What’s in a name? For Gogol Ganguli, American-born of Bengali parentage bearing a Russian writer’s surname, this question is neither easily answered nor easily dismissed. Straddling two generations, two cultures, and with two first names, Gogol moves through life with a sense he never quite fits in. His quiet angst and personal questioning almost derail him, careening–like the train that links him to his father and his destiny—from relationship to relationship. Jhumpa Lahiri’s understated exploration of identity and cultural assimilation in The Namesake illuminates for us all the question “Who am I?” while bringing alive the colors, flavors, and textures of immigrant Indian life in America.
Introduction to the Book
A father and mother, a son and daughter: two generations of a typical Bengali–American family, poised uneasily atop the complex and confounding fault lines common to the immigrant experience. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake deftly demonstrates how the familiar struggles between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past, play out in one particular set of foreign-born parents and their American-born children.
In the novel’s opening pages, Ashima Ganguli, who left India to join her husband Ashoke in America, is about to deliver their first child, a son. Following Bengali custom, the child is to have two names—a pet name, for use only by family and close friends, and a “good” name, to be used everywhere else. Almost by mistake, the boy comes to be known as Gogol, named for his father’s favorite Russian author. In a harrowing flashback, the reason for Ashoke’s attachment to the Russian writer is revealed.
Gogol’s father embraces their new life, while his mother longs for her homeland. As Gogol enters school, they attempt to convert his unusual name to a more typical one, but the boy stolidly rejects the transition, refusing to become, as he thinks of it, “someone he doesn’t know.” Soon he regrets his choice, as the name he’s held onto seems increasingly out of place.
The novel’s finely wrought descriptions of Bengali food, language, family customs, and Hindu rituals draw us deep inside the culture that Gogol’s parents treasure while highlighting his alienation from it. Gogol finishes school, becomes an architect, falls in love more than once, and eventually marries, without ever fully embracing his heritage. His decades-long unease with his name is a perfect distillation of the multiple dislocations—cultural, historic, and familial—experienced by first-generation Americans. At the novel’s climax, when loss compounds loss and Gogol’s family structure is forever changed, he begins to understand, at least in part, his parents’ longing for the past, and the sacrifices they made to help him be what he is—truly American.
Major Characters in the Book
A Bengali man who comes alone to the U.S. to study electrical engineering. Weds Ashima Bhaduri via an arranged marriage in Calcutta. Father of Gogol and Sonia, a dedicated but undemonstrative family man with a lifelong attachment to Russian literature.
Journeys alone to the U.S. shortly after marrying Ashoke. Caring mother to Gogol and Sonia; stays in close touch with her family in India and maintains a growing network of Bengali friends and neighbors, as her family moves from city to city for Ashoke’s career. At the end of the novel she bifurcates her life to spend time in the U.S. with her children and in India with her family of origin.
The “namesake” of the title, named after his father’s favorite Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852). A first–generation Indian American whose uneasiness with his name exemplifies his difficulties in fitting in, either to his parents’ expatriate world or to the world inhabited so comfortably by his American peers.
Gogol’s younger sister, who is less troubled than he by their shared cultural heritage, or by the strictures and oddities of their household. Her steadiness—a peaceful life with her mother after her father’s death, and a happy marriage—throws Gogol’s chronic discomforts into sharper relief.
The only child of wealthy, urbane New Yorkers, and Gogol’s first post–college girlfriend. Maxine represents so many things that Gogol believes he values: art and music, sophistication, and ease in the world.
Appears first as the book-reading child of a neighboring Bengali family, noteworthy only because of her aloof air and deliberate English accent. The adult Moushumi resurfaces as Gogol’s love interest and eventual wife. She too stages a rebellion against her heritage, living alone in Paris for a time.
About the Author
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali émigré parents in 1967. When she was three, her family moved to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, where her father was a librarian and her mother a teacher.
Like her character Gogol, Lahiri experienced some confusion over her name when starting school. Her parents tried to enroll her using her “good” names—Nilanjana and Sudeshna—but the teacher insisted that those were too long, and opted instead for her pet name, Jhumpa. Lahiri notes that, “Even now, people in India ask why I’m publishing under my pet name instead of a real name.”
