By Jhumpa Lahiri. Published in 2004.
Names have fascinated me for more than a decade. When I was a teenager, I started collecting baby name books, a hobby I kept secret because people could easily get the wrong idea about a fifteen-year-old girl with a small stash of books for expectant mothers. How could I explain that my obsession wasn’t with babies but with what people name them and why and what that means?
I love studying names because thinking about names means thinking about cultural background, class, race, gender, and family history. Thinking about names means thinking about individual identity, collective identity, and the negotiation between the two. That’s precisely why Jhumpa Lahiri can use the name Gogol Ganguli, the name of the principal character in her novel, The Namesake, as a vehicle to address all of those issues. She doesn’t need to stretch; the issues are inherent in the name itself.
Gogol is the son of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, Indian immigrants to the United States. Ashoke chose the name Gogol for his son because of his fondness for the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, whose book Ashoke was reading at a critical point of his life. The Gangulis intended for Gogol to be only a pet name, a family name, with a proper, “good” name for public use, but through a series of accidents, most stemming from their unfamiliarity with American culture, their son instead becomes known to the world as Gogol.
Throughout the novel, Lahiri shifts among the perspectives of Gogol and his parents as he grows from a young boy to a young man, who legally changes his name to Nikhil, the “good” name that would have been. The story is a quiet, organic one rather than the oft-told tale of angry, bitter clashes between first-generation Americans and their traditional parents. Certainly culture clash is part of The Namesake, but the Ganguli parents usually accept, for example, their children’s preferences for “normal” American food or their wish for a Christmas tree. Similarly the children don’t deny their heritage; Gogol changes his name to Nikhil, not Nicholas.
The disconnect between parent and child that Lahiri explores is not unique to immigrant families: The struggle to define oneself apart from one’s family and then to incorporate that self back into the family is a universal one. Lahiri never takes cheap shots in portraying that struggle, either. Ashoke and Ashima are good parents, and Gogol is a good son, even if they don’t always understand one another.
In fact, Lahiri’s finely drawn characters are the best reason to read The Namesake. She is an expert at deftly sketching an individual with a few well-chosen details, making even minor characters distinct and memorable. The plot sometimes meanders — Lahiri’s roots as a short story writer are clear — but the Gangulis hold our attention across the three decades or so covered by the novel. The novel’s arc may be patchy, but many of the patches are exquisite.
In one perfect scene, an adult Gogol, embarrassed that his companion has told her friends about his name change, bluntly tells an expectant mother that she will never find the “perfect name” for her child: “There’s no such thing as a perfect name. I think that human beings should be allowed to name themselves when they turn eighteen. Until then, pronouns.”
It’s an utterly impractical idea, of course, one that the listeners immediately dismiss, but as Gogol ponders it, we understand what he’s really talking about: A child’s name reflects his parents’ expections, the way they have defined him. To name oneself would be an act of self-definition, complete independence, simple freedom. Surely we all have longed for that kind of freedom at one point. But perhaps we have misunderstood our parents’ wishes, misread their expectations and the legacies our names hold. The beauty of the final paragraphs of Lahiri’s novel is that Gogol is at last ready to explore his father’s gift to him, the meaning of his namesake.