The Namesake: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 304 pp)
Born in London to Bengali immigrants, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to the United States at the young age of 3. Her first published work, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. In 2007, Hollywood adapted The Namesake into a feature film. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Lahiri is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.
Home for the Holidays?
Thanksgiving introduces an exciting portion of the year. I love sleeping in, wearing pajamas into the living room, and seeing a football game on the television. The turkey is already cooking in the oven and my stomach reminds me that I will enjoy feasting with family later in the day. I really enjoy watching football on Thanksgiving; my wife and sister, however, want to watch the parade and they jokingly call me a name, “turd” let’s say for sake of an illustration. These circumstances define my particular family. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, the Namesake, exhibits the emotions of a particular family existing in an unfamiliar culture.
The Namesake follows an Indian family (the Gangulis) transplanted from Calcutta to the suburbs of Boston. Over a thirty year period, Lahiri develops a subtle storyline around a husband, wife, and the turmoil of their second generation children as they attempt to exist in an American culture while clinging to the slivers of their ancestral Bengali culture. In a sense, the previous cultural traditions and expectations of Calcutta produce a perpetual curiosity in those associated with the family. Lahira writes,
“For being a foreigner, Ashima [the mother and wife of the family] is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect” (49-50).
We Are Named, Then We Are Known
In addition to the unhinged character of living in an alien culture, The Namesake portrays the tortured nature of Gogol, the son of the Indian transplants. Lahiri exquisitely explains the importance of names in the early chapters of the book. Simply stated, each person in Bengali culture receives a formal name and a family name. The formal name is used in professional and formal settings, while the family name is reserved for family and friends. In Gogol’s case, the formal name – typically given by an elder figure in the family – had yet to finish its expedition through the postal system when the Ganguli family became ready to be released from the hospital. For this reason, Gogol’s parents provided his family name, “Gogol,” on the official birth certificate. This seemingly small oversight provides Gogol with a lifetime of turmoil. In naming the central protagonist by his family name, Lahiri invites the reader into the Ganguli family.
We Are What We Eat
Additionally, The Namesake develops its fascinating story around the convergence of culture. The author illustrates customs through the consumption of food. Each special occasion offers the Ganguli family with an opportunity to host other Bengali immigrants. These instances are occasions for feasts! Lahiri spends pages depicting the preparations the Ganguli family takes in order to facilitate such banquets. On the other hand, Gogol’s time spent in romantic relationships during his time spent in New York City portrays his Americanized culture. He eats well, sometimes drinks too much, and partakes in the popular cuisine of the city. Therefore, Lahiri creates a dichotomy through food between the culture of Gogol’s family life and the culture of his social life.
Although my experience at Thanksgiving in no way resembles the familial occurrences in The Namesake, Lahiri’s simple and engaging writing style invites you to be a part a particular family. I highly recommend this book.