Lahiri, J. (2003). The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 0618485228
Young Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli have come from Calcutta, India to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960s. Ashoke is an engineering professor at MIT and Ashima is desperately homesick and pregnant. In 1968, Ashima finds herself going into labor and she gives birth to a son in an American hospital. The Gangulis await a letter from Ashima’s grandmother to arrive; one which will have the name for their son. The grandmother has not told anyone the name. This is a Bengali tradition. Somehow, the letter becomes lost before reaching the Gangulis in Massachusetts and the grandmother dies. Another Bengali custom is to give children a pet name as well as a formal one. However, the pet name of Gogol (namesake of the Russian writer) becomes the formal name of the Gangulis’ son. Being an Indian American and the namesake of a Russian writer further complicates the experience of the first generation American in his search for identity. Throughout the rest of the book, Gogol struggles to find himself as a person who has one foot in his parents’ Bengali existence and the other in the pervasive land of his birth, America. Gogol even reaches the point of trying to solve his “name problem.”
The Namesake definitely tells of the Asian Indian experience in the United States. While the story is delivered in third person, most of the narrative is seen through the eyes of protagonist, Gogol Ganguli. A couple of key parts of the book are spent with Ashima Ganguli and these capture the confusion of a person in unfamiliar territory.Yet, it is Gogol and his younger sister, Sonia, who teach their parents about American traditions such as Christmas. Later in the book, Gogol faces further issues of bridging the gap of East and West. There are numerous events within the book where Ashima is hosting a party where Indian food is served and enjoyed in great proportions. As an adult, Gogol compares the experience of eating dinner with the Gangulis to that of dining with the family of a Caucasian woman he dates as an adult. Another element not to be missed in the book is the arranged marriage of Ashoke and Ashima versus marriage for “love” at which the American Gangulis seek.
I decided to read The Namesake because it illustrates a contemporary immigrant experience in addition to one of a first generation American. When the reader is with Ashima, he or she sees life of a bewildered and lonely woman in a strange place. Then, Gogol shows what it is like to be the link between India and America for his parents. I found both Ashima and Gogol to be sympathetic characters making the best of their respective plights. These two are good hearted and well-intentioned. Also, the Gangulis and most of the other characters in this book were very easy to recognize for me and I am not Bengali. I learned a whole lot about some Indian traditions and moral dilemmas (i.e. vegetarianism, celebrating Christmas, etc).
Not only would I recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about Bengali life in America or readers looking for an experience similar to their own, I would suggest this to anyone who enjoys good literature. Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters and situations are very realistic and encourage readers to consider the answers to questions like “Who am I really?” and “Am I defined by my family or my name?” This is a great read for patrons wanting something a little different and edifying. Also, fans of Madame Bovary and ironic situations would appreciate this book. I do not imagine the Christian fiction audience would like it much due to bad language and sexual situations. This is not a light, fluffy book, either. I would be excited to encourage anyone else to read The Namesake.
4.75 out of 5 Pearls