by Jhumpa Lahiri
What's in a name?
All right, dude. Which is it – Gogol or Nikhil? We're getting a little tired of all the confusion.
Of course, so is Gogol. In fact, he seems the most confused out of everyone by his names. The whole Gogol (his pet name) versus Nikhil (his good name) back-and-forth is a source of constant frustration, consternation, and alienation for our protagonist. It's the central question of the novel: just who exactly is Gogol Ganguli? (And what in the world are we supposed to call him?)
At first, it seems like our guy is squarely in the Gogol camp. But doesn't seem like the happiest of kids, so maybe he's already feeling the sting of being a cultural outsider. When he starts school and his father tries to persuade Gogol to go by his good name, Nikhil, Gogol refuses, and we find out, "He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn't know. Who doesn't know him." (3.19)
Despite the fact that Nikhil is a Bengali name, and Gogol is an old Russian dude's last name, Nikhil is the name that, at this point, feels foreign to Gogol. After all, up until this point, he has only really interacted with his family, who has always called him Gogol. It's the only name he knows.
But it's possible Gogol just doesn't quite understand how unique his name is, yet. After all, not only is it not an American name like Jack or Joe or John. It's not even Bengali. Nope, it's a Russian novelist's last name, which adds another layer to our boy's confusion. Not only is he torn between his Bengali roots and his American future. He also has a strange connection to Russian literature. How's that for an identity crisis?
Our narrator sums up this strangeness quite nicely:
Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name. And so it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name. Not even the source of his namesake. (4.26)
Well no wonder Gogol's name wreaks havoc with him, especially when he enters school. Upon discovering its strangeness, its utter uniqueness, he becomes a bit ashamed of it. And when he heads off to college, he decides to do away with it altogether. Why be Gogol when you can be Nikhil?
Of course in the 80s and early 90s, the name Nikhil wasn't exactly common in America either. But at least it's a name that fits one portion of his heritage: the Bengali one. This means answering less silly questions like, what does it mean "in Indian?" (4.9) Come on, guys, Gogol doesn't mean anything in "Indian." It's Russian.
It's telling, too, that in all of Gogol's romantic relationships, he is called Nikhil. In fact, the only people in the novel beside himself who call him Gogol are members of his family. That makes sense when you consider the fact that pet names are usually reserved for close loved ones. But isn't Maxine a loved one? And what about Moushumi, his wife? Why doesn't he allow them to call him Gogol?
Honestly, we can't help but think it's because Gogol is just as confused as we are. He's an American born Bengali son of immigrants, surrounded by rich white folks at schools like Yale and Columbia, and in places like Boston and New York. That's quite the identity crisis.
New Name, New Person?
How does one solve an identity crisis? By reinventing oneself, of course. And that's precisely what Gogol tries to do by officially changing his name to Nikhil before he heads off to Yale. But if you were expecting a drastic change in his character, too, you're in for disappointment. No matter what he calls himself, he's still the same on the inside.
In fact, the only real difference is that, as Nikhil, he has oodles more confidence, and suddenly finds himself doing well with the ladies. Remember, " It is as Nikhil that he loses his virginity at a party at Ezra Stile, with a girl wearing a plaid woolen skirt and combat boots and mustard tights." (5.33) But none of these ladies know the real Gogol. How can they when he doesn't know himself? Perhaps that's why his relationships have such a spectacular failure rate.
Instead of acceptance, the Nikhil version of our protagonist seems to experience just as much alienation as the Gogol version. Could it be that that stems from his lifestyle choices? He seems to be doing just about everything to forget his Bengali roots, and ironically, his new name is the only thing left that connects him to his culture. Consider, for example, these interactions with the Ratliffs:
They are at once satisfied and intrigued by his background, by his years at Yale and Columbia, his career as an architect, his Mediterranean looks. "You could be Italian," Lydia remarks at one point during the meal, regarding him in the candle's glow. (6.24)
At times, as the laughter at Gerald and Lydia's table swells, and another bottle of wine is opened, and Gogol raises his glass to be filled yet again, he is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine's family is a betrayal of his own. (6.54)
Gogol loves hanging with the Ratliffs, because their fancy WASP lifestyle is a pretty sweet deal. But the Ratliffs clearly don't know him. They're merely "intrigued" by his roots, and then they brush them off entirely, saying he could pass as Italian. It's moments like these that help us understand why Gogol feels like he is betraying his own family by spending time with the Ratliffs. They don't know anything about Bengali culture, and, perhaps more significantly, Gogol doesn't bother trying to share it with them. He just tucks it away.
But the more time he spends with people like the Ratliffs, the farther away Gogol becomes from his own culture. The world of the Ratliffs is appealing, sure, but it's not his world. It's a white, rich, American world, and Gogol is none of those things.
His Father's Son
No matter what happens with his identity crisis, Gogol is lucky in one way: he has an awesome family. And as it turns out, that very same family just might be the solution to his woes. Who better to show you who you are than those who know you best?
Gogol's father, Ashoke, seems to help him the most. It's only after his dad spills the story of Gogol's name (the horrifying train accident that almost ended his life) that Gogol begins to regret the whole Nikhil thing.
And it's only after his father's death (and after his divorce from Moushumi) that Gogol realizes something really important:
Without people in the world to call him Gogol, no matter how long he himself lives, Gogol Ganguli will, once and for all, vanish from the lips of loved ones, and so, cease to exist. Yet the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all. (12.24)
There you have it folks. The name itself is not what matters. Gogol the name is not what makes Gogol the man who he is. It's his family. It's the people that call him Gogol that make him who he is, and if he allows his family to die off without allowing himself to truly be Gogol, well then he will simply "cease to exist." And really, no matter how torn up you are about your cultural roots, who wants that?
So by the end of the novel, we feel pretty secure in our belief that Gogol will put the kibosh on the whole Nikhil thing and start to embrace the name his father gave him. At least, that's the conclusion we arrived at when Gogol began reading the stories of his namesake at the end of the novel. But hey, Shmoop could be wrong. So tell us, what do you think?Timeline