"What's in a name?" goes the old, beautiful Shakespearean quote: "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." However, when it comes to questions of identity, it turns out names are more loaded than Juliet assumed. In the context of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake (2003), a name is not just a label on a person: it is a whole self. Thus, names and namesakes are paramount in the novel, and substituting one for the other is also like throwing off an old self and forging a new one. Therefore, its title: The Namesake.
As the book opens, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, young Bengali immigrants to Boston, have had a son. The year is 1968. Names for newborn babies are typically chosen by Bengali elders, but in the case of Ashima and Ashoke, the word on this matter from their own parents is still a month away. So Ashima and Ashoke decide to tide the wait over with choosing a pet name, which in Bengali is known as a daknam.
In Bengali, the word for pet name is daknam, meaning, literally, the name by which one is called, by friends, family and other intimates, at home and in other private unguarded moments. ... Every pet name is paired with a good name, a bhalonam, for identification in the outside world. Consequently, good names appear on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories, and in all other public places ...
This discreteness between public and private identities is a feature of Bengali culture, but in the US, things are not the same. The self is configured in a different way. When a hospital administrator demands a proper name for the baby's birth certificate, Ashima and Ashoke tell him the proper name, the bhalonam, has not yet arrived. The administrator suggests they name the baby after Ashoke or a male family member to expedite matters, noting that he himself is "Howard Wilcox III." Ashoke is scandalized at the prospect.
This tradition doesn't exist for Bengalis, naming a son after father or grandfather, a daughter after mother or grandmother. This sign of respect in America ad Europe, this symbol of heritage and lineage, would be ridiculed in India. Within Bengali families, individual names are sacred, inviolable. They are not meant to be inherited or shared.
Through this comic exchange, we see that Ashima and Ashoke's young son, the "namesake" of the novel's title, is already caught in the complications of nomenclature. In the novel's context, names are a metaphor for the dissonance between cultures and how immigrants navigate these fissures to find their own selves.
Ashoke decides to give the baby the pet name "Gogol" after the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. On the birth certificate, the baby's name gets recorded as Gogol Ganguli. Thus, Nikolai Gogol is his namesake, the one after whom he was named. Ashoke chooses the name as he has recently been reading a work by Gogol. More importantly, he has a deep connection with the writer.
Years before he decides to emigrate to America, Ashoke is on a train journey in India, reading "The Overcoat" by Gogol. As is common in India, he strikes up a conversation with people in his compartment. One of these is a man called Ghosh. Hours later, tragedy strikes and a bomb is thrown at the train. The compartment explodes, and Ashoke is very badly injured. Ghosh dies, his "mangled limbs" draped on top of Ashoke. Ashoke is only pulled out from the wreckage after a fluttering page from "The Overcoat" draws a policeman’s eyes to his weakly moving fingers. Ashoke takes almost an year to recuperate, but he never forgets one bit of Ghosh's advice:
You are still young, free ... Do yourself a favor. Before it's too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can.
And that’s exactly what Ashoke does, moving to the US. Thus, in giving his son the daknam Gogol, Ashoke gifts him an intimate secret, a deep part of his own history. However, as Gogol grows up, he wants to be known only as Gogol and not Nikhil, the "good name" that was chosen for him. At school, too, teachers cannot understand why his parents want him to be known as Nikhil, when the child responds to Gogol. Therefore, the name Gogol becomes a solo identity, collapsing discreet norms of the private and public selves. This is symbolic of the cultural disconnect Ashima and Ashoke are already beginning to feel with their young son.
Gogol's relationship with his name is tempestuous. Although the kids in his class stop calling him "giggle" after a year or two, he doesn't like the uniqueness of his name. He feels it singles him out, which makes things doubly difficult for him as a brown boy in a predominantly white society. Further, when his father tells him he was named after Nikolai Gogol, he notes the fact that Gogol wasn't even the author's first name. He is named after a Russian writer's last name, as if to put a constant spotlight on him. Significantly, when he finally musters the courage to kiss a girl he likes, it is after he has told her his name is "Nikhil," the first time he uses his bhalonam. After kissing her, he feels it wasn't Gogol who had a romantic encounter. Thus, his identity—Indian and American, his parents' and his own—has now undergone a complete schism.
As he grows into adulthood, he changes his name officially to Nikhil, removing the "oddness" around himself. Nikhil is also an easy name to be shortened into the American "Nick," so it helps him find his footing. However, in shunning the name Gogol, he ends up hurting his parents, especially his father. Moreover, he doesn't wholly feel like either Nikhil or Gogol. In this, he typifies the dilemma of a member of a diaspora.
The resolution of the confusion between Nikhil/Gogol begins with Ashoke's untimely death. Only a short while before, Ashoke tells Nikhil about the train journey and his name's connection to Nikolai Gogol. When Gogol asks his father if he reminds him of that traumatic time, Ashoke gently replies:
You remind me of everything that came after.
In the last scene of the novel, Gogol picks up "The Overcoat" in his childhood bedroom, eager to finally meet his namesake, symbolizing that he is finally growing comfortable in his skin—and that of his father. His identities are coming into a new, calmer balance.
As the hours of the evening pass he will grow distracted, anxious to return to his room, to be alone, to read the book he had once forsaken, has abandoned until now. Until moments ago it was destined to disappear from his life altogether, but he has salvaged it by chance, as his father was pulled from a crushed train forty years ago.