by Aaira Goswami
“He is aware that his parents, and their friends, and the children of their friends, and all his own friends from high school, will never call him anything but Gogol.”
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a coming-of-age novel that explores the struggles of immigrants, and dives deep into the issue of cultural duality and identity crisis. In her debut novel, Lahiri shares her personal experiences of being American-Indian and how her roots contrast with that of her birth country. She tells the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, an immigrant couple from Bengal who settle in the USA, where they try to accustom to the different culture, perspectives and ideologies in front of them. As the novel progresses, focus shifts onto the life of Gogol, son of Ashoke and Ashima, who is perplexed by his name, hence resulting in the title of the book--The Namesake. Published in September 2003, the novel manages to highlight the struggles of assimilating in a foreign country, and finding one’s true identity, while preserving one’s own culture and ethnicity. Even after almost twenty years, the book addresses how identity can be conflicted based on experiences, and yet asks the reader to embrace where they are coming from.
Ashoke Ganguli, an MIT graduate student, gets married to Ashima, a simple Bengali girl who prioritizes others over herself, and doesn’t expect much in return. When faced with the decision of living abroad with Ashoke, Ashima agrees, only out of duty. This shows how both, Ashima and Ashoke, grew up with, where marriage, especially arranged, was more of a duty, then something done out of love. Only years later, Ashima grows to love her husband. She is ready to start a new life in Massachusetts with her new husband, but of course, inevitably she is met with cultural shocks while doing so. Nevertheless, she is brave in her own way, and manages to adapt. Ashima is almost like a lotus in a mud - she manages to bloom regardless of the problems that come her way. She, like Ashoke, is willing to take unprecedented challenges, like how she deals with her father’s demise in the beginning of her married life, and her transition from living in Cambridge to living in the suburbs. Ashoke, on the other hand, is a “man of duty” who wishes to live a life different from the typical life—which is why he ends up applying for a PhD in the US. Ashoke is a man of few words, and wants to explore the world, after a near-death experience in a train wreck, urges him to leave his world, India and his existing family, behind, to live the life of a dreamer, a romantic even.
Inspired by Ashoke’s favorite book’s author, Ashoke and Ashima name their first born Gogol, the center of this novel. Even Gogol’s birth characterizes the cultural clash this family becomes a part of. As Ashima changes into a cotton hospital gown right before the delivery of Gogol, the nurse tries to fold up the sari she had been wearing, “but exasperated by the six slippery yards, ends up stuffing the material into Ashima's slate blue suitcase.” A subtle, yet simple hint to the beginning of the endless cultural clashes Ashima would have to face as she tries to fit in. She has to get used to the fact that there is the need for adapting to new circumstances.
Later on, Gogol’s name becomes a challenge, and Gogol becomes a representation of how one’s identity is affected based on where they are brought up, and what their culture/ethnicity is. Gogol is bullied at school for his so-called-humorous name. Later, this titular “namesake” becomes a major symbol, representing how second-generation immigrants find it difficult to accept their parents’ culture. Gogol rejects his cultural identity and adapts to American norms. In fact, he changes his name to Nikhil - a symbol of Gogol's change in perception of who he is, and his identity.
Gogol’s romantic relationships, all, represent Gogol’s different approaches to understand, and accept, who he is. Ruth, in college, Maxine in New York, and finally Moushumi, his wife, all reflect on Gogol’s self-acceptance. Maxine, who genuinely loves Gogol, and even tries to understand his background, and practices in detail, shows that, despite the existing challenges, two different cultures could be united, if backed up by true intentions. In fact, Moushumi, who is from Gogol’s world of Bengali-American immigrants, wants to stray away from her roots, and constantly tries to break the connection. This begins to affect Gogol’s married life to Moushumi, as the novel weaves into sacrifices, identity crises, and familial tensions of subsequent generations.
The death of Ashoke urges Ashima to seek an identity of herself, and sees her become a flamboyant member of the Bengali-American community. As Gogol learns to appreciate his name, through his father’s experiences and intentions, he begins to embrace who is, and where his family comes from. It personalizes the name for him, leading him to know that his name is more than just a mere reference to him - it connects deeply with his father’s past, and decisions, that lead them to seek a new life in the United States.
A Pulitzer-prize winner, Lahiri is characterized by her simple writing and her focus on South Asian immigrants in the US. Though her tone is dispassionate, this only works to emphasize the isolation and detachment of the novel’s immigrant characters. Overall, The Namesake is an incredible book, showcasing Lahiri's flexibility as a writer. It leaves a lasting impression on the reader—managing to unapologetically and unforgettably tell the story of a family facing cultural conflict.
Aaira Goswami is from Assam, India. She has been writing since she was 10, and has published around 25+ articles in different magazines, like Teen Ink, Children's World and Planet Young (Assam Tribune). She also maintains her own blog and is the senior editor at her school's newsletter. Her favourite authors include Jane Austen, Chimamanda Adichie, and Agatha Christie. Besides writing, she leads the cultural and economics club at her school.