A father and mother, a son and daughter: two generations of a typical Bengali–American family, poised uneasily atop the complex and confounding fault lines common to the immigrant experience. Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake deftly demonstrates how the familiar struggles between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past, play out in one particular set of foreign-born parents and their American-born children.
In the novel's opening pages, Ashima Ganguli, who left India to join her husband Ashoke in America, is about to deliver their first child, a son. Following Bengali custom, the child is to have two names—a pet name, for use only by family and close friends, and a "good" name, to be used everywhere else. Almost by mistake, the boy comes to be known as Gogol, named for his father's favorite Russian author. In a harrowing flashback, the reason for Ashoke's attachment to the Russian writer is revealed.
Gogol's father embraces their new life, while his mother longs for her homeland. As Gogol enters school, they attempt to convert his unusual name to a more typical one, but the boy stolidly rejects the transition, refusing to become, as he thinks of it, "someone he doesn't know." Soon he regrets his choice, as the name he's held onto seems increasingly out of place.
The novel's finely wrought descriptions of Bengali food, language, family customs, and Hindu rituals draw us deep inside the culture that Gogol's parents treasure while highlighting his alienation from it. Gogol finishes school, becomes an architect, falls in love more than once, and eventually marries, without ever fully embracing his heritage. His decades-long unease with his name is a perfect distillation of the multiple dislocations—cultural, historic, and familial—experienced by first-generation Americans. At the novel's climax, when loss compounds loss and Gogol's family structure is forever changed, he begins to understand, at least in part, his parents' longing for the past, and the sacrifices they made to help him be what he is—truly American.
A Bengali man who comes alone to the U.S. to study electrical engineering. Weds Ashima Bhaduri via an arranged marriage in Calcutta. Father of Gogol and Sonia, a dedicated but undemonstrative family man with a lifelong attachment to Russian literature.
Journeys alone to the U.S. shortly after marrying Ashoke. Caring mother to Gogol and Sonia; stays in close touch with her family in India and maintains a growing network of Bengali friends and neighbors, as her family moves from city to city for Ashoke's career. At the end of the novel she bifurcates her life to spend time in the U.S. with her children and in India with her family of origin.
The "namesake" of the title, named after his father's favorite Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852). A first–generation Indian American whose uneasiness with his name exemplifies his difficulties in fitting in, either to his parents' expatriate world or to the world inhabited so comfortably by his American peers.
Gogol's younger sister, who is less troubled than he by their shared cultural heritage, or by the strictures and oddities of their household. Her steadiness—a peaceful life with her mother after her father's death, and a happy marriage—throws Gogol's chronic discomforts into sharper relief.
The only child of wealthy, urbane New Yorkers, and Gogol's first post–college girlfriend. Maxine represents so many things that Gogol believes he values: art and music, sophistication, and ease in the world.
Appears first as the book-reading child of a neighboring Bengali family, noteworthy only because of her aloof air and deliberate English accent. The adult Moushumi resurfaces as Gogol's love interest and eventual wife. She too stages a rebellion against her heritage, living alone in Paris for a time.
"He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn't know." —Jhumpa Lahiri, from The Namesake