The word itself evokes thoughts of uncontrollable stomach butterflies, kissing in the rain, the foot pop, bliss and passion. At least, that’s what The Princess Diaries taught me, before Mia and Michael broke up and she fell in love in the sequel all over again.
I spent the better part of my childhood watching movies like Notting Hill and 27 Dresses and reading books that idealized notions of “love at first sight” and a “one true soulmate.” They gave me a whimsical standard for what romantic relationships were supposed to be like, and I longed to apply that to my own experience. But what I had to look up to—the relationship between my own parents—had none of the Western fantasy. The idea of an arranged marriage had no fantasy at all. Transactional nods. Straight faces. Silence.
I resented that about them. Why didn’t they kiss each other, laugh with each other, do more on anniversaries than go to the temple? Why wasn’t the most important romantic relationship I could see in my life that of glamour, whirlwind attachment—love? I didn’t understand it, and so I grew to believe that what they had couldn’t be love. It couldn’t be.
Yet as I flipped through the worn pages of a library check-out over the summer, something deep—something I didn’t want to admit—forced me to acknowledge the strength of my perceptions. The Namesake was a brutally honest look at my roots, at what it’s like to be born out of a relationship whose participants didn’t speak till they were married. Gogol’s actions are as equally frustrating as they are fathomable: he seeks a world different from that of his parents, a world where he has the chance to live his own American Dream. When I read of Gogol spending months with Maxine and her luxurious WASP-y family, prioritizing trips to New Jersey over calls from his mom, I internally screamed. Screamed because I wanted him to pick up the phone, to reassure his mom. But I also screamed because I understood why he wanted to leave his mom and his family behind for what every American rom-com proclaims as the zenith of love. An exciting, fast-paced, breathless romance.
Of course, The Namesake isn’t a rom-com, and this love doesn’t last. Gogol’s father dies, and he re-evaluates what he’s been looking for. Perhaps now all he needs is comfort in the familiar and a return to his original culture. He looks for that in Moushumi, another Bengali with an intense desire to break free of her parents’ insistence on marriage and a settled-down lifestyle—a sentiment that resonated so deeply with me that I had to put the book down for a second and breathe. They bond over their shared experience as cultural outsiders in a land both their own and not, and eventually, they get married. But it isn’t a marriage borne from any real connection; it’s a marriage of convenience, of ease. They have those things in common solely because of their location and skin color. I didn’t root for Moushumi and Gogol, not like I rooted for Anna and William or Jane and Kevin. When they got together, I didn’t feel triumphant—I felt disappointed.
Ironically, as I got further into the story, I came to appreciate Ashima and Ashoke’s relationship more than any of Gogol’s. Sure, they’re as seemingly stiff to each other as my own parents, but the small details that Lahiri sprinkled in—how Ashima makes him food, how Ashoke takes care of her when she gives birth, how Ashima reacts when Ashoke moves for his job—gave me a whole new definition of love. To my parents’ cultural generation, nods are not signs of coldness or indifference; they convey a world of meaning. They mean “I love you.”
It’s hard for us, the first-gen Americans of traditionality, to live up to the speed and giddiness of a largely white Western ideal. It’s even harder to communicate only through nods with our significant others. But if The Namesake taught me anything, it’s that what other people expect you to take from your romantic relationships, or what other people portray as a romantic relationship, means fuck all to your own unique experience. I’m not Gogol, or Ashima, or my parents. I sure as hell am not Anne Hathaway. I’m Sruthi, and I don’t have to live up to a standard or fight against one. I just need to be here for the ride.
By Sruthi Srinivas
Photo from Getty Images