The Namesake begins with a Bengali couple, Ashima and Ashoke who have recently immigrated to the United States so Ashoke can continue his engineering studies at MIT. The story begins at the hospital, where Ashima has just gone into labor for their first born son. As she prepares to give birth, she realizes how isolated she has become, forced to deliver her baby alone, without the support of her family in Calcutta, India. This isolation she feels only emphasizes the many cultural differences she must overcome. Once she delivers her healthy baby boy, the couple soon realizes they cannot leave the hospital without first giving a legal name to their child. A letter from Ashima’s grandmother was supposed to come with a name, but has been lost in the mail. They decide on the temporary name of “Gogol” for their child, Gogol being the last name of Ashoke’s favorite Russian author, whose work he accredits to saving his life. The letter with the real name never comes and Ashima’s grandmother dies soon after. It is customary in India for children to be given a “good” name to be used in public and a nickname to be used only by those very close to the family, but the name Gogol soon sticks and that becomes the child’s single name. The book brings us through the childhood, adolescence, teenage years, and young adulthood of Gogol. We see the struggles of a Bengali boy growing up amidst the American customs and Bengali customs, but never truly feeling as if he belongs to the United States or India. This personal struggle with his cultural identity begins to spread to Gogol’s namesake in his adolescence. Gogol begins to realize that he has never met another Gogol, he begins to feel hatred towards his parents for giving him such an obscure name and starts to feel self conscious every time his name is mentioned. In his senior year in high school, Gogol begins to go by the name Nikhil. He introduces himself as Nikhil to a girl at a college party and begins to realize that college comes with a chance to completely reinvent himself. This change in name and Gogol's decision to go to Yale, rather than following in his father’s footsteps to attend MIT, sets up the barriers between Gogol and his family. The distance, both geographically and emotionally, between Gogol and his parents continues to increase. He wants to be American, not Bengali. He goes home less frequently, dates American girls, and becomes angry when anyone calls him Gogol. During his college years, he smokes cigarettes and marijuana, goes to many parties, and loses his virginity to a girl he cannot remember. The book goes on to capture the on-going stages of Gogol’s identity and follows his three most serious relationships from beginning to sour end.
How much significance do you feel a name holds over personality? Do you believe that Gogol’s life would have been different if he had started out with a more traditional name?
In The Namesake, it is as if Gogol transforms into an entirely different person when he is using the name Nikhil. Everyone makes mild personality adjustments depending upon the crowd they are around, but do you believe that a person can actually have alternate identities?
(If you are aware of one) What is your namesake? Do you take pride in your parent’s decision to name you what they did, or would you change your name if you had the chance?