima's shoes for the past three years, across six states and on a multitude of roads. With each step the bite has become worse, fanning the sore of longing till the wound feels like a second skin. And thus another day breaks, impregnated with a perpetual unknown wait...