Study Guide

The Namesake

by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake Summary

Introduction

The Ganguli family in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake has a problem. The mother and father are traditional Bengalese from Calcutta, and they are not particularly interested in assimilating into the United States, their adopted home. Gogol, their son, however, was born in the United States and is somewhat embarrassed by his parents Bengalese practices. Gogol is also uncomfortable with his name. It is neither a Bengalese nor an American name. No one he knows has a name like his. In school, kids make fun of it. But the conflict goes deeper than that.

Gogol's father tries to explain why he gave that name to his first-born child, but Gogol could not care less. Gogol, in his attempts to get out from under the Bengali culture, even tries to completely disassociate himself from his family. But when his father dies, Gogol is surprised by how much he misses him. Slowly he turns back to his mother and sister. His new closeness makes Gogol's American girlfriend question why he is acting so differently. The strain breaks down their relationship.

Later, when Gogol's mother suggests that Gogol call the Bengalese daughter of her friend, Gogol resists, for a little while. Then he gives in, somewhat curious about dating a Bengalese woman.

As Gogol slowly realizes the importance of his family and his culture, he falls in love with Moushumi, the Bengalese woman. The story appears to have finally come to a happy conclusion. Gogol and Moushumi are married. But this is not a romantic happily-ever-after tale. Moushumi, who was a quiet and shy young teen, has tasted freedom in her twenties, a freedom from her parents and their strict Bengali ways. Now Moushumi feels confined in her marriage, no matter how well Gogol treats her. She turns away from him in the only way she knows how: she has an affair.

The Namesake takes readers behind the closed doors of people who have immigrated to the United States to find a better life and the challenges they unexpectedly discover in the process.

The Namesake Extended Summary

As The Namesake opens, Ashima Ganguli is a young bride who is about to deliver her first child in a hospital in Massachusetts. Her husband, Ashoke, is an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ashoke had traveled back to Calcutta to find a wife. Ashima, who comes from a traditional Bengali/Indian family, had little choice in the matter. As she prepares to give birth, she realizes how isolated she has become. If she were still in Calcutta, she would have her baby at home, surrounded by all the women in her family who would administer all the proper Bengali ceremonies and would tell her what to expect. In the United States, Ashima struggles through language and cultural barriers as well as her own fears as she delivers her first child.

The baby boy is healthy and the new parents are prepared to take their son home. But Ashima and Ashoke are stunned to learn that they cannot leave the hospital before they give their son a legal name. The traditional naming process in their families is to have an elder give the new baby a name. They have chosen Ashima's grandmother for this honor. The grandmother writes down the name on a piece of paper and mails it to them. But the letter never arrives and soon after, the grandmother dies. In the meantime, Ashoke suggests the name of Gogol. He chooses this name for two reasons. First, it is the name of his favorite author, the famous Russian author. The second reason is that Ashoke, before he was married, had been in a very serious accident. The train he was riding in had derailed. Many people died. Ashoke had broken his back and could not move. He had been reading Gogol just before the accident. He had a page of that book clutched in his hand. The paper caught the attention of the medics who had come to rescue him. If it were not for the page, acting as a flag in the darkness, Ashoke could have died.

Gogol grows up hating his name. His father tries once to explain the significance of it, but he senses that Gogol is not old enough to understand. His parents decide to give him a more public name, which is part of the Bengali tradition—having a private name that only family and friends use and a public name for everything else. They chose Nikhil. When Gogol goes off to college, he uses his public name.

This change in name and Gogol's going to Yale, rather than following his father’s footsteps to MIT, sets up the barriers between Gogol and his family. The distance, both geographically and...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)

The Namesake Summary and Analysis

Chapters 1-2 Summary and Analysis: 1968

Chapter 1 Summary

As Ashima Ganguli tries to create a spicy Indian snack with American ingredients, she feels a stirring in her lower abdomen. She is about to have her first baby. She feels the movement of the fetus and calls her husband, Ashoke Ganguli, for help; they need to go to the hospital right away. Her husband is a senior doctoral student in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Ashima finds herself in the hospital’s clinical environment, thinking of her home and family in Calcutta. She feels the difference between giving birth here in Boston and how it would have been in Calcutta; no one from her parents’ family is present. In Bengali Indian tradition, women go to their parents’ home for childbirth. Surrounded by female family elders, the would-be mother is, herself, treated like a child. As she lies on her hospital bed in a semi-private room, having the baby with only her husband present, she thinks that this is not the way it is supposed to be.

