“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” —W. Shakespeare
This statement is the underlying theme of the major international best-seller, “The Namesake”, Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel. Her first novel of short-stories, “Interpreter of Maladies”, bagged the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Namesake covers three decades in life of the Ganguli, family thousands of miles away from their homeland, and shows how Nikolai Gogol searches for his identity, only to realize that his character in “The Raincoat”, and his inner peace, is the outcome of his work, and not his name.
Lahiri lucidly depicts the complexities of alienness, the clash of lifestyles, cultural disorientation and the conflicts of assimilation of the family sandwiched between the orthodox Bengali traditions and the American way of life. It’s a tale of love, respect, family values, sentiments, solitude and agonies.
Ashima, after being rejected by two persons, was married to Ashoke Ganguli, and they settled in Massachusetts, USA. While on a train journey to meet his grandfather in Jamshedpur, he meets Mr. Ghosh, who tries to impress him with his “enjoy-life-to-the-fullest” philosophy. Then occurs an incident which he thought was the last day of his life; the train gets derailed. But to his good luck, rescuers caught sight of Nikolai Gogol’s short-stories that he held and hauled him from the train. He relocates to America after he recuperates. Ashima delivers a baby boy.
Awaiting a “bhalo naam” (good name) from Ashima’s grandmother’s letter, which never reached them, Ashoke named him Gogol. Afflicted with a name neither Indian, nor American, nor even the first name, Gogol felt that nobody ever understood him. Gogol found someone to share his things with, in the form of a sister, Sonia. Gogol and Sonia, in their teens, return to India for Ashoke’s sabbatical. Lahiri paints a vivid description of how they hate to be in India.
Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, love affairs and betrayal. She reveals perspicaciously not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves in this fine novel of identity. Even after Gogol changes his name to Nikhil, he is still not happy. He became an architect, but was still in search of “real peace”. He finally comes to know what made his father name him Gogol and that his peace was in his work.
Lahiri writes in a quiet language that neither calls attention to it, nor invites the reader to fight with it. Yet, her eye for every minuscule detail and precise descriptions compel us to relate ourselves to her and makes our empathy for her characters more palpable.