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First edition cover
|Cover artist||Philippe Lardy|
|Published||September 2003 Houghton Mifflin|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback) and audio-CD|
|Pages||291 (hardback edition)|
|ISBN||0-395-92721-8 (hardback edition)|
|LC Class||PS3562.A316 N36 2003|
The Namesake (2003) is the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was originally a novella published in The New Yorker and was later expanded to a full-length novel. It explores many of the same emotional and cultural themes as her Pulitzer Prize-winning 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 Bengali couple who immigrate to the United States to form a life outside of everything they are accustomed to.
The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, displays the struggle of assimilation through a story of a Bengali family, which allows the reader to comprehend the true interworking effects that moving to America has on individuals' lives. Lahiri uses internal conflict with identity to exhibit the impalpable results that culture differences can have on a person's self-concept. Lahiri utilizes rhetorical devices, which appeal to pathos and ethos, in attempt to show that original identity and lifestyle will always stick with a person and in order to thrive in life, one must accept who he or she is and be true to it.
The story begins as Ashoke and Ashima leave Calcutta, India and settle in Central Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Through a series of events, Gogol, becomes the main character's official birth name, an event that will shape many aspects of his life in years to come. Throughout the story, Gogol fights an internal battle to find himself. He struggles trying to balance between American versus Indian culture and appreciating friendship more than family. Continuously in the novel, the author, Lahiri, uses different appeals of argument to show the reader that family should always be valued and help the reader connect with the story. Pathos in particular forces the reader to connect emotionally with the story, specifically of how Gogol's name came about and Ashoke's tragic accident.
Ashima Ganguli is a young bride about to deliver her first child in a hospital in Massachusetts. It is 1968, and her husband, Ashoke, is an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). New to America, Ashima struggles through language and cultural barriers as well as her own fears as she delivers her 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 grandmother. The letter never arrives, and soon after, the grandmother dies. Bengali 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 honor 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 14, 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 home less frequently, dates American girls, and becomes angry when anyone calls him Gogol. During his college years, he smokes cigarettes and marijuana, goes to many parties, and loses his virginity to a girl he cannot remember.
As he is going 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 driveway, 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 this earlier. He starts to regret changing his name and his identity.
After graduating 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 on the lookout 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-story house in New York 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 grandparents 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 to gather 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 Moushumi, 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 Moushumi because she is Bengali, but does so anyway, to please his mother.
Moushumi and Gogol are attracted to one another and eventually are married. However, by the end of their first year of marriage, Moushumi becomes restless. She feels tied down by marriage and begins to regret it. He also feels like a poor substitute for Graham. Eventually, Moushumi 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 fiance, 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 picks up a collection of the Russian author's stories that his father had given him as a birthday present many years ago. 
The Namesake explores the importance of family on one’s life. One of the major themes in the book is the unrealized influence of family. Lahiri uses the character Gogol in order to persuade the audience of this. In an interview with Alden Mudge, Lahiri states that “[The book is] more about what we inherit from our parents - certain ideas, certain values, certain genes - the whole complex set of things that everyone gets from their parents and the way that, no matter how much we create our own lives and choose what we want out of life, it's very difficult to escape our origins." Gogol experiments with the modern culture and doesn’t find much satisfaction. He realizes that the memories he created with his family are more meaningful then the different flings he had with strangers. The audience is able to join Gogol in his journey and feel his emotions through Lahiri’s use of pathos. Lahiri’s tactic leads the audience to gain the same feeling about family as Gogol and believe in the special place that family has in life.
Another major theme in this book is identity, specifically in a name. In Bengali tradition a baby is given a good name for important documents and public. The baby also receives a “pet name” which is used around family or close family friends, in the book Ashima, Gogol’s mother has a pet name of Monu as explained when the couple is about to name their son (Lahiri, 25-26). However American culture that Ashima and Ashoke are raising their children in do not recognize having two names as Bengali culture does. As there is a rush on the baby's name for important documents, like the birth certificate. However, the pet name Gogol sticks through high school as Gogol’s name because of actions he made when he was in kindergarten of rejecting his good name Nikhil. The narrator introduces chapter five with the idea that plenty of people have undergone names changes (97). This leads into Gogol bringing the idea up to his family at dinner then going to court to change his name. The idea of a name is later brought up when Gogol brings Maxine home to meet his parents. Maxine at that point had only known him as Nikhil and when his father says goodbye to him as Gogol, Maxine catches the pet name. The two different names represent him, Gogol and his involvement as a person in two different cultures, American and Bengali.
The development of Ashoke as a character was largely defined by his relationship with Gogol. Throughout Gogol's life, Ashoke was a constant figure in his life as the fatherly figure who gave him his name. Yet despite this, he was often considered a little bit detached. Throughout the novel, the lack of emotional displays by Ashoke is repeatedly referred to. As Gogol grows older and his animosity towards his name grows, his relationship with his father becomes strained as well. The major emotional moment and turning point in their relationship takes place on page 122 when Ashoke finally tells his son about the true cause of his namesake and the fateful night on the train. By opening up to Gogol in this way, he becomes vulnerable to a degree that was incomprehensible when compared with the character of Ashoke and the relationship between him and his son. This creates a change in how they approach their relationship together, and it becomes one of love and admiration from Gogol. It allows Gogol to embrace his familiar and cultural identity as well, and creates an empathetic image of Ashoke which perseveres throughout the novel.
Ashima's story explores how an immigrant adapts themselves to the United States. She poses as the maternal figure for Gogol. Ashima initially experiences shock when she moves to America due to the vastly different cultures. She has trouble adjusting to American culture, evident on page 49 where " Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy— a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts." Unlike her children, Ashima makes an adjustment in her life after knowing a culture she could call home and leaving it.
A major event which changes her character is the death of Ashoke. She begins to prefer living in America over India, evident by how she no longer wants to move back to India. She accepts her daughter's non-Bengali marriage, and becomes more independent.
Gogol's main character development is the constant conflict he experiences as he struggles with his identity, his name, and his heritage. As a child, Gogol likes his pet name and refuses to be called Nikhil when his parents insist to the principle of his school to call Gogol "Nikhil." However, over time Gogol realizes just how uncommon his name is, and inspired by American celebrities, decides to change his name to Nikhil. This is a shift in his character identity because he changed his original name that represented his family and uncommon Bengali culture to "Nikhil" which is more commonly accepted name in American society. Gogol disposes of the heritage his family had given him for a namesake that fits better in American society. Gogol's change in names is a metaphor for how Gogol struggles to balance his Bengali culture with the foreign American culture he lives in.
A film adaptation of the novel was released in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and India in March 2006. It was directed by Mira Nair and featured a screenplay written by Sooni Taraporevala.
The Namesake was published in Bengali under the title Samanami.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa (2003). The Namesake. First Mariner Book.
- Mudge, Alden. "Jhumpa Lahiri- Interview". Book Page. Pro Motion Inc. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa (2003). The Namesake. First Mariner Books. pp. 25–26, 97.