The Namesake is a literary fiction novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is a multigenerational story of immigration, family, culture, identity.
Marriage and Family
Ashoke and Ashima get married in Calcutta. It is an arranged marriage and soon afterward, Ashima finds herself in America with her new husband. They live in an apartment near his work for several years. Then they move to the suburbs and have two children.
The first child is a boy. Ashima wants her grandmother to name him, and she waits to receive a letter from her grandmother. This name will be the baby’s legal name (his good name). In their Bengali tradition, the child will use a different name at home.
With the slow speed of letters and the errors that can happen in the mail, Ashima and Ashoke never receive the letter that they are waiting for to name their firstborn. Since the hospital won’t let them leave without naming the baby, Ashoke names him Gogol. Nikolai Gogol was his favorite author.
As a young man, Ashoke loved Russian literature. He had been in a train accident when the train he was traveling on derailed. He was thrown from the train. The man he had been chatting with, who shared his regret about moving back to India from England, died in that accident. Ashoke was saved by The Overcoat, a book by Nikolai Gogol that he was reading on the train. The book was ripped in half in the accident, half remaining in Gogol’s hand. He managed to get the attention of the rescuers with the pages in his hand.
Later, Ashoke and Ashima found out that grandma had a stroke and if she’d sent them a letter, they never received it. She was in no position to name the baby after her stroke. When Gogol started school, they tried to give him Nikhil as a good name, a name to be used at school. However, the principal noticed that he didn’t respond to Nikhil and asked him what name he used at home. Finding out that his name was Gogol, she registered him at school that way.
A Russian Good Name
As Gogol grew up, he started to hate his name. He felt that it always caused him to stand out when he would have preferred to blend in. On his fourteenth birthday, his father gave him The Overcoat for his birthday, but he didn’t even look at it. The family didn’t make the same error with their second child, naming his sister Sonia.
Gogol attended Yale. He got a fresh start before going off to school by getting rid of the name he hated, officially changing his name to Nikhil. He fell in love with drawing and architecture and became an architect. As a child and when visiting home as an adult, he attended Bengali events with his parents but resisted his parents’ interference in his life.
Gogol had two identities, Gogol who was awkward and uncomfortable in his skin, the name his family and extended Bengali community called him, and Nikhil, the name he’d later chosen for himself. The only time he felt bad for changing his name was when his father told him the story of his train accident.
American and Bengali
Through dating, Gogol experienced other ways of life and other ways of being American. He was somewhat embarrassed by his parents, and how closed off their life was, with all their friends being Bengali as well. However, when his father passed away suddenly from a heart attack, Gogol’s grief became a wedge between him and his American girlfriend.
As a widow, Ashima learns to live on her own for the first time. She learns to drive and makes American friends.
After his father’s death, for the first time, Gogol gave in to his mother’s attempt to set him up on a date with a Bengali woman he’d known as a child; their parents had been friends. One year later, they married in a lavish celebration organized by their families.
However, when an old crush from her past, possibly her first crush comes back into her life, Moushimi has an affair with him. She sees him several times a week and goes on trips with him. She inadvertently mentions him to Gogol on their way to his mother’s for Christmas.
How The Namesake Ends
Gogol and Nikhil, two names and maybe two identities. After changing his name to Nikhil, Gogol is known as such by his new friends. However, all his old friends and family continue to call him Gogol. Although he insisted on the name change and informed his family of it, it was strange when his family called him Nikhil to his new friends but also awkward if they slipped up and used Gogol.
The story ends with Gogol, Sonia, Sonia’s fiancé (Ben), Ashima, and their extended Bengali family at her mother’s Christmas party. We learn that Moushumi and Gogol are divorced and Sonia is about to marry Ben. Ashima has sold the house and will soon go to Calcutta. She will spend half the year with her brother and half with her family and friends in the US. Everyone is celebrating the last party in that house.
During the party, Gogol goes upstairs to get a camera in his old room. He finds the book that his father got for him. For the first time, he reads the inscription and feels close to his father. His mother comes upstairs to get him, but he will return to the book and finally read it after years of refusing to read any of the Russian literature his father loved so much.
Note that Amazon Links are affiliate links. This means that I earn a small commission on qualifying purchases made at Amazon if you use this link to make a purchase.