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New Yorkers Live Side-by-Side and Worlds Apart

The Namesake. Photo: Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy Stock Photo

It’s a small moment in The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair and adapted from the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Gogol Ganguli has grudgingly brought his girlfriend, Maxine Ratliff, home to meet his mother, Ashima, en route to Maxine’s summer house for a long stay with her folks. His father, Ashoke, is away on a teaching gig. His parents settled and raised their kids in the bland suburbs north of the city, a short drive but psychologically far from Gogol’s posh 1990s Manhattan apartment — though he spends most of his time at either his fancy architecture job or the Ratliffs’ cavernous and lovely redbrick Greek Revival in Chelsea.

Gogol, proper name Nikhil, has dispensed with his pet name, which humiliates him. He’s Nikhil now, a Yale School of Architecture grad; with the Ratliffs, he’s Nick or Nicky. He dragged his feet coming home, but his mother insisted, and now here Maxine is, in humble Nyack, with her elegant clothes and crown of blonde hair, offering his mother a sophisticated, thrown-together gift basket of delicacies Ashima will have no idea how to use. Maxine admires Ashima’s sari. She correctly identifies it as a kantha. She explains that her own mother, Lydia, whom she calls by her first name, works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in textiles. Ashima doesn’t seem to register the existence of this temple to world culture. “You’ve been there, Ma,” Gogol, a.k.a. Nikhil, a.k.a. Nick, says. “With all the steps. I took you there to see the Egyptian temple, remember?”

Perhaps no film shows the pain and the poetry of the assimilative process quite like The Namesake. And arguably, no place can hold the contours of this story as completely as New York can. In Nair’s hands, the city is a transformative entity for anyone who enters. It is in New York that Ashima and Ashoke, married by arrangement, become partners. Years before, they started a new life in a drafty first apartment in the same city that seduces Gogol away, inviting him into settings his parents could never comfortably set foot in. Where else in America could this immigrant tale unfold but New York, where mother and son at once live so close and on different planets?

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New Yorkers Live Side-by-Side and Worlds Apart