Jhumpa Lahiri yet again captures my heart. It’s a rare find: a book so consuming, personal, equally heart wrenching as it is comforting. The story details the lives of the Gangulis, a Bengali couple who move from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to bring their unborn son into the world. Lahiri weaves together a story of the boy’s life, whose entire existence revolves on an axis of incidental occurrences, beginning with his very naming. Gogol, a tribute to the writer of The Overcoat, derives from the enduring hope that followed his father’s survival from a near-death train accident. This traumatic event marks the rest of Ashoke life decisions. His endurance in the face of catastrophe is punctuated by reference to the pages of the Russian author’s book that he clutched in his fist as he was thrown through the window of the train.
Far from subtle, the motif, “what’s in a name” is the lifeblood that feeds the body of this nuanced work. Without answering the question concretely, the exploration of the morality behind nomenclature peppers her intricate tales of family history, flashback anecdotes, and character developments. Lahiri details the Bengali tradition of calling a child one familiar name in the home and one formal name to those outside the family. But beyond questioning the cultural and personal values of taxonomy, she manages to tackle themes of assimilation, young-adulthood and filial piety, all while examining the unique experiences of first and second generation immigrants.
Weaving together stories set in both Calcutta and in Massachusetts, Lahiri introduces us to the balance between family, friends, and identity, and where each generation’s values regarding culture or religion might stand. It is a delicate but beautifully constructed account, depicting the multiple layers of resentment and reverence that Gogol and other second generation immigrants in his life face. His future wife, for instance, feels comfort in familial tradition and yet craves escape through immersion in a third culture, untainted from the normative assignation of “Bengali” or “American” traditions in her life. It is this type of internal conflict, so complex and so realistic, that make The Namesake a spectacular debut.
For a first novel, Lahiri’s prose is straightforward, unencumbered, and honest. Her writing is so fluid as to allow the reader access to the multiple levels of consciousness of each character. And illuminating as it is to deconstruct the motivations and disappointments of characters between generations, what truly stands out is her capacity to deeply understand and depict the mindsets of the two distinct different cultures that the Gangulis are caught in between.
Raised by Bengali parents in an American household, Gogol and his sister Sonia represent a more confounding double/lack-of identity. The two struggle to embrace both their heritage and the culture of their more familiar home and amalgamate the significant features of each to claim as their own. The result reads as a remarkably candid disclosure that also acts as a bildungsroman, traveling through countries, cities, generations, and even genres. There is easily something in this novel for every reader! Lahiri comprehends the ins and outs of budding romance, the anxieties and pressures of high academic achievement, the precarious balance of respect and gratitude between generations, highlighting the importance of family ties above all.
This stunning book was published in 2003 (I know I’m a little late to the party). But for a whirlwind, multileveled experience I must recommend this book. It transcends genre, from romance to drama, laugh-out-loud moments and memoir-like clarity. It was such a pleasure to read that I felt a sadness as the story was coming to an end. My only complaint is with what restrained indifference Lahiri brings to light huge life events at the turn of a page (did I mention I wish it were longer?). Do yourself a favor and give The Namesake (and Gogol’s The Overcoat, while you’re at it) a read.
Photo from libela.org