Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a curious book, at least to me, because of the way it is written. I am so used to novels that follow the usual dramatic rises and falls, that it took me so time to adjust to what I can only describe as a fictional biography. This fictitious life story revolves around the name “Gogol” and the young Indian-American who bears it. Gogol struggles with identity throughout the novel and his name is, for many years, the focus of his irritation at the trappings of Bengali culture his parents have wrapped around him since birth.
The Namesake begins, in Tristram Shandy–fashion, before Gogol is born. We meet his mother, Ashima, and father, Ashoke, and learn how they were introduced, married, and came to America from Kolkata. When Gogol is born some ways into the book, we pause for a brief cultural crisis. In Bengali culture, people have two names: a pet name and a good name that serves the function of a legal name. Ashima and Ashoke waited as long as they could for a letter to arrive from an aged relative with Gogol’s name, but it never arrived. Instead, when pushed by the hospital administrator to give their child a name, Ashoke dubs him “Gogol” for his favorite author. Nikolai Gogol is not just Ashoke’s favorite author; Ashoke obscurely credits the author for saving his life in a train accident.
Gogol kept his pet name and refused to use Nikhil as a legal, good name when his parents tried to change it for kindergarten. Yet, as he grows older and chaffs more at life in his parents’ recreated Bengali world, Gogol grows to intensely dislike his name. He goes so far as to change his legal name to Nikhil as soon as he is old enough to file the papers. I sympathize with Gogol as I don’t often use my legal name either, because only Scandinavians and Germans pronounce it right. It really is a hassle to constantly have to correct people and explain, over and over, where the name comes from. It is so much easier to use a nickname.
Anyone could have told young Gogol that there is more to reinventing one’s self than changing one’s name. Changing a name is just the first step. In order to become a different person, one has to have a clear idea of who one wants to be. Gogol does not have a clue who he is other than that he wants to be an architect. And so, Gogol drifts a bit. He tries on different lives, always aspiring to fit in just a little more and leave his family behind. Because Gogol doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be, it all feels hollow.
The Namesake is a philosophical as well as a curious book. It’s subtle in how it uses Gogol to examine how much names matter as symbols of who we are, the hard-to-articulate sense of dislocation a child of two cultures often feels, the child’s drive for independence from their parents, the need for people in one’s life who understand our context, and so on. The Namesake does not offer answers to any of these questions, which I very much appreciate, because these are rich questions that we should all take time to mull after we’ve finished the last page. They are the very questions that everyone has to ask as they detach, at least somewhat, from their families and strike out to become independent adults. We all have to figure out who we are, eventually.