Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Courtesy of saja.org.

A Boy Named Gogol…

By Shirley Hsu

Somewhere between Calcutta and Boston, a slip of paper containing the future identity of Ashoke and Ashima Gangulis' newborn son is lost. The mysterious disappearance of this letter, in which the infant's revered great-grandmother was supposed to reveal her chosen "good name" for the child, is never explained-whether it wafted out of the airplane into the Atlantic Ocean, or was mistakenly crammed into a mailbox not two doors down in Harvard Square, the Gangulis will never know.

"The Namesake" is Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel.

Without a "good name,"(Bengali customs dictate that a child must have both a good name, or formal name which he presents to the outside world, and a pet name reserved for loved ones) the Gangulis' tiny son exits the hospital armed with only the spur-of-the-moment pet name, Gogol, after the Russian author, Nikolai Gogol.

Thus begins a lifelong struggle for identity and self for the unwitting infant, the hero of Jhumpa Lahiri's debut novel, "The Namesake," which hit bookstore shelves in September. Lahiri, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "Interpreter of Maladies," a collection of elegantly understated short stories about Bengali American immigrants, writes again of the tumult and turmoil of relocation in "The Namesake," this time exploring the extraordinary power of names in defining identity.
Although "Gogol Ganguli" seems like a sitting duck for schoolyard taunts, Gogol passes through the early years of his life unscathed by ridicule, embarrassed only by his own discomfort with the name, which renders him awkward with girls and clumsy in social situations as would an ill-fitting suit.

Jhumpa Lahiri, author. Courtesy of saja.org.

Gogol makes a point of not reading the works of his namesake, until his junior year English teacher assigns Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" to the class. Upon learning that the author was a depressed social recluse who committed suicide by starving himself to death and was thought to have died a virgin, Gogol is mortified, embittered that his parents chose such an unsuitable namesake.

It seems that an identity crisis is imminent as Gogol's name becomes the source of greater and greater anxiety: "At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, managed nevertheless to distress him physically like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear." Gogol, who "cannot imagine saying, 'Hi, it's Gogol' under potentially romantic circumstances," experiences his first taste of liberation when he introduces himself to a college girl as Nikhil-a name he officially adopts before heading off to college at Yale.

What Gogol's father, Ashoke, has never told him, however, is that his namesake is more than a favorite author, but a name born out of catastrophe and rejuvenation, of death and rebirth. It was Nikolai Gogol that Ashoke, a twenty-two year old engineering student at the time, was reading on a train bound for Jamshedspur when the train derailed, killing hundreds of passengers in their sleep. Ashoke, barely alive and unable to speak or move, was miraculously discovered among the wreckage when rescuers noticed a crumpled up page from Gogol's "The Overcoat" dropping from his fingers.

It's somehow fitting that the Gangulis gave their son a name neither Bengali nor American-but of all things, Russian. Gogol, unmoored without a solid sense of being either Indian or American, anchors himself to a series of strong-willed women, allowing them each in turn to define him. There is Ruth, his college sweetheart, whose hippie upbringing and free-spirited ways appeal to his newfound liberation as Nikhil-"He cannot imagine being with her in the house where he is still Gogol." Then there is Maxine, whose casual ease with both her wealth and her parents captivates Nikhil for an intoxicating year of fine cheeses and summer cabins in New Hampshire. And finally, there is Moushumi, a childhood family acquaintance and fellow ABCD ("American born confused Desh") whom Nikhil marries, mistaking familiarity for love, and who betrays him. It takes a family tragedy to finally bring him back to his roots-and to his childhood name, Gogol.

If at times "The Namesake" seems to tread familiar territory as the classic tale of the immigrant search for identity, Lahiri's lovely prose makes up for it. In the end, "The Namesake" is less an "immigration story" than a deeply sensitive portrayal of family struggling to make sense of the incongruities of life. In one of the ending scenes, Lahiri writes, "In so many ways, [Gogol's] family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another. It had started with his father's train wreck, paralyzing him at first, later inspiring him to move as far as possible, to make a new life on the other side of the world. There was the disappearance of the name Gogol's great grandmother had chosen for him, lost in the mail somewhere between Calcutta and Cambridge… And the way his father had slipped away from them, that had been the worst accident of all, as if the preparatory work of death had been done long ago, the night he was nearly killed, and all that was left for him was one day, quietly, to go. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end."

What Lahiri seems to be saying is that it is not these accidents that "name" us, but what we choose to make of them that defines and shapes our lives. Transplanted from a land of centuries-old customs of kinship and prearranged marriages into a country of haphazard chance, reinvention, and opportunity, the Gangulis experience the freedom to reinvent themselves, and also the freedom to lose themselves in the process. Gogol's father sums up this dangerous freedom best when he gives Gogol permission to rename himself Nikhil: "In America anything is possible. Do as you wish."

October 10, 2003



© APMN, Tom Plate.