Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli begin their lives together with an arranged marriage and a move to the United States from India. Ashoke is still a student, with ambitions to become a professor, while Ashima stays home to take care of their son, Gogol, who is born shortly after their marriage. The Namesake is really about Gogol, who sits between the generations, watching the effect his life has on his immigrant parents even as he tries to sort out his own culture, to reconcile his Bengali roots with his American present.
I’ve been hearing about Jhumpa Lahiri for years, and actually I’ve owned this book since 2008. Shameful, I know, especially because once I got started reading this I completely fell in love. It wasn’t a hard task to win me over; Lahiri managed it almost immediately by tying Gogol, the Russian author, to the story in the form of Gogol, the character, adding in a whole range of meaning for me as a reader of that particular author. I loved how the author followed the character throughout his life, subtly reminding him of his parents, and simultaneously making him confused and guilty and a little bit wistful.
I’m an immigrant myself, and though not nearly as isolated as Ashoke and Ashima, I still sympathised with the feeling of being in a foreign land, lacking friends simply because you have no basis for knowing people, and essentially feeling isolated. The couple eventually make themselves at home, but there’s always something there that is lacking, even once you realize that you’ve lived in a foreign place for long enough that you’ll never quite fit in at home, either.
The contrast between the experience of the parents and the children when they visit India, for instance, is striking. Though Ashoke and Ashima are happy enough in the United States, they come back to themselves in India. In vivid contrast, their children feel irritated at the absence from home and confused by a different way of life. They don’t enjoy the visits, but their parents relish them and despair at leaving.
This is also a novel about identity, about the confusion between who you individually are and where you’ve come from. Gogol, in typical young adult fashion, seems to discard everything about his culture, including his own name, in a search to figure out who he truly is. It takes a powerful shock to remind him that there’s more to his background, that there are essential threads of his life that he just missed while he was busy asserting that identity. But he quickly swings back the other way. It’s not a simple thing, working out who you are and entangling it from the mess created of your life up to that point, and Lahiri not only recognizes this but pulls it off beautifully.
A quiet but powerful book about identity and heritage, The Namesake struck every chord correctly with me, catapulting itself onto my 2011 favorites list at the tail end of the year. Very highly recommended.