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Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
This novel is about two closely related themes. The first, as the title implies, is identity. Closely related to that is the issue of exile and fitting into a different culture. The story concerns the Ganguli family, but, in particular, the son of this family, Nikhil Gogol. But we start with Ashoke. As a young man, under the influence of his grandfather, Ashoke is a keen reader of classic Russian literature. One day, aged twenty-two, an engineering student, he is visiting his grandfather by train. He is reading a book given to him by his grandfather, the short stories of Nikolai Gogol. While he is reading the book in the early hours of the morning – the other passengers are sleeping – the train is derailed. There are many deaths but Ashoke is thrown into a field. He is badly hurt and unable to move. When the rescuers finally arrive, they assume he is dead. However, he is gripping a page from the Gogol book and lets it drop. The rescuers see this and he is taken to hospital. He is out of action for a long time but recovers, though he is left with a limp. He later marries Ashima (an arranged marriage) and obtains a fellowship at MIT, telling his parents only after the decision has been made.
Ashima, naturally, does not fit in too well in the United States. She is worried about her English and has few friends. However, once Gogol is born, things change. Bengali babies traditionally have two names – a formal name, used on documents and in other formal situations, and a pet name, used with family members and friends but not in documents. The family tradition is that Ashima’s grandmother gives the formal name but she is in India and they have yet to hear from her. When they do, they learn that she has had a stroke and can barely remember her own name. Meanwhile, they have to name the baby. They have chosen the name Gogol as the pet name, as it was Gogol that Ashoke felt saved his life but they are in no hurry to choose the formal name. However, they learn that they cannot leave the hospital till a name is given for the birth certificate so, pending the arrival of a choice from India, they choose Gogol. When they learn that a formal name will not be coming from India, Gogol stays, at least for a while. One of the key themes of this book is how Gogol deals with this name. His sister calls him Goggles. People do not even know who Gogol is and assume Gogol is an Indian name. He does not learn of the reason for his father’s choice till much later (he assumes only that it is because his father likes the writer). His father finally finds a formal name – Nikhil. This decision is made just before Gogol goes to elementary school for the first time. It means he who is entire, encompassing all in Bengali but, of course, it is similar to the writer Gogol’s first name. When his father tries to register him as Nikhil, he himself objects, having been as Gogol all his short life and not wanting to change. The school goes along with Gogol, as he wishes. The Gogol-Nikhil issue will be an issue for him for much of the book.
Ashima and, to a lesser extent, Ashoke find it difficult adjusting to the US and its ways. Gogol and his younger sister, Sonia, however are born in the US and find it difficult being Indian. They learn Bengali and speak it both at home and, of course, when they visit India. But English is their language and the US their home. They are asked where they are from and, naturally, reply the United States, not India. However, they grow up feeling American, not Indian, and, unlike their parents, feel uncomfortable in India. This will remain a theme for them throughout the book, though Gogol has a succession of white US girlfriends, attends US educational institutions and generally has white US friends. But Gogol feels that he does not really fit in.
In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another… He had tried to correct that randomness, that error. And yet it had not been possible to reinvent himself fully, to break from that mismatched name.
Are we our name? Clearly Gogol thinks that we are, as he struggles with his. One thing that is certain is that we are, to a greater or lesser degree, our upbringing and, while we can argue for nature or nurture being more or less influential, both make Gogol what he is and, almost as importantly, what he isn’t. This is a first-class book on identity and who we are and why and, deservedly, has a very high reputation.
First published in 2003 by Houghton Mifflin