Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" won the
2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Courtesy
A Boy Named Gogol
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.
Namesake" is Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel.
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.
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.
Lahiri, author. Courtesy of saja.org.
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
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.
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.
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,
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."
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."