- Jan 20, 2006
- Reaction score
- New Orleans, LA/Cambridge, MA
The Economist said:ONE OF the many memorable scenes in The Namesake, an excellent new film based on Jhumpa Lahiri's book and directed by Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding fame, deals with a young Bengali bride and a bowl of Rice Krispies. The young woman has swapped her happy life and extended family in Calcutta for an arranged marriage and a lonely apartment in New York. When her husband, Ashoke Ganguli, leaves home early to work on his PhD thesis, she is left alone to grapple with the mystery of the American breakfast. She fills a bowl with Rice Krispiesand then covers them with curry powder and peanuts.
The Namesake is a moving study of the human side of immigration. But it is also a success story. Mr Ganguli snags an academic job, fathers two perfect children, moves to the suburbs and acquires an entourage of Bengali friends. His son, who is lumbered with the name Gogol Ganguli, studies architecture at Yale and acquires an All-American girlfriend, rich, blonde and well-connected.
Mr Ganguli is part of a huge army of immigrants who have brought their brains and enthusiasm to the United Statesnot just Indians and Pakistanis but also Chinese, Koreans and Europeans. America's high-tech industries are powered by foreign brains. Almost a third of Silicon Valley start-ups since 1995 were founded by Indians or Chinese. They also power America's great universities, particularly the science departments. About 40% of people earning PhDs in computer science and engineering are foreign-born.
You might imagine that America would welcome such talented people. But the national debate on immigration has recently acquired a bilious tone, focused overwhelmingly on the threat of illegal immigration. A country that has been built on immigrant labour is now building fences and demonising foreigners, almost as if it did not need them.
America also makes life difficult for them. Since the mid-1960s the immigration system has been skewed to uniting families rather than to attracting talent. And in recent years it has been driven by a combination of fear of terrorism and rising protectionism. In 2003 Congress reduced the number of H1B visas (temporary visas for highly skilled workers) from about 200,000well below the number neededto 65,000.
Potential graduate students and high-tech workers tell nightmare stories of waiting for months for the right bits of paper. And high-tech companies relentlessly complain about not being able to get visas for some of the world's best brains. A few attempts have been made to fix the system. Bill Gates and other high-tech barons have lobbied Congress to create a more flexible process and make it easier for foreign students to stay in America on graduation. But so far all attempts to sort out legal immigration have been swamped by Congress's inability to deal with the illegal kind.
America's legal immigration system is falling apart at just the time when talented foreigners have more choice than ever. Many other countriesincluding Australia, Canada, Britain, Germany and even Franceare bending over backwards to attract talented people. European companies can easily draw on the skills of an entire continent, thanks to the free movement of labour there. At the same time the Indian and Chinese economies are booming. Indian companies such as Infosys and Wipro have California-style campuses, state-of-the-art equipment and generous pay packets (which, incidentally, allow employees to afford a house full of servants). American multinationals such as Microsoft are establishing research and development facilities across the developing world. Indians and Chinese were once willing to put up with any humiliation for a chance of a career in the United States. Now they have more and more choices back home.
Missing two worlds
This raises once again the main theme of The Namesakethe human side of immigration. The film reminds its audience that immigration is a traumatic experience as well as a liberating one. This is not just because leaving the rest of your family half a world away is hard. It is also because it poses difficult questions of identity.
Mr Ganguli and his wife find their children becoming strangers to themrevelling in American pop culture and embarrassed by the Bengali community's idiosyncratic ways. But the children also endure a hidden war between their Bengali and American selves. Gogol at first turns his back on his immigrant family, finding it much more glamorous to hang out with his girlfriend's family in Manhattan and Oyster Bay, before rediscovering his Bengali roots when his father dies. His mother returns to Calcutta with an immigrant's lament: she has spent the past 25 years missing India and will spend the next 25 missing America.
There are still good reasons for immigrants to put themselves through all this. America has the world's greatest universities and biggest opportunities for the truly talented. But American officialdom needs to stop thinking that people will tolerate any humiliation to work there. Uprooting yourself from your native culture is difficult enough, without having to deal with unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles. America also needs to realise what will happen if the immigrants stop coming. University departments will grind to a halt. High-tech companies will be starved of personnel. New York could find itself eclipsed by London as the world's financial hub.
The Namesake is worth watching for many reasons. It is a compelling study of personal identity. It features some of the most talented Indian actors in the business. But it is also an excuse for a thought experiment: imagine how much poorer America would be without the likes of Mr Ganguli.