Study Guide

The Namesake Identity

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Identity

Chapter 2

Gogol frowns, and his lower lip trembles. Only then, forced at six months to confront his destiny, does he begin to cry. (2.71)

At six months, Gogol is already refusing to participate in traditional Indian rituals. He's not ready to confront his destiny, and for much of the book, we wonder if he ever will be.

Chapter 3

She plays with the dirt they've dug up from the yard and threatens to put the dollar bill in her mouth. "This one," one of the guests remarks, "this one is the true American." (3.57)

Check out Sonia's behavior at her <em>annaprasan</em> in comparison to her brother's. How does this difference play out in their identities as they grow up?

They've learned their lesson after Gogol. They've learned that schools in America will ignore parents' instructions and register a child under his pet name. The only way to avoid such confusion, they have concluded, is to do away with the pet name altogether, as many of their Bengali friends have done. (3.56)

Poor Gogol. As the first born, he's the guinea pig for Ashoke and Ashima. The lessons they learn from raising him prepare them for the challenges of raising their second child, who finds more success in navigating the struggle to find an in America as a Bengali.

Ashoke Ganguli

And yet to a casual observer, the Gangulis, apart from the name on their mailbox, apart from the issues of <em>India Abroad </em>and <em>Sangbad Bichitra </em>that are delivered there, appear no different from their neighbors […] There are other ways in which Ashoke and Ashima give in. (3.60)

How in the world are Ashoke and Ashima supposed to choose which American customs to adopt and which ones to ignore? Should they only do what's easy, or make a big effort to fit in? Do you think they strike a good balance in the novel?

Nikhil/Gogol Ganguli

He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn't know. Who doesn't know him […] It's a part of growing up, they tell him, of being a Bengali. (3.19)

In kindergarten, Gogol tries on a new, more formal name – and doesn't like it one bit, even though having a pet name and a formal name is Bengali custom. What's interesting here is that he thinks changing his name just might change his identity. He'll become a different person. But Gogol, it's just a name, right?

Chapter 4
Nikhil/Gogol Ganguli

Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but also 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)

Gogol's name doesn't tie him to any specific culture, which is a big problem for our boy. If you don't belong to a culture, how do you handle the world as a whole? Where's your frame of reference? Whom do you look to for an example?

But Gogol sounds ludicrous to his ears, lacking dignity or gravity. What dismays him most is the irrelevance of it all. (4.10)

The irrelevance of what, Gogol? If your name is so irrelevant, why does it bother you so much? Or does it bother you because you want your name to pack a punch, to say, "Hello world, I'm here!"?

Chapter 5

"Teleologically speaking, ABCDs are unable to answer the question 'Where are you from?'" the sociologist on the panel declares. Gogol has never heard the term ABCD. He eventually gathers that it stands for "American-born confused deshi." In other words, him. (5.63)

Aside from the apt term ABCD, our favorite part about this quote is the world "teleologically." Teleology refers to the notion that things have an end, which gives them purpose. Things like progress, history, and religion can be teleological. But in this case, the word makes absolutely no sense. It simply doesn't apply to a human being, or an ABCD. So we can't help but think that Lahiri threw it in there with a wink to make this sociologist sound pretentious and ridiculous. Job well done.

Nikhil/Gogol Ganguli

In history class, Gogol has learned that European immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island, that slaves renamed themselves once they were emancipated. Though Gogol doesn't know it, even Nikolai Gogol renamed himself, simplifying his surname at the age of twenty-two from Gogol-Yanovsky to Gogol upon publication in the <em>Literary Gazette. </em>(5.1)

It turns out name changing has been a rite of passage for many immigrants to the United States. Maybe this is what makes Gogol so willing to change his name to Nikhil. Even though that name is Indian, and therefore foreign, it's still a way for him to participate in the immigrant experience.

Chapter 8
Moushumi Mazoomdar

Moushumi has kept her last name. She doesn't adopt Ganguli, not even with a hyphen. Her own last name, Mazoomdar, is already a mouthful. With a hyphenated surname, she would no longer fit into a window of a business envelope. Besides, by now she has begun to publish under Moushumi Mazoomdar, the name printed at the top of footnoted articles on French feminist theory in a number of prestigious academic journals […] (8.21)

For Moushumi, identity issues as a Bengali-American are even more complicated because she is a woman. For her, naming has a gender angle. Tradition says she should change her name to her husband's, but she doesn't want to do so, and in this case, she is bucking both Bengali <em>and </em>American tradition. She is quite the rebel, that Moushumi.

Chapter 10
Nikhil/Gogol Ganguli

"There's no such thing as a perfect name. I think that human beings should be allowed to name themselves when they turn eighteen," he adds. "Until then, pronouns." (10.113)

Gogol's attitude toward names is even more radical than his parents, who stick with the Bengali custom of pet names until they decide on a formal name. He seems to think that you can't know who you are until you're at least eighteen, so why have a name before then? This implies, of course, that a name has something to do with who you are. Do you put as much stock in names as Gogol does?

Nikhil/Gogol Ganguli

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)

Gogol's identity is closely tied to his name. By the end of the novel, the idea that there might be a time where no family members will be around to call him "Gogol" saddens him. Maybe he likes that name a bit more than he realized, not because of how it sounds, but because of who calls him that.