"The way my parents explain it to me is that they have spent their immigrant lives feeling as if they are on a river with a foot in two different boats," she relates. "Each boat wants to pull them in a separate direction, and my parents are always torn between the two. They are always hovering, literally straddling two worlds" (source).
That's our oh-so wise author, Jhumpa Lahiri talking about how her parents felt as Indian immigrants in the United States. But it could just as easily apply to Ashima and Ashoke, the Bengali couple who travels to the United States and raises a family in Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake.
In The Namesake, Lahiri explores this tug between the two worlds – the Indian world and the American one. That exploration is based in part on her own experiences growing up in America as the child of Indian immigrants. Her fictional counterpart is Gogol Ganguli, who comes of age over the course of the novel and comes to terms with his complicated, multicultural identity.
Gogol is a troubled kid, and the main thing that irks him is his rather wacky name. His father is a fan of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, and slaps that name on a birth certificate for lack of a better one when his son is born. Growing up, Gogol absolutely despises it. He sees his name as both the cause and the symbol of the way he feels as an Indian-American, caught between the Bengali heritage of his parents and the American culture he lives in. In many ways, his odd name is the door through which Lahiri ushers us into the world of the Indian immigrant experience.
It's a subject she knows well. Lahiri gained widespread notice when her first book, a collection of short stories called The Interpreter of Maladies, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. (No big deal.) The stories tackled similar themes to those in The Namesake, which she published in 2003 to instant success and acclaim. People loved it so much that The Namesake was adapted into a film starring Kal Penn in 2006. Selling the movie rights? That's how you know you've made it, folks.
But before you click over to Netflix, take a stab at reading the novel first. Its gorgeous prose and insightfully drawn characters will lure you into a world Lahiri knows like the back of her hand. You'll leave the novel with a better understanding of the immigrant experience and Bengali culture, all because you have a trusty guide in Lahiri. She's got you covered, and so does Shmoop.
Why Should I Care?
Born a Carol, but consider yourself a Victoria? Born a Percy, but consider yourself a Jack?
The Namesake speaks to anyone who's ever felt dissatisfied with his or her name. While it might be easy to brush off names as less important than, say, personality or parenting, it's not so far-fetched to say that a name is one's destiny. There is a fair amount of research out that backs up a little something called "nominative determinism." That's the theory that your name may influence your career, your professional life, even who you choose to marry. Yes, researchers claim, there are more lawyers named Laura and more dentists named Dennis. People with names in the beginning of the alphabet are more likely to work at prestigious universities and win prestigious prizes (all of you Abigails and Abrahams out there, you may be in luck).
But before you rush off to the nearest courthouse to change your name to suit your dreams, it might be comforting to remember that these studies only cover the likelihood of something happening. Being named Laura is not an automatic ticket to lawyer land. Plus, it's important to remember that the meanings we associate with names are also the product of culture and the world we live in. The name "Adolf," for example, isn't intrinsically evil, but Hitler pretty much doomed the name for good.
So what's in a name? A lot, it turns out, and especially for our guy Gogol. But it's important to remember that over the course of the novel, he learns that while his name is less-than-lovely, it's also a product of his heritage and upbringing, which is reason enough to love it. So if you've set your sights on a better name, you might want to take a moment or two to think about who gave you your name, and why. Don't do anything too rash or you just might end up with a name like Metta World Peace for the rest of your life. Hmm. Now that Shmoop thinks about it, would that be so bad?