The Namesake Summary and Analysis
The Namesake (2004) is the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was originally a novel published by The Newyorker and was later expanded to a full length novel. It explores many of the same emotional and cultural themes as her Pulitzer Prize-winnings short story collection ‘Interpreter of Maladies.’ Moving between events in Calcutta, Boston and New York City, the novel examines the nuances involved with being caught between two conflicting cultures with highly distinct religious, social and ideological differences.
The novel describes the struggles and hardships of a Bengal couple who immigrate to the United States to form a life outside of everything they are accustomed to. The story begins as Ashoka and Ashima leave Calcutta and settle in Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Through a series of errors, their son’s nickname, Gogol becomes his official with name, an event that will shape many aspects of his life in years to come.
Ashima Ganguli is a young bride about to deliver her first child in a hospital in Massachusselts. It is 1968 and her husband Ashoka is an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). New to America, Ashima struggles through language and culture barriers as well as her own fears as she delivers the first child alone. Had the delivery taken place in Calcutta, she would have had her baby at home, surrounded by family. The delivery is successful and the new parents are prepared to take their son home when they learn they cannot leave the hospital before giving their son a legal name.
The traditional naming process in their families is to have an elder give the new baby a name and the new parents await a letter sent by Ashima’s grand-mother. The letter never arrives and soon after the grandmother dies, Bengal culture calls for a child to have two names, a pet name to be called by family and a good name to be used in public. Ashoke suggests the name of Gogol, in honour of the famous Russian author Nikolai Gogol, to be the baby’s pet name and they use this name on the birth certificate.
As a young man Ashoke survived a train derailment with many fatalities. He had been reading a short story collection by Gogol just before the accident, and lying in the rubble of the accident, he clutched a single page of the story “The Overcoat’ in his hand. With many broken bones and no strength to move or call out, dropping the crumpled page is the only thing Ashoke can do to get the attention of medics looking for survivors. Though the pet name has deep significance for the baby’s parents, it is never intended to be used by anyone other than family.
Entering kindergarten, the Gangulis inform their son that he will be known as Nikhil at school. The five year old objects and school administrators intervene on his behalf, sending him home with a note pinned to his shirt, stating that he would be called Gogol at school, as was his preference. By the time he turns fourteen, he starts to hate the name. His father tries once to explain the significance of it, but he senses that Gogol is not old enough to understand. As Gogol progresses through High School, he resents his name more and more for its oddness and the strange genius for whom he was named. When he informs his parents that he wishes to change his name, his father objects to the idea, but reluctantly agrees. Shortly before leaving for college, Gogol legally changes his name to Nikhil Gogol Ganguli.
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 emotionally, between Gogol and his parents continues to increase. He wants to be American, not Bengali. He goes homeless frequently, dates American girls and becomes angry when anyone calls him Gogol. During his college years, he smokes cigarettes and marjuana, goes to many parties, and loses his Virginity to a girl he cannot remember.
While taking a train home for the summer, Gogol’s train is suddenly stopped and temporarily loses electricity. A man had jumped in front of the train and committed suicide, and the wait for the authorities causes a long delay. Ashoke who is waiting at the train station for Gogol becomes very concerned when he calls the train company and hears of this incident. When they pull into the Ganguli’s drive way, Ashoke turns off the car and finally explains the true significance of Gogol’s name. Gogol is deeply troubled by this news, asking his father why he didn’t tell him earlier. He starts to regret changing his name and his identity.
After graduation from Columbia, Gogol obtains a very small apartment in New York City where he lands a job in an established Architectural office. He is rather stiff personality-wise, perpetually angry, or else always or the look out for someone to make a stereotypical comment about his background.
At a party, Gogol meets a very attractive and outgoing girl named Maxine with whom he begins a relationship. Maxine’s parents are financially well off and live in a four storey house in New Your City, with one floor occupied entirely by Maxine. Gogol moves in with her, and becomes an accepted member of her family. When Maxine’s parents visit her grand-parents in the mountains of New Hampshire for the summer they invite Maxine and Gogol to join them for a couple of weeks.
Gogol introduces Maxine to his parents, Ashima dismisses Maxine as something that Gogol will eventually get over. Shortly after this meeting, Ashoke dies of a heart attack, while teaching in Ohio. Gogol travels to Ohio together his father’s belongings and his father’s ashes and in attempting to sort out his emotions, Gogol gradually withdraws from Maxine, eventually breaking up with her. He begins to spend more time with his mother and sister Sonia.
Later Ashima suggests that Gogol contact Moushimi, the daughter of one of her friends whom Gogol knew when they were children and whose intended groom, Graham broke up with her shortly before their wedding. Gogol is reluctant to meet with Moushimi because she is Bengali, but does so anyway to please his mother.
Moushimi and Gogol are attracted to one another and eventually are married. However by the end of their first year of marriage, Moushimi becomes restless. She feels tied down by marriage and begins and begins to regret it. He also feels like a poor substitute for Graham. Eventually Moushimi has an affair with Dimitri, an old acquaintance, the revelation of which leads to the end of their marriage, with Sonia preparing to marry her fiancé, an American named Ben, Gogol is once again alone. He is nonetheless comforted by the fact that Ashoke, prior to his death, finally told his son why he had chosen that name for him. Gogol comes to accept his name and fix up a collection of the Russian author’s stories that his father had given him as a birthday present many years ago.
In the novel Namesake, Lahiri explores the tug between the two worlds–the Indian world and the American one. That exploration is based in part on her own experiences growing up in America as the child of Indian immigrants. Her fictional counterpart is Gogol Ganguli. Who comes of age over the course of the novel and comes to terms with his complicated multi-cultural identity.
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. As Gogol slowly realizes the importance of his family and his culture, he falls in love with Moushimi, the Bengalese woman. The story appears to have finally come to a happy conclusion. Gogol and Moushimi are married. But this is not a romantic happily ever after tale,
The Namesake takes readers behind the closed doors of people who have immigration to the United States to find a better life and the challenges they unexpectedly discover in the process. The Namesake is a novel of self-discovery that is an emotional Journey its readers will not soon forget.