Gogol Ganguli, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, is on a quest: He is compelled to reinvent himself, to achieve a sense of dignity that will overcome the embarrassment of his name. Born in the United States, he is the son of Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who were married in India in the traditional way, by parental arrangement. They strive to preserve their Bengali culture while freeing their children to become successful Americans. Unlike immigrants of earlier generations who turned their backs on the old country, knowing they could never return, the Ganguli family travels frequently and with fluid ease between the United States and India, fully at home in neither place.
Gogol’s name is a bizarre accident of fate. Ashoke, as a young man in India, survives a terrible train accident and is saved only because the rescuers notice the crumpled page of a book falling from his hand. This book is the collected short stories of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. This accident marks Ashoke physically with a lifelong limp and emotionally with a sense of mystery about his survival when all others in the same railroad car perished.
When his son is born in Boston, Ashoke must name the child on the birth certificate before the infant is released from the hospital. Indian children are given a pet name for the family, with the formal or “good” name chosen later, when the child’s personality has been formed. The grandmother in India has been chosen to name the boy, but her letter has not yet arrived. Ashoke names his son for the author whose book saved his life.
This name is, for Gogol, a despised symbol of his cultural alienation, neither Indian nor American but Russian. Worse still, as he learns in high school, the author, although a genius, was mentally disturbed and suicidal. The narrative spans the first thirty-two years of Gogol’s life, following him as a young child, then a schoolboy, continuing through his college years and his early career as an architect. While Gogol is the focus of the story, the narrator, writing in the third person as a distant observer, departs from this position at times to explore the lives of other major characters who are on their own journeys, trying to make sense of their lives.
Ashoke earns his degree in engineering and becomes a tenured professor at a small-town New England college, and the family establishes a home on Pemberton Road. A man of the working world, Ashoke successfully adapts to American ways in his public life. However, he and Ashima socialize only with their Bengali friends, immigrants who share their traditions. Ashoke and Gogol are outwardly respectful to each other, but Ashoke is puzzled and saddened by his son’s emotional distance. Ashima, a homemaker in the old world tradition, is torn between the old ways and the new. She wears the sari throughout her life and cooks Indian food but adopts American customs for the sake of her children. Her Thanksgiving turkey is seasoned with garlic and cumin, and she decorates an artificial Christmas tree.
The scenes in the novel are fraught with the tension between the two cultures which causes conflict in the family life. Ashima often accedes to her son’s wishes but sometimes stands her ground with indignation. When Gogol returns from a grade-school field trip with a grave rubbing from a Puritan cemetery which he intends to display on the refrigerator, Ashima is horrified. In Hindu tradition, the body is burned; she finds it barbaric that Americans display artifacts of the dead in the place where food is cooked and consumed.
Ashoke, in a poignant scene, presents his son with a hardcover volume of Gogol’s short stories for his fourteenth birthday, a special edition ordered from England and intended to commemorate the significance of his name. Gogol, a thoroughly Americanized teenager preoccupied with his favorite Beatles recording, is indifferent to his father’s gift. Ashoke quietly leaves the room, where he is not welcome. Although Gogol will eventually learn this story, the author conveys a powerful sense of loss for a moment of love that might have united father and son.
The Gangulis maintain close ties with their families in India by telephone. The middle-of-the-night overseas calls invariably bring news of serious illness or a death in the family, revealing Ashimi’s sense of loss and separation from loved ones and her native traditions. Only on her return to India does she feel secure. However, Gogol and his younger sister, Sonia, are bored and annoyed by their noisy, intrusive Bengali relatives. They crave their hamburgers and pizza and hot showers. When they return to the United States, they purposely forget their Indian experience—it seems irrelevant to their lives.
Although Gogol is enrolled in school under his formal name, Nikhil, it seems strange to him, and he continues to call himself Gogol, much as he hates the name. His sister calls him by the unfortunate nickname of Goggles. When he is eighteen and a freshman at Yale University, he changes his name legally to Nikhil. His roommates, and later his adult friends, know him as Nikhil, but occasionally a family member calls him Gogol, and this requires an embarrassing explanation.
Gogol’s headlong affair with Maxine Ratliff in New York City, where he works as an architect, illuminates the clash between the two cultures that is at the heart of this story. Maxine is an editor of art books, and she and her parents are upscale Americans whose lifestyle would make a good feature story in a trendy magazine. Maxine’s mother is a textile curator at the Metropolitan Museum, and her father is a lawyer. The Ratliffs are as different from the Gangulis as it is possible to imagine. Where Gogol’s parents refuse to acknowledge that he might have a sex life, the Ratliffs are at ease with Maxine and Gogol’s affair, conducted casually in their home. The Ratliffs have frequent dinner parties, featuring small portions of elegantly prepared food. They are wine connoisseurs and often appear to be mildly intoxicated. The Gangulis are teetotalers, and Gogol has never seen them display physical affection. They entertain their Bengali friends in large, noisy gatherings with an overabundance of food, which they chew with their mouths open.