Lahiri began to write at age seven, sometimes creating short fiction pieces with her friends during recess. She later wrote for the school newspaper. She received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College, then moved to Boston to attend Boston University, from which she received three master’s degrees—in English, comparative literature, and creative writing—and a PhD in Renaissance studies.
While in Boston, she worked in a bookstore and interned at a magazine; she has noted that, had she stayed in New York, she might have been too intimidated to write: “In New York I was always so scared of saying that I wrote fiction. It just seemed like, ‘Who am I to dare to do that thing here? The epicenter of publishing and writers?’ I found all that very intimidating and avoided writing as a response.”
Lahiri received a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown from 1997 to 1998. In 1998, The New Yorker magazine published “A Temporary Matter,” one of the stories that would appear in her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies. In 2000, the collection won the PEN/Hemingway Award for the year’s best fiction debut, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is the first Indian-American woman to receive this award.
In 2003, she published The Namesake, a novel, and followed that in 2008 with a second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Next she wrote The Lowland (2013) and a memoir—written in Italian—In Other Words (2016). Lahiri and her husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush have two children.
An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
On February 14, 2013, Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Josephine Reed: How would you describe the plot of The Namesake?
Jhumpa Lahiri: It’s about the process of becoming American, understanding the ways in which that’s possible. The heart of the book is about a family’s relationship to America and to the change that inevitably happens when a person leaves one’s place of origin and arrives in a new world, which is very much an American story.
JR: We see an uncertainty about identity filtering down to the next generation in The Namesake, in Gogol.
JL: Gogol is very typical in wanting to be American. I think most young people just want to conform on some level, and then they stop wanting to conform and maybe become more interesting; but there’s a stage of simply wanting to be accepted and not questioned. [Gogol’s parents] may be lost, and they may be homesick, but they never doubt for a moment where home is—whereas for Gogol that sense of home is not fixed because India is not his home, and America is not yet his home.
JR: Issues of identity play out in his relationship with his parents—he sees them as foreign, and that’s troubling to him. Can you talk about some of that tension?
JL: I can speak maybe just from my own experience. I think my impulse as a child was to protect my parents from what I perceived as sort of ignorance. But the other emotion was a frustration with them, because I wasn’t there to protect them; I was their child, and I wanted them to protect me. It creates a strange dynamic when you speak the language better than your parents, when you go into stores and you’re a child and they ask you what kind of washing machine your parents are interested in because they don’t trust your parents to articulate themselves. These kinds of things can be very troubling, they’re frustrating, they made me angry, they made me sad, they made me overprotective of my parents, concerned for them and also frustrated that they weren’t more seemingly capable.
JR: Names, as the title of your book suggests, are important. Can you explain pet names in the Bengali tradition as opposed to the “good” name?
JL: I think the pet name is very much connected to one’s formative years and childhood and affection. And one’s mother and father would never, ever, ever, ever use anything but a pet name for one’s child. You tend to go to school with your good name and what ends up happening is that you’ve got two names to represent the sort of home version, the more intimate version, versus the out-in-the-world, being-educated, working-at-a-job version—the formal version, as it were, versus the informal.
JR: When Gogol goes to school, his father tells him the “good” name that he’s chosen for him, which is Nikhil.
JL: I think in an American context, it would be doubly disconcerting to suddenly enter school and be told by your parents, “Oh, by the way, not only are you going to spend all day away from us in the company of a teacher you’ve never met and don’t know, but she’s going to call you this other name.” I imagine that would be very distressing to any child.
JR: Can you touch on the sense of displacement the Ganguli family experiences?
JL: Gogol’s parents appear most at home when they go back to Calcutta, where there is a certain sort of blissful abandonment of a…level of anxiety and uncertainty that they carry with them as foreigners. I think it’s impossible, virtually impossible, to live as a foreigner in any country. No matter how at ease, affluent, educated, articulate you are. When it’s not your place, it’s not your place.
For more information, visit the NEA Big Read website.