"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.
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?
Jhumpa Lahiri Official Website
Jump into Jhumpa's world. Her website includes a biography, links to interviews, and information about her books.
An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
Want to know what goes on behind the scenes of writing a novel? Lahiri discusses The Namesake in this interview, in which you can read all about her inspirations.
"21 Things You Didn't Know About The Namesake"
This feature focuses on the movie version, but a couple of the fun facts apply to the novel as well, and some of them have to do with Lahiri's life and family, which in many ways sound eerily familiar to the Gangulis.
The Namesake (2006)
This critically acclaimed adaptation of the novel stars Kal Penn.
If you have a subscription to The New Yorker, well then today's your lucky day. Take a look at the original publication of Lahiri's short story "Gogol," which was incorporated into the novel.
An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
Down for a download? Then get your hands on this video version of an interview with our author.
Jhumpa Lahiri Reading
You can hear (and see) Lahiri read from an unfinished novel in this 2011 clip, which also features author Jonathan Franzen (he's kind of a big deal). Skip to 4:22 to hear Lahiri introduce the piece, and read.
NPR Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
Everyone's favorite interviewer (okay, maybe just Shmoop's) Fresh Air's Terry Gross chats with the author. The segment opens with Lahiri reading from The Namesake.
Lahiri on Americanness
Gogol, you're not alone. As it turns out, living in America isn't always so easy for Jhumpa Lahiri, either. Hear her open up about it in this segment. She also discusses the relationship between her life and work: "I feel that with each new story, or book, I do feel that I'm able to confront the truth of my life with a little more honesty."
See the lady Lahiri herself. After reading her novel, you'll see that she's as insightful as she looks.
Lahiri in a Magazine
Big Deal Alert! Jhumpa Lahiri appeared on the front of New York Magazine's Culture Pages section.
Here's a screen grab from the movie version. Gogol might have more friends if he had a less unfortunate haircut, but that's just a theory.