Seduced by their contrasting lifestyle and infatuated with Maxine, Gogol moves into the Ratliffs’ tastefully decorated Manhattan town house. In one scene, Gogol and Maxine stop briefly at the house on Pemberton Road on their way to a vacation in New Hampshire. Ashima is hurt that they will spend the holiday with Maxine’s family but responds with polite hospitality. Gogol sees that his mother is overdressed and has cooked too much food. Ashima is deeply offended when the young woman calls her by her first name but suffers the insult without comment.
The death of Ashoke is a wrenching experience for Gogol and a turning point in his life. During a visiting professorship at an Ohio university, Ashoke is felled by a fatal heart attack. Ashima, who has remained in the family home, is notified by telephone from the hospital; she finally reaches Gogol at the Ratliff home. Gogol must identify his father’s body in the morgue and clear out the apartment where his father had lived temporarily. The precisely detailed description of Ashoke’s body, the hospital rooms, and the bare furnishings of the apartment are a stark reminder to Gogol of his loss, his discovery that he has never truly known his father. These scenes recall an earlier event when young Gogol and his father had walked on the sands at Cape Cod to the lighthouse, as far as they could go. Ashoke said, “Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”
After Ashoke’s death, Maxine and Gogol gradually drift apart. Gogol’s reaction seems remote and puzzling: “His time with her seems like a permanent part of him that no longer has any relevance, or currency. As if that time were a name he’d ceased to use.” After the period of mourning for Ashoke, Gogol agrees, at his mother’s request, to meet Moushumi, the daughter of Bengali friends whom he has known since childhood. The two are attracted to each other, begin an affair, and marry in a traditional Indian ceremony. Moushumi, however, has had previous affairs and a troubled history of mental breakdowns. She inexplicably sabotages her marriage through an affair with an older, less attractive man.
The conclusion reaches for a symmetry that resolves the conflicts in the narrative. Ashima sells the family home and will spend half the year in Calcutta with her friends and relatives, the other half with her children in the United States. Sonia is engaged to Ben, a man of mixed Jewish and Chinese ancestry, and this promises to be a successful union. Gogol, as he helps to dismantle the home on Pemberton Road, rediscovers the volume of short stories, his father’s birthday gift, and begins to read.
Lahiri’s first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, is a collection of short stories which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The Namesake, her first novel, has raised high critical expectations. Her style, often described as luminous and graceful, is accomplished, especially in the precisely detailed word choices and descriptions of ordinary life that draw the reader into the narrative. Lahiri grounds the reader with a sense of time and place by frequent mentions of historical events, such as the assassinations of the 1960’s. She is a shrewd, often ironic, observer of the nuances of both Indian traditions and American pop culture. The Gangulis, for instance, are baffled by teenage Sonia’s disruption of the household when she dyes her entire wardrobe black, and they find it incredible that the president of the United States is addressed as Jimmy.
Critics have high praise for Lahiri’s richly sensuous, epicurean descriptions of the preparation and consumption of food. The author says that she is an enthusiastic cook. Like food, train travel, both in India and the United States, is a recurring motif. In an interview, Lahiri said that she sees her narrative as resembling the incomplete glimpses of the passing scene through the window of a train.
Several critics find that the gaps in the narrative give the impression of incompleteness. Others say that the third-person, distant narrative voice creates a flat, unemotional tone. However, The Namesake has received enthusiastic popular acclaim, and most critics agree that it fulfills the promise of her earlier, highly praised work.
As a portrait of immigration and a personal quest for identity, the novel raises interesting questions. Given the genuine pain that Ashima and Ashoke suffer in attempting to reconcile their cultural heritage with the American dream, it is worth considering whether Gogol’s angst over the oddity of his name should evoke the reader’s sympathy. Ashoke’s common-sense interpretation of Gogol’s complaints when he announces he will change his name is instructive: “The only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of this name . . . was Gogol.” As Gogol takes up his father’s gift and begins to read, there is hope that he has reached a mature resting place between the two cultures that are his heritage.
Booklist 99, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1710.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 11 (June 1, 2003): 773.
Library Journal 128, no. 12 (July 15, 2003): 123.
The Nation 277, no. 13 (October 27, 2003): 36-38.
New Leader 86, no. 5 (September/October, 2003): 31-32.
The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 2003, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 27 (July 7, 2003): 48-49.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, p. M1.
Time 162, no. 12 (September 22, 2003): 76.
The Washington Post, September 14, 2003, p. BW10.