Wednesday, February 23, 2011
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
This novel is written by Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of the short story collection "Interpreter of Maladies." Consequently, it shares many of the same cultural themes; it portrays the struggles of a Bengali couple who recently immigrated to the United States to begin a new life. The novel begins with a character named Ashima Ganguli who is a young bride about to give birth to her first child in a hospital in Massachusetts. Her husband, Ashoke, is an engineering student at MIT. Ashima is nervous not only because of the fact that she is on the verge of giving birth but also because she wishes that she could be delivering this baby in Calcutta, watching friends execute all of the proper Bengali ceremonies. As the two new parents are preparing to bring home their new son, they quickly realize that the hospital will not let them leave before they give their son a name. However, the traditional naming process amongst the Bengalis is to have an elder present the baby with a name. Ashima's grandmother was chosen to assume this role, yet unfortunately, the letter inscribed with the baby's name never reaches them. The grandmother soon dies, and Ashoke decides to name their son Gogol. Gogol is the name of his favorite Russian author and additionally, he had been reading a work of Gogol before he encountered a near death train accident. When Gogol reaches the age of about fourteen, he begins to hate his name. As a result, his parents attempt to give him a more "public" name, a Bengali tradition. They choose Nikhil, and he has his name legally changed to this before departing for college. Not only does Gogol change his name, but he also diverges from following in his father's footsteps, for he chooses to go to Yale instead of MIT. This causes tension amongst the family; it is becoming increasingly more and more clear that Gogol wishes to become American versus Bengali. He starts going home less frequently, dates a series of American girls, and becomes very enraged when people refer to him as Gogol. Later in the novel, when Nikhil goes home for the summer, his train stops abruptly due to a man that had jumped in front of the train in an attempt to commit suicide. Ashoke picks him up from the train station and once the two have arrived home in the driveway, Ashoke explains the meaning behind his decision to name him Gogol. It is during this moment that he starts to regret ever changing his name. Nikhil now lives in a small apartment in New York City where he works in an architectural office. One night at a party, he meets a girl named Maxine. He quickly becomes extremely involved amongst the activities within her family and has truly become a contributing member. Not long after Nikhil's parents meet Maxine, Ashoke dies of a sudden heart attack. Nikhil then decides to end his relationship with Maxine. After a little while, Ashima suggests that he call the daughter of one of her good friends, a daughter that he knows from his childhood. Her name is Moushumi, and she is Bengali. Rather reluctantly, Nikhil decides to meet with her. They become very much attracted to one another and eventually decide to marry. Unfortunately, Moushumi begins to regret this decision to marry, and when she comes across the name of a man from her high school days, she begins an affair with him. Nikhil and Moushumi divorce. The novel ends with Ashima selling their house in order to be able to live in India for a few months. Sonia, Nikhil's sister is planning to marry an American man, leaving Nikhil alone yet again. However, the novel closes with him feeling a sense of comfort from the collection of Russian stories that his father had left him many years ago; he has now truly accepted his name.
1). What, if any, are the significances of Gogol's many love interests? Do you think it has to do with his struggle for his identity?
2). Why do you think it is so difficult for people to assimilate within a new culture while upholding their original culture at the same time? What traditions do you value in your own family or culture, and why do you feel it is important to have them? Do you think that sometimes these traditions fade away? Why or why not?