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A Bridge Too Far? The Namesake and the Intermarriage Question

A Bridge Too Far? The Namesake and the Intermarriage Question

By Suzanne Koven

Remember Tevye's daughters in Fiddler on the Roof ? The eldest rejects the ugly but wealthy man Papa has chosen for her in favor of the poor tailor she has loved since childhood. It takes a little convincing --since when do girls arrange their own marriages?--but Tevye gives his blessing. The next daughter ventures farther, falling for a stranger who comes to the shtetl, a young Bolshevik with radical ideas. Tevye has more trouble accepting this prospective son-in-law, but the young stranger, like the tailor, is Jewish, and his daughter promises that they will be married by a rabbi--so Tevye, at last, consents. The third daughter, though, wants to marry a Russian boy, a gentile, and no cajoling will budge Tevye. He plants his boots in the earth and sings, "This I cannot, I will not allow… TRADITION!"

In The Namesake , Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn, C) tests his Bengali Hindu family's limits of acceptance when he brings home a WASP girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett, R). Photo by Abbot Genser

The Namesake , Mira Nair's film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's 2003 novel, explores the same question that Fiddler on the Roof and other Jewish works as diverse as Chaim Potok's The Chosen and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint explore: How far can young people stray from the ways of their parents and still retain their traditional identities? How much religious and cultural practice can a young person reject and still be a Jew or, in The Namesake , a Bengali? In The Namesake , Nair poses this question visually by cutting frequently between images of two bridges, the 59th Street Bridge in New York and Howrah Bridge in Calcutta. And, as in Fiddler on the Roof , it turns out that intermarriage is the ultimate test of how broad a gap between generations can be spanned.

The Namesake follows the Ganguli family from the 1970s to the present and from Calcutta to New York. As the story begins, Ashoke Ganguli, a graduate student in engineering, and Ashima, a classically trained singer, are joined in a marriage which their parents arrange but to which they have consented. Ashima abandons her artistic aspirations and leaves behind all she knows and loves, to go with Ashoke to New York where he will pursue his studies. She does this with sadness but without anger or complaint; her letters home marvel about the wonders of America, where "the gas is on all day," even as the gray snow pelts her windows and tears of homesickness fall from her kohl-rimmed eyes. Gradually, though, the immigrants make a life for themselves, growing prosperous, moving to the suburbs and surrounding themselves with new friends, other Bengalis with whom they share a language, cuisine and religious customs. But, as with all immigrants, there is a continual tension between the Gangulis' old and new lives. Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts sprinkled with chili powder prove a poor approximation of Ashima's favorite Indian snack, plastic reindeer prance uneasily across the Hindu Gangulis' lawn at Christmastime, and occasional trips to Calcutta remind them that they have sacrificed the warmth and support of their extended families for the more material comforts of America.

Gogol ends up marrying an English Bengali woman (Zuleikha Robinson, R), but their marriage falters when she doesn't fulfill his expectations of a traditional Indian wife. Photo by Abbot Gesner

The tension, though, is even greater for the Gangulis' son, Gogol. As a first-generation American, Gogol's identity is more tenuous than his parents'. Ashoke and Ashimi are Bengalis who happen to live in America. Gogol's position is less clear: in America his dark skin, sari-wearing mother and unusual name mark him as not-quite American, and yet when he visits Calcutta his poor Bengali language skills and his fondness for rock music and jogging make him not-quite Indian, either. Gogol can't figure out who he is, a point highlighted by the frequency with which he changes his name. He starts out as "Gogol," the name of his father's favorite Russian author, decides to be "Nikhil" (his "good" or formal Indian name) when he goes off to college, transforms himself into "Nick" when he dates a blonde WASP goddess, and circles back to "Gogol" again as an adult.

At no time is the conflict between Gogol's Indian and American selves more acute than when he considers marriage. His serious relationship with the blonde dissolves when he rejects her clumsy but well-meaning attempts to embrace his family as they mourn his father. Yet his marriage to a Bengali woman raised in England falters when Gogol expects his independent and thoroughly westernized bride, a successful professor of French, to be more like a traditional Indian wife. On their wedding night Gogol is disappointed to learn that she has no intention of taking his family name and the marriage goes downhill from there.

Intermarried viewers of The Namesake will identify with one of the film's main themes: that marriage--and particularly the prospect of intermarriage--can intensify a person's feelings about their religious and cultural heritage. How many thoroughly secular Jews have been surprised to find that once they intermarry they feel the need to be more observant?

And how many Jews have eschewed intermarriage only to find later that shared Judaism alone didn't sustain their relationships?

The Namesake offers no pat answers to those of us who approach marriage, as Gogol does, tethered so much more loosely and ambivalently to tradition than our ancestors were. Often love alone guides us to happiness, as it does Gogol's younger sister. At the end of the film she is set to marry a non-Indian (in the novel, interestingly, a Chinese-Jewish American) and the marriage seems destined for success. On the other hand, sometimes cultural identity proves an inadequate matchmaker. When Gogol and his wife inevitably part, she tells him, "It's not enough that we're both Bengali."

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is suzannekovenmd.com.

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