The Namesake Book Review
A baby boy is born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Bengali immigrants, recently arrived from Calcutta. The child is given a pet name while his parents wait for his proper name to arrive in a letter from home. The letter never arrives, and the boy grows up resenting his pet name, which is Gogol, after the Russian author. He goes to school, endures adolescence, falls in love, and marries. His father dies, his mother learns to live alone, and the boy, now a young man, comes to terms with his heritage.
It’s a simple story, on the surface, written in deceptively simple prose. The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, plays no games with the reader . . . we see none of Tom Wolfe’s verbal acrobatics . . . no unreliable narrators à la Gillian Flynn. Yet The Namesake, her 2002 novel exploring the immigrant experience in America, is so intensely readable – her characters so engaging – you don’t want the story to end.
Born and raised in Calcutta, Ashima is married to Ashoke Ganguli, a man she first spoke to on her wedding day. They leave for New England directly after the wedding, barely knowing each other. Each day, while he studies for his engineering doctorate, Ashima deals with the daily challenges of adapting to a new country. Bereft of her parents, aunts, uncles, and friends, she trembles at the thought of raising her child in a cold, foreign city, surrounded by strangers.
“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect”.
When their son is born, Ashima and Ashoke delay giving him a proper name. The honour of that has been given to Ashima’s grandmother; until they receive her letter they will call him by his pet name. These pet names, used by family and friends are a Bengali tradition – early in the book, we learn why the Gangulis call their son Gogol:
Seven years earlier, Ashoke is on a train, reading a book of short stories by the Russian author, Nikolai Gogol. He gets into conversation with a stranger, an older man named Gosh.
”Do yourself a favor,” Gosh says. ”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. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”
Shortly after that, there’s a terrible accident: the train derails – Gosh is killed – and Ashoke is discovered in the wreckage only because a rescuer sees a page of the book fluttering in his hand. After recovering from his injuries, Ashoke makes a decision to follow Gosh’s advice. He applies to MIT, receives a fellowship, and leaves for America. Two years later he returns to Calcutta in order to find a wife. While waiting in the delivery room for Ashima to deliver their child, Ashoke thinks again of the fact that it was only because he was sitting up reading while the others slept that he was not killed like the others. It was Gogol, the Russian writer, who saved his life. Hence, the pet name, Gogol, for his son.
Ashoke lands a professorship at MIT, their daughter Sonia is born, and the family moves to the suburbs. Ashima, who doesn’t drive, misses being able to walk with everywhere with her children. Slowly, she and Ashoke make friends with other Bengalis in the area, and Friday night gatherings become a regular occurence. While their parents socialize, the children watch TV in the basement rec room or play board games upstairs.
And everybody eats.
The preparation, sharing, and consuming of food is a recurring motif. At the very beginning we see Ashima standing in the kitchen, recreating a popular Indian street snack. As a baby, Gogol is introduced to the world not by baptism but by Annaprashana, a Hindu rite of passage marking the child’s first intake of food other than milk. The list of foods mentioned makes one’s mouth water: samosas, chicken curry and rice, tandoori, pakoras, mincemeat croquettes, lamb korma, sweet yogurt and pantuas. For the immigrant Gangulis, food, prepared in the traditional manner, is more than a way to satisfy hunger – it’s a lifeline to their culture.
Growing up in New England, Gogol always feels like an outsider. He’s shy, bookish and artistic, and he hates his name. Before he sets off for university, he officially changes it to Nikhil; his family and their friends will continue to call him Gogol but he’ll be Nikhil, or Nik, to everybody else – including his first serious girlfriend, an art student he meets on the train to Boston. He and Ruth date for a year but after she goes away to Oxford to study for a semester the relationship becomes strained and they break up. During this time Ashoke finally tells his son the story of the train accident that led to the pet name, Gogol.
After graduating from Yale, Nikhil attends design school at Columbia, then lives uptown and works for a firm in Manhattan. Here he meets Maxine, who’s moved back to live with her parents in their spacious, cosmopolitan townhouse. Gerald and Lydia Ratliff are everything the Gangulis are not: wealthy, sophisticated, and extremely liberal. They welcome Nikhil into the household and he virtually lives there, going back to his apartment only occasionally to check his phone messages and his mail. The ease of this lifestyle seduces him – he makes excuses not to visit his parents. When Ashoke is leaving for an extended trip to Cleveland, his mother asks him to come for the weekend, in order to say goodbye. Instead, Nikhil drives up to New Hampshire, to spend time with Maxine and her parents.
Shortly before Christmas, his father, who is still away in Cleveland, dies of a heart attack. Nikhil is devastated by grief and remorse and Maxine, who genuinely cares for him, is unable to comfort him. He takes a month off from work and spends it at home with his mother and sister, surrounded by the friends and neighbours who knew his father. When his family travels to Calcutta to spread his father’s ashes, he refuses to let Maxine come with them. This leads to a series of arguments and a few months later, he steps out of her life altogether.
The following year, under pressure from Ashima, Nikhil agrees to call a childhood friend. Moushumi was one of the youngsters who attended the Friday night gatherings. Now she’s a graduate student in French literature, recently returned from Paris and recovering from a broken engagement. Neither she nor Nikhil expect to be attracted to each other – the date is simply to satisfy their parents – but they are. Very quickly, they fall in love and marry, amused to find themselves doing exactly as their parents have always wished – marrying a Bengali.
It doesn’t last. Nikhil doesn’t care for her friends, especially Donald and Astrid, who were friends of Graham, Moushumi’s ex. Moushumi becomes restless, and begins to wonder if she made a mistake, jumping into marriage this way. An affair with an old boyfriend leads to a divorce, and she moves back to Paris. That Christmas, Nikhil comes back home to help his mother. Ashima has sold the house where she raised her children – where she has lived for 27 years – and is going back to Calcutta. For the foreseeable future she will spend half the year with family in India, and half with her daughter and son in the States.
“For the first time since her flight to meet her husband in Cambridge, in the winter of 1967, she will make the journey entirely on her own. The prospect no longer terrifies her.”
This Ashima, once the trembling immigrant, now drives the roads of New England. She has an American passport, a drivers licence, a social security card. She is the doyenne of a large group of friends who will be devastated when she leaves. She has, in other words, made a life for herself in the “cold, foreign city”.
As Nikhil contemplates saying goodbye to his mother he wonders how his parents managed it: “. . . leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing. All those trips to Calcutta he’d once resented – how could they have been enough? They were not enough”.
He ponders the random events, the unforeseen incidents, one leading to the other, beginning with his father’s accident on the train, all those years ago. Nikhil had tried to correct that randomness by changing his name. But he was only partially successful: “Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”
As I say, a simple story. But powerfully told.