Book Review: The Namesake

I ruminated for almost 2 years, over reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel ‘The Namesake’ after her Pulitzer Prize winning book of short stories ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ disappointed me big-time.

The Namesake, now having being filmed and releasing soon, got me curious and I finally sat down to read the book I now wish I had picked up 2 years ago.

The book begins with Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, Bengali immigrants in a new country strangely awkward around each other after an arranged marriage, welcoming their son into this world. Ashima’s great-grandmother, who has named most of her great-grandchildren, encloses a name for Ashima’s first born in a letter that never does make the long journey from Calcutta to the U.S.A.

Hospital formalities require a name on the birth-certificate without which the baby cannot be discharged. And so, in the absence of grandmother’s letter containing the baby’s name, Ashoke christens his first-born Gogol. Named after Russian author Nikolai Gogol whose writing Ashoke has admired greatly from childhood and who had impacted him in a life-altering experience.

In an almost ritualistic Bengali dual-name tradition of a home-name (pet name) and a ‘good-name’, Gogol, a home-name, soon sticks till it almost becomes his ‘good-name’. Admitting him to school, Ashoke and Ashima realize that they do need a ‘good-name’ after all and rechristen their son Nikhil, something he refuses to accept quite content being Gogol.

So, Gogol happily remains Gogol till he steps into his teens and is suddenly embarrassed by his name. More so when he understands that it wasn’t even a name, but a surname that he was named after to begin with.

His exasperation at his name just scratches the surface of his exasperation and resentment at his Bengali/Indian culture. At his protective parents who resolutely refuse to move with the times, his lifestyle and the sheer Indian-ness of everything that he tries to shrug off at every given opportunity, by defying his parents will and drifting away from them mentally and physically.

Gogol officially changes his name to Nikhil. Nikhil goes through life, graduating, working, falling in love and falling out of it, fighting everything Indian and embracing everything American, till he recognizes he cannot change his past, his roots. And life comes a full circle and along with Ashima and Gogol you too are left introspecting if getting all that you wished for is worth it in the end.

Lahiri’s excellent command over language, well etched characters, graceful and confident writing style and detailed, researched knowledge draw you in and keep you hooked as she seamlessly glides through decades starting from 1968 till 2000 and from Calcutta to Boston.

You grow, age and tire with Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli as they progress from awkward newly weds in a foreign land, as foreign to each other as the country is to them, to concerned parents (Gogol is later joined by his sister, Sonia) fiercely sticking to their roots and forcing their unwilling children to do the same. You meet and mingle with all the people who pass through Gogol’s life and impact it in various ways.

Emotions wash over and sometimes overwhelm you as you share Ashima’s empty isolation, Gogol’s constant internal conflicts and resentments or Ashoke’s quiet acceptance.

You smile through celebrating Bengali rituals and traditions with ‘mashi’s’ (aunts) and ‘mesho’s’ (uncles) and feel uneasy at the twists and turns that come up expectedly in the lives of the Ganguli’s.

From the first line through all 290 pages of the book, each of the finely etched characters draw you in till you feel one with them and when the book ends you are left strangely bereft, like standing all alone in an empty house after all the people you spent time with have left.

‘The Namesake’ is a richly soul-satisfying, introspective, multi-layered and intellectual read that lingers in your thoughts long after you’ve turned the last page. Take a bow, Ms Lahiri, for you have proved that when beauty and brains go together, it makes for a stunning combination.