The Namesake: A Novel
Reviewed By SALIL TRIPATHI
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
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
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
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.