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Review-a-Day
Salon.com
Friday, October 31st, 2003


 

The Namesake

by Jhumpa Lahiri

A review by Amy Reiter

In her 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri introduced us to people who left behind family and friends and the familiar heat and bustle of India to build a new life in America -- a cold, bleak land of strangers and new customs. Lahiri's sweet, sometimes deep, sometimes quirky first novel, The Namesake, picks up on these beloved themes and then expands on them, following the Indian-American immigrant experience through to the next generation as she tracks the members of the Ganguli family.

The story begins in 1968, shortly before the birth of one Gogol Ganguli, whose parents, Ashima and Ashoke, have only recently moved to Cambridge, Mass., from Calcutta. For Ashoke, who is studying for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at MIT, his new life in the United States and his new baby son represent a personal rebirth of sorts. Having miraculously survived a terrible train wreck back in India in his teenage years -- the others in his car all perished, but he, having stayed up late reading stories by Nikolai Gogol rather than retiring to his sleeping berth, was spared -- Ashoke has vowed to see the world.

But as Ashoke relishes the strangeness of his new home, his young wife, Ashima, whom his parents have arranged for him to marry, initially mourns the life she has left behind. Yet for her, too, her born-in-the-USA baby, Gogol, represents the new life she will build in her adopted home, the new roots she will plant and cultivate in America even as her old roots in Calcutta begin to wither and die.

Writing in the long form, Lahiri is able to do what she couldn't in her short stories: follow her characters beyond one pivotal moment in their lives and track their development and growth. And if some of the recent immigrants in Interpreter of Maladies seemed almost unbearably sad -- their pain all too exquisitely conveyed -- Ashima's similarly depressed state lasts only a chapter or two before relenting as she begins to build a new community around her and to fit happily into her new life.

Turning her sights on the next generation, on Gogol's life after he begins to make his way in the world as a first-generation American, Lahiri proves herself nearly as adept as when she focuses on the particular struggles of the parents. Gogol goes to Yale, changes his name to Nikhil ("I hate the name Gogol. I've always hated it," he tells the judge in charge of his name-change application) and re-creates himself as the person he'd like to be -- hanging with friends, going to parties, meeting girls -- but never fully shakes his old identity.

During the first semester of his freshman year, for instance, he goes home "unwillingly but obediently" every other weekend. His father meets him at the station; his mother does his laundry. Then one day he sits next to an attractive woman he recognizes from campus, the daughter of now-divorced hippies, raised on a commune and home-schooled until 7th grade.

"He cannot imagine coming from such parents, such a background, and when he describes his own upbringing it feels bland by comparison," Lahiri writes. But the woman is fascinated as Gogol tells her about his childhood visits to Calcutta with his family, the layout of his maternal grandparents' apartment, its view of corrugated tin roofs: "He tells her the way tea was served, how it was brought through the window from men on the platform who served it from giant aluminum kettles, the milk and sugar already mixed in, and how it was poured into crude clay cups that were smashed afterward on the tracks. Her appreciation for these details flatters him; it occurs to him that he has never spoken of his experiences in India, to any American friend."

And if the book takes a somewhat disappointing turn for the familiar as it follows Gogol to New York, where he works as a young architect, it is likely only because this territory lacks the freshness -- the pleasing foreignness -- of the description of the family's early days in their new country or their trips back home.

Wisely, Lahiri, like Gogol, never fully leaves the emotionally complex world of Ashima and Ashoke behind. Gogol, young and American as he is, finds himself increasingly drawn to his heritage, his name and his destiny as the embodiment of his parents' aspirations.

"In so many ways, [Gogol's] family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another," Lahiri writes. "It had started with his father's train wreck, paralyzing him at first, later inspiring him to move as far as possible, to make a new life on the other side of the world ... And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is. They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end."

Ultimately, Gogol comes to appreciate his parents' true bravery, the world they left behind and the new world they created. Thanks to Lahiri, we readers do too.


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