Her husband is also alone and tense about his wife’s imminent childbirth. As he awaits the birth of his firstborn child, Ashoke’s mind goes back to his days in India. He remembers his near-fatal train accident when he was en route to visit his grandfather, a retired professor of Russian literature who had instilled into him a love for writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. Ashoke was reading a short story by Gogol—“The Overcoat”—when the devastating accident occurred. He had just listened, somewhat dismissively, to a fellow passenger’s advice about getting out of India to see the world while he was still young, when his train derailed, killing hundreds of passengers (including the man he had just spoken with). His life was miraculously saved when a rescuer spotted a torn page from the book next to Ashoke’s mangled body. He could not walk for a year. During his recovery, Ashoke Ganguli decided to leave home to take up doctoral studies in MIT as soon as he was well.

Ashima’s mind wanders, too. She remembers the first time she met Ashoke, when he came to her parents’ home to...

(The entire section is 931 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis: 1971

The Gangulis have moved to the suburbs of Boston. Ashoke has earned his doctorate in engineering and was offered a job as an assistant professor of engineering in a college outside of Boston. He is now Professor Ganguli and is quietly proud of himself. He notes with special satisfaction that all his students are Americans; he is respected as an authority even among White Americans. Quietly, he is impressed with his achievements. He almost died in Calcutta, he often reminds himself. He got a second lease on life, left India to study in the United States, and here he is on the threshold of his professional career. He has reasons to be pleased.

However, moving every few years is becoming too much for Ashima. She is a city girl, having been born and brought up in Calcutta and then “having lived in Boston” (Cambridge, actually). She finds life in this university town a bit too quiet and lonely, especially when Ashoke is at the university. Ashima cooks and cleans house and goes shopping with little Gogol. When he is four, he starts going to a preschool for children of the faculty. Ashima goes to her son’s school and watches him learn the letters of the alphabet and count.

When Gogol is five, Ashima gives birth to a baby girl whom they name Sonali, the golden one. Her name eventually will be muted to Sonia, a name easily recognizable in three continents: Europe, North America, and Asia. Gogol begins going to school. His father wants to name him Nikhil, which means “the all encompassing,” but Gogol will have none of it. He does not know or respond to the name. So when his father takes him to school the first day the school principal sides with Gogol and he gets to keep his name.

Gogol is fourteen now. He is almost as tall as his father; he is gaunt and has a clear hint of a moustache. His eyes are dark and piercing. Like his mother, he has long, tapering fingers; his face is always slightly pensive. Gogol’s fourteenth birthday party is like any other birthday party of his—an all-Bengali affair attended by Ashoke and Ashima’s friends who are Bengalis. The ladies come in dazzling saris and jewelry while the men dressed a lot more casually in T-shirts and pants. The men sit on the carpeted floor and play cards as they stormily discuss Reaganomics. The women congregate in another room to discuss cooking, clothing, and their children. Only Gogol is left with nothing to do. He realizes that he is too old for the other children who have come to the party with their parents and too young to discuss politics and economics with his father’s friends. For Ashima these birthdays mean cooking sprees: endless samosas and curries; chops made of ground meat and sweets made with milk and ricotta cheese. She started cooking for the party three days in advance.

These days Gogol spends most of his time sulking, pensive because of the confusion he feels over his name. He wonders why his father named him so weirdly after a Russian author. His friends laugh at his name, which is neither Indian nor American. Other Indians in his school have names that can easily be muted to American names like Jay for Jaydev. Even his own formal name, Nikhil, could have been shortened to Nick had he not objected to it as a five year old. Everywhere he goes, people immediately question his name: “What? What does it mean, Gogol, where does it come from?” He has to explain too much. Other boys his age have been on occasional dates with girls but Gogol has not bothered to ask a girl out. He cannot imagine calling a girl and announcing that his name is Gogol. So he sulks, mostly by himself, unable to find any sympathy in his parents or in school. For a young adolescent boy growing up Indian American, he is going through an acute identity crisis, but hardly anybody seems aware of it.

The crisis with his name becomes intolerable when, shortly after his...

(The entire section is 1590 words.)

Chapters 4-5 Summary and Analysis: 1982

Gogol decides to change his name to Nikhil, the name his father chose for him but he rejected with all the wisdom of a five year old, insecure in his first day at school. He is eighteen now and has been admitted to prestigious Yale University; he feels convinced that “Gogol” simply will not be a serious enough name when he graduates from college or applies for a job. He has found out that Nikhil is more acceptable to girls. Besides, he reasons, this is America. It is an American’s right to change his or her name—all one needs is to legally petition the local government. Many others have changed their names, among them Mark Twain and former U.S. President Gerald Ford.

When he informs his parents about his wish,...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)