The Namesake: A Novel




Written By Jhumpa Lahiri


Houghton Mifflin, $24


A SUCCESSFUL DEBUT can be treacherous. After author Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, the question remained: Would she be able to repeat that magic?

  Reassuringly, Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, gleams with the same evocative and gentle prose. She takes us into the Ganguli family, revealing their quotidian lives through fetching portraits of Ashoke, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his wife, Ashima, and their son and daughter. Lahiri's affection and wit make the reader a friend of the family, if not a part of it.

  The story begins in Boston in 1968, when Ashoke Ganguli, a newly married doctoral student from India, is forced to settle on a name for his first-born son. While waiting for the arrival of an astrologically sanctioned name from India, he nicknames the boy Gogol. (Years earlier, Ashoke's life had been saved by the fact he was reading the Russian novelist-- and not sleeping --when a train crashed).


The story is a docudrama of the first generation of talented Indians who, after independence in 1947, migrated to the United States and went on to become professionals. The novel is also about the second generation, how it needs to rediscover itself by rejecting the old, and the bittersweet compromises it makes in pursuit of the American Dream.

  Gogol is the centre of attention in the novel. He leaves his family to study at Yale and discovers love. He rejects his parents' overtures and, as he spends Thanksgiving with his American girlfriend, Maxine, and her remarkably relaxed parents, seems to savour the idea of being American, of celebrating his new identity.

  When Gogol spends his birthday with Maxine, instead of with his parents, he tumbles out of bed, dreaming that a phone is ringing. "He returns to bed, squeezing in beside Maxine's warm, sleeping body, and drapes his arm around her narrow waist, fits his knees behind hers . . . And then he remembers that his parents can't possibly reach him: He has not given them the number, and the Ratliffs are unlisted. That here, at Maxine's side, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free."

  He later realizes that Maxine's parents are at ease because of the continuity of their relationship with their land, the sense of belonging, which Gogol can emulate but never possess, and which his parents can never equal. For his parents, America will always be an adopted, foreign land, their home will always be India, or more appropriately, certain parts ofCalcutta. For Gogol, India is a place swarming with relatives with difficultnames who make it their habit to know all about you. That intimacy isintimidating. American independence is to be celebrated.

  The sudden death of his father, though, draws him back to his old bonds, to his family. Unconvincingly, it compels Gogol to end the relationship with Maxine, and later, even less plausibly, sends him into a doomed marriage with the daughter of a Bengali family the Gangulis know. It seems as if Gogol is dragged into the relationship by forces he cannot control, when all along the novel thus far he has been trying to strike out on his own.


Such problems with plot apart, Lahiri is genuinely sympathetic to all her characters, even the ones who behave badly, a trait she shares with Vikram Seth, another Indian chronicler of family life. If Seth is her model (and she has said she admires his work), then she could have expanded the novel.

In the end we don't learn enough about Gogol and his feelings about being an American and whether the doubts he has not fully articulated have been resolved. At the same time we learn more than we need about certain Bengali customs, parts of which appear stilted, as if Lahiri is gritting her teeth, explaining things because the publishers want her to -- such as explanations about pet names and "good" names.

 But Lahiri's strength is to show, not tell. The Namesake confirms that.