The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

17/01/04, The Times

Gogol Ganguli. Ponder on that name. Would you go through life with a name like that, the faintly ridiculous alliterative gurgling only serving to emphasise the incongruity of the yoking of a Russian author’s surname with a common Bengali one? Especially if you’re born and brought up in the US? It comes as no surprise that the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, spends all his time evading, hiding, changing, and escaping his name, a name whose history he finds out from his father, Ashoke, when he is twenty-one, while sitting inside a car on a windy evening. Twenty-seven years ago, Ashoke Ganguli had been saved from certain death after a train derailment in West Bengal by a rescuer who had noticed a page flutter from a hand sticking out of the wreckage. The page had been from Gogol’s short story ‘The Overcoat’, which Ashoke had been reading when the accident had occurred. Seven years after the incident, Ashoke, now married to Ashima, and reading for a PhD in Engineering in MIT, names his son after the Russian who had saved his life when the letter from Ashima’s grandmother in Calcutta, containing the child’s name, fails to arrive.

Thus begins Pulitzer prize-winner Lahiri’s extraordinary novel of the slippery and frangible dualities at the heart of immigrant lives. As Ashoke and Ashima live a life suspended between Calcutta and Boston, respectively home and habitus, refashioning their adoptive country into a Bengali bubble, surrounded by other Bengali couples, the lives of their children, born and educated in the US, form an almost opposing series of cultural unfolding where long vacations spent in Calcutta prove to be dislocating and tedious and Gogol is embarrassed by the heavy Indian food Ashima cooks for his girlfriend Maxine. But this is no glib novel on hackneyed themes of generation gap and the perils of assimilation. It is to Lahiri’s credit that she resists the siren song of the Immigration Lit industry and instead fashions an exquisitely poised and graceful work that holds together, in astonishing balance, both intercultural miscegenation and integration, displacement and homecoming, exile and home.

When he turns eighteen, Gogol changes his name to Nikhil but all this does is add to his feeling of alienation, ‘as if an errata slip were perpetually pinned to his chest.’ In this slippage between name and the one named, Lahiri has found perhaps the most felicitous and eloquent metaphor for the purgatory of identity that most assimilated immigrants are confined to for their lives. And yet it is a subtly calibrated purgatory: what her characters are in search of is not so much the stability of origins – as they would be in any other meretricious ‘roots’ novel – as the diminishing of the gap between being and becoming. Which is why Ashima’s departure to India, and her decision, at the end of the book, to live in Calcutta for six months and in the US for the remaining six, represents an arrival of sorts, the only type of arrival possible in this narrative of displacement and exile. Meanwhile her son has to live out his days in that gap between the name given and the name desired, in pursuit of the endlessly deferred point of belonging.  

There is a slight dip in the novel’s conviction when we arrive at the somehow inevitable relationship between Nikhil and Moushumi. It seems like a cop-out, this bringing together of two people with almost identical backgrounds, as if it is obligatory for part of the sentimental education of the second generation to take place in the company of racial equals, but it is a minor quibble about a book that spins gold out of the straw of ordinary lives and extends such immense generosity and sympathy to its figures. The calm, pellucid grace of her prose, the sustained stretch of crystal clear writing, its elegant pianissimo tone, pulls the reader from beginning to end in one neat, breathless arc. Every single detail, every observation, every sentence rings with the clarity of truth. The Namesake is a novel that makes its reader feel privileged and honoured to be allowed access to its immensely empathetic world.