How Do You Get to Know Your Parents?

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake right now, and it’s affecting me on a very personal level. I know I should wait to find out how this plot gets resolved before I discuss the novel as a whole, but this isn’t a book review. This is more like a dialectical journal, running thoughts I’ve had since little Gogol Ganguli grew up and the point of view stopped being from his parents’ perspective. Here’s how it goes so far:

This nineteen year-old girl in Calcutta marries a fellow Bengali a week or two after their parents introduce them. Her betrothed is studying in the U.S., and so that’s where he takes her after the wedding. The novel begins with this girl, Ashima, trying to make a recipe that reminds her of home using only ingredients that she can scrounge up around their Boston neighborhood in the late ‘60s—I remember Rice Krispies and some other unlikely candidates in the mix. She is disappointed with the flavor. Something is missing. Then her water breaks.

We spend a few intimate chapters inside the relationship of this husband and wife, chronicling the birth of Gogol, their daily lives, their move from an apartment to a house, and the growth of a network of friends, all Bengalis, around the Boston area. Ashima and Ashoke can only afford biannual trips back to India, so occasionally their American lives are interrupted with a tragic phone call—the news of a grandparent’s death, then a parent’s death. The phone becomes symbolic of their alienation.

Then Gogol, their oldest child, grows up. He moves away. He does stuff that college kids do. He finds work, falls in love with girls who aren’t Indian, and he lives an American life. Consequently, he lives two lives, one in which he is Indian, one American. Sometimes, especially around his girlfriends, he’s embarrassed by his parents, ashamed of their beliefs and their habits. Lahiri spends several chapters in Gogol’s head as he compares how his girlfriend’s Manhattan family lives and entertains with how his Boston parents live and entertain. So far, he sides with a lifestyle in complete opposition to the one in which he was raised.

He’s conflicted in a way that I will never be. My parents and I were born in the same area of the U.S. We were brought up with vaguely similar belief systems, food, and cultural norms. But we do have our generational and regional divides—especially now—and they’re big enough for me, big enough that I can relate to Gogol’s (and Ashima’s) conflict. There’s stuff about his parents that he doesn’t understand, and rightly so because they don’t tell him everything. But some things just can’t get told. For instance, there’s no way that Gogol will ever tap into his mother’s emotions on that day in 1968 when she tried to replicate a familiar Indian recipe, the day her water broke. Even if Gogol cared, even if Ashima were capable of verbalizing her feelings on that day, what mother in any culture will share such intimate details with her grown son? In many ways, Gogul will never know Ashima, his mother.

What I’m waiting for as I read this novel is not for Gogol to know his parents but for Gogol to want to know his parents. I think it’s coming. I at least think he’ll want to know his father. But right now, at my stage in the reading, Gogol thinks he already knows them, and there’s the grown child’s biggest mistake.

This recent election and the ideological divides that it revealed between some parents and their children has slowed down one of my most important tasks as a grown woman to date—to find out who my parents are, or at least to find out a few key details about them as people that they wish I knew. Doesn’t have to be everything, just has to be what they want. I don’t want to assume anymore, like Gogol assumes. Assuming we know who our parents are is an arrogant luxury reserved for the arrogant twenty and thirty-somethings.

I am 45, and I want to know my parents, but I don’t know how.   How do I tap into those snapshots of my parents’ early lives—decisions they made that they might have thought at the time were temporary, ideas they had about what marriage should be and what the future looked like and what they expected of their children? I don’t know. I can only guess, and like Gogol, my assumptions are probably wrong.

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