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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review – Part 1

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; – William Shakespeare

“The Namesake”, the critically acclaimed book by Jhumpa Lahiri, first published in 2004 by Harper Parennial, revolves around the eternal questions. The sense of belonging that is so important to a human being, where does it come from? Where do we derive our identities from, Parents, Family, Place of Birth, Friends or the Place that we call home most of our life?

Book Title : The Namesake
Author :
Publisher : Mariner Books (September 1, 2004)
Purchase Links : The Namesake: A Novel @ Amazon.com
Buy The Namesake from Flipkart

We start the journey that is Gogol’s life, when her mother Ashima is pregnant. Married to Ashoke, the way endless generations of Indians were married, when they are total strangers to each other. Ashoke is working his way through a Ph. D. in fibre optics engineering in Boston, USA. Ashima has duly followed him to this unknown country. As hard as it is to settle in a completely new country, she finds going through the term of her pregnancy and the idea of motherhood with no one around from their families, daunting. In due course, she gives birth to a baby boy. They are in no hurry to name him. That will happen when a letter from India will arrive with a name. Meanwhile, the US authorities are not ready to discharge the mother and son without a birth registration. In a moment of inspiration, Ashoke names the boy Gogol.

The Namesake - Book Cover

The Namesake – Book Cover

Ashoke completes his degree, changes job and like every other skilled Indian migrant they climb the ladder slowly. Well paying jobs, bigger and better house, a circle of Indian friends that more or less serves as extended family and addition of a daughter, Sonia. Meanwhile, it is time for Gogol to go to school. While Gogol is a cute ‘Dak naam’ (nick name), it can hardly be used as a ‘Bhalo naam’ (Formal Name). So, they name him Nikhil. But, this seems bewildering to young Gogol, and on the first day of school, he fails to answer to Nikhil. And, duly the school accepts him as Gogol Ganguly.

As he grows up, Gogol realises how unique his name is. As a teenager, when he is first introduced to the life and works of Nikolai Gogol, he realises that he is never going to meet another Gogol. His life is confusing as it is, just like other thousands of American born Indians, who are caught in the conflicting cultures at home and outside. He hates it when he has to come and stay in India. He tries to blend-in with his American friends, but his confusion stays. Finally, he gives up the name Gogol officially and becomes Nikhil Ganguly when he joins university for a degree in architecture.

One night, while travelling from the university to his hometown, he escapes an accident, and is met on station by Ashoke who is very visibly shaken. Ashok finally tells him about the train accident that nearly killed him. It was when Ashoke was a student at the B E college in India. He was travelling from Calcutta to his grandparents’ home in Jamshedpur. He was reading his favourite story, “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol, when the train met with a horrible accident. When the rescuers arrived, Ashok was alive but unable to move and would have been left there to die. But, he was still clutching the book in his hand, and the torn pages fluttered and caught attention of the rescuers. The rescue was followed by long, agonising months while his legs mended and he revived. From that period on, Gogol became for him the symbol of his second life, the life that he lived after the accident, which led to journey to an unknown land, to a lovely wife and his children. And that’s why when he had to pick up a name for his son, he ended up picking Gogol.

Gogol understands this, but his life moves on. He completes a degree in architecture, takes a job and finally gets in to a relationship with Maxine. In Maxine’s parents and her home, he finally becomes a part of an American household. He embraces this way of life eagerly while the contrast of his parents’ home life with that of their adopted country is thrown in a sharp relief for him to observe. But, it suddenly changes one night, when he receives a phone call from home informing his that his father is dead.

Ashoke had taken a research job in Cleveland recently, leaving Ashima alone in their home. It is from Cleaveland, that one afternoon he calls Ashima informing her that he is suffering from minor stomach pain and has come to the hospital. When he doesn’t call back until the night, Ashima makes frantic inquiries and learns that he collapsed in the hospital. The death acts like a slap that awakens Gogol from a dream and takes him to a reality. His new devotion to his mother is more than Maxine can understand and they part ways.

Through his mother, he meets Moushumi and eventually they get married. Moushumi has her own past to come to terms with and in spite of nothing wrong on the surface, she wrecks their marriage. They get divorced. Sonia finds love in Ben and is about to get married. It is at this stage that Ashima decides to return to India. As different a woman as possible from the young bride that came a few decades ago to USA, and yet unaltered in so many ways. And it is during his last visit to his mother’s home that Gogol discovers the book that his father gave him, but he never bothered to read, “The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol’. It is time for Nikhil to discover Gogol.

What’s in a name? – It’s Your Identity…………………

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s real name is – Nilanjana Sudeshna.
  • Cyril Walter Hodges (18 March 1909 – 26 November 2004) – also known with his initials C. W. Hodges – an artist and a writer – wrote a book with the same title – The Namesake. That book is intended for children.
  • Willa Cather – an author – wrote a short story with the same title – The Namesake – which was first published in 1907.

Image Curtsey: Wikipedia

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