The Namesake Identity

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is an enduring, life changing journey about a family that we watch grow and change throughout the years. In the beginning of the novel Ashima and Ashoke have moved to America from Calcutta, India. They’ve never known any other life than besides the one in India, and throughout the years they manage to hold onto their Indian traditions. The story follows the lives of Ashoke, Ashima, their son Gogol later known as Nikhil, after resentment of his uncommon and “meaningless” name, and their daughter Sonali or Sonia. The focus is mainly on the life of Gogol and his journey from grade school to adulthood, it covers the trials and triumphs he goes through with relationships, school, and ultimately his life of being Bengali. In college he ends up meeting his long-term girlfriend Maxine and he becomes in awe with her family, and they regularly have dinners at their place, they take a trip to New Hampshire to stay at their lake house, and he gets to be affectionate with Maxine around her parents, which are things he never got to do with or around his family.

It is during this time with Maxine that he begins to distance himself from his family and this is also when his father dies. His father’s death was very unexpected and out of nowhere, right before it happened Ashoke called Ashima saying he was in the hospital because he didn’t feel good, so she didn’t think anything of it, but then after hours of no calls from him she finds out through the hospital that he had a heart attack and didn’t make it. Once Gogol heard of this he flies out to Ohio, which is where his dad was currently living due to work and he goes to the hospital, which is where he has to identify his father’s body. Before he leaves he has to clean out the apartment he was staying in and basically tie up loose ends. Gogol eventually flies home and tries to continue his life. He eventually breaks up with Maxine because she represented a part of his life where he was the most distant from his family, which ultimately resulted in barely speaking to his father before his death. After months of dealing with his father’s death and his breakup from Maxine his mother sets him up with Moushumi, “an extended family member”, but not really family, only due to their Bengali heritage. They start to hangout more and more and within a year they are getting married.

He enjoys her because she understands his life and everything that comes with it. After a while of being married, Moushumi and Gogol start to drift apart, due to their lack of emotional and intellectual compatibilities. Moushumi starts to have an affair with a young love from her past, Dimitri, this goes on for months until she gets caught in a lie, they swiftly get a divorce after this. It is a year later during Christmas Eve, where they are having their final Christmas together in their home on Pemberton Road. The house where Ashoke and Ashima lived for over thirty years, where they build their lives and raised a family. This will be their final time together, before Ashima goes back to India, where she plans on staying for six months and another six months back in the U.S. The narrator flashes to Gogol’s perspective and in the final pages of the book he spends them in his room looking at the book his father gave him by Nikolai Gogol. It is then in those final moments that Gogol finally sits and reads and tries to connect with his father and after years he tries to understand why this was so important to him.

The book starts with Ashima only two weeks from her due date with their first child cooking in the kitchen and her husband Ashoke who at the time is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at MIT. Within moments Ashima calls for her husband to take her to the hospital, during this it is mentioned that “a husbands name is something intimate and therefore unspoken” (Lahiri 2) Instead of calling him by his name she replaces it roughly with an “Are you listening to me?” (Lahiri) Just from this beginning it shows us a glimpse of an aspect of their culture I wouldn’t have otherwise known.

The second chapter is about the birth of Ashima and Ashoke’s first son. With Ashima wanting to leave the hospital the staff informs her and Ashoke that they can’t leave until they fill out the birth forms which means they need to put down a name. In Bengali tradition, an elder from their family usually names the child, but they have not received the letter from their grandmother yet, so they are forced to name him. They give him the name Gogol, after the man who wrote the book that saved Ashoke’s life years earlier. This tradition of theirs is interesting, because two of my siblings were given their middle names from my great grandfather. It wasn’t required or tradition to be named by an elder in our culture unlike Ashoke and Ashima’s. My parents just believed it to fit my siblings and they were grateful that our great-grandfather named them. The culture and tradition that Ashima and Ashoke try to uphold in this is pleasing, because it shows that they want to continue their culture despite living in a country that doesn’t necessarily support there’s.

From grade school through high school Gogol hates his name. He thought, why couldn’t he just have a regular name like everyone else in his school. He just never knew the true meaning behind it until later on in his life. Right before he went away to college he decided to legally change his name from Gogol to Nikhil. This was an important part of the book because from the beginning of it up until he decided to change his name he hated being called it and knew that he couldn’t do anything about it. I feel that a main reason why he hated it so much is because of how different it was and that ultimately reflected on his family and how different they were from everyone else. Changing his name before going to college was a huge step for him because for once in his life no one would know him as Gogol, he could finally start over.

Throughout the book Gogol has different relationships, but none serious until he meets Maxine. It is through Maxine and her family that he feels a part of something other than his Bengali lineage. With them he feels like he’s always wanted to, to fit in. It is with them that he can be with Maxine openly, unlike his own family where he tries to hide any physical contact with Maxine around them. This time was important because this was the first time he felt so distant from his family. She gave him an out and ultimately a new way to look at life, without his Bengali lineage hanging in front of him.

This book had a deep root of family in it which is what intrigued me the most. I enjoyed following Gogol throughout his life, watching him grow in a country where he feels so different than everyone else, but yet trying so hard to be like everyone else. I found the variations of American culture vs. Indian culture very interesting, because the way they view certain things wouldn’t even cross my mind. My favorite part in the book that I enjoyed but was miniscule in the storyline is when Moushumi and Gogol go to Paris. I enjoyed this part because it was the first time Gogol gets to leave the life he’s always known, which is either Calcutta which he doesn’t like and America which is the only thing he’s known. When Gogol goes to Paris he sees Moushumi mingling with her friends and he can’t help but be a little envious of her. He’s envious of the life she’s created in Paris without any ties to her Indian heritage, it’s like she’s a completely different person there. During the trip, Gogol gets some alone time to himself and he gets to explore the city while Moushumi is working. While he is exploring on his own he gets lost a couple of times but eventually finds his way. This was the first time in Gogol’s life where he’s in a completely new environment where he’s not tied to anyone or any place, he can just live.

This book relates to ethnic study because it deals a lot with identity. Identity is how you define yourself and ultimately who you are. In the beginning of the novel Gogol deals with identity issues because of his name. He feels that Gogol has no meaning and therefore does not describe who he is or will be. He eventually changes his name legally, but growing up his family, friends, and extended family all know him as Gogol and will only know him as that. Throughout the novel, Gogol tries to hide his Bengali heritage from basically everyone he meets since going away to college. When trying to understand Gogol, I see him as someone who is confused about who he is, because of his home. From what I’ve noticed it seems like he doesn’t know where his home is, is it India or is it in Boston on Pemberton Road? I feel like he has these two conflicting worlds that he’s trying to uphold, and he doesn’t know how to balance it. Throughout the novel, he tries to get away from the Bengali heritage he’s grown up with, but it always seems to find him. What I’ve learned through this novel is that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or the culture or family that you’ve grown up with. You can become whoever you want to be, but if you can continue to grow and learn in new places, and still carry the traditions and morals of your culture with you while you do it, you will not only be spiritually happier, but mentally and emotionally as well. 

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The Namesake Identity. (2021, Jul 05). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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