Book Review : The Namesake

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Standing by the lighthouse, surrounded by the picturesque ocean waves, at one point in the book, father (Ashoke) asks his son (Gogol), “Will you remember this day Gogol?” to which the naive son responds, “How long do I have to remember it?”. The father then replies, “Try to remember it always. Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go”. Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri not just delivers her impeccable storytelling but also provides her readers delightful moments and memories to cherish which successfully makes one turn the pages.

The story which transcends over four decades follows the journey of a Bengali family known as ‘Gangulis’ which starts when a couple, Ashoke and Ashima, migrates to the US in the late 60s. The book then primarily focuses on their child Gogol, who is trying to come to terms with his identity as an American with an Indian origin. We see him grow from a loving child to a rebellious teenager and then into a considerate one. His resentment for his name ‘Gogol’ given by his parents after famous Russian author Nikolai Gogol prods him to embark on a journey where he would take on a series of decisions and mistakes which would affect his life and the people around him. 

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The ‘name’ in this novel is Lahiri’s metaphor for identity and the book gives us ample thoughts on it after we finish it. Is a name just a reference or does it sum up the individuality of a person? If yes, will a change in someone’s name snatch away one’s previous identity and replace it with another? 

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Although the book is primarily about the boy’s life, it also gives profuse space for another character to grow including Gogol’s mother Ashima, a woman with a conventional Indian upbringing who must come to terms with a foreign way of life. Not to forget, Gogol’s father Ashoke, a benevolent man whose childhood incidents sculpt the decisions he takes for his family.  Ashima’s loneliness, longing for a home, love for her child and efforts to become independent are the heart of The Namesake. The final conversation between Gogol and Ashima in the last chapter can weld tears in one’s eyes and break your heart into smithereens. The writing is so sincere yet powerful that the book commands you to cry and laugh along with the characters.

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Lahiri knows how to hook her readers to the story and keep them engaged right from the very start. The very first page describes a pregnant Ashima agonising due to a profound ache in her pelvic area and Ashoke taking her to the hospital where the story retreats back to a flashback. She uses a vast variety of descriptive words weaved precisely into the narrative to foster the reader’s imagination. From describing the streets of Pemberton road where the Ganguli family resides to the detailed architecture of French buildings or the congested roads of Calcutta or defining the pulchritude of Ashima’s Sarees, the reader can picture every minuscule detail. The precise and layered character development adds to the emotional quotient of the story which keeps all the characters grounded so much so that we feel for them whenever they go through any adversity. Lahiri treats all her characters with dignity and hence, even in their worst decisions, the story never judges them for their actions. 

The reason the Ganguli’s journey works for the readers is that it showcases the life of ordinary people who abandoned their native land for a better life. There are so many Indian immigrants in the US who face the same obstacles as Ashima and Ashoke due to not fitting into their constant longing for the actual home they left. The book also endeavours briefly to show the racism faced by the Gangulis. At one point in the book, the 10-year-old Gogol discovers that the name GANGULI on their mailbox was altered to GANGREEN by some boys which further makes him conscious of the anomalous behaviour of white people towards his parents including wry smirks when they listen to their accents. The book never voyages to lengths and doesn’t lecture you on the issue, however, just the scene unravelling through a child’s perspective leaves you unsettled.

The biggest strength of The Namesake is that the author never tries to dwell and comprehend subtle nuances, instead she lets the readers decipher them on their own. Take for example when Ashima meets Gogol’s girlfriend Maxine and the sheer awkwardness of the moment is crafted with a simple gesture when Maxine bids goodbye kisses to his parents. The obtrusive cultural differences highlighted never align with the stereotypes to jostle some laughs, instead, they are treated with the utmost sensitivity.

But, the book isn’t a platonic ideal of storytelling as it comes with its own set of flaws. The one flaw that is highly conspicuous is the lack of depth when the narrative jumps to the idea of marriage and infidelity. The book provides enough motive and backdrop to make one understand when a character commits the act but we never witness the aftermath. Instead the book jumps onto the other chapter very abruptly which makes the subplot feel quite dispensable to the readers. Also, in retrospect, when one assesses the character of Ashoke, who is pivotal to the story, there seems a dearth of time expended on his journey that fails to make the readers emotionally invested in his character. Although Ashoke’s past sculpts the journey Lahiri takes us on, however, by the end of it, we don’t know who Ashoke really is. But these are just minor nitpicks that can easily be ignored in this literary masterpiece.   

Nikolai Gogol who plays an important part in the narrative once wrote, “Death does not exist in literature but the dead still intervene in our affairs and work together with us”. In a major turning point in the book Death plays an integral role in shaping the narrative and helping Gogol come to a discourse. The novel does become dark but Lahiri never exploits the emotion to make it borderline gritty or use it in the form of catharsis instead she, just like life, allows the characters to heal as the time goes by.

There will be moments when you’ll gasp out of shock or will cry inconsolably like I did but the novel is a cheerful celebration of love, family, and identity. I assure you that you’ll finish the book with moist eyes and a goofy grin on your face.

“The names we have, we think they are so much about who we are that they are the one word that exists that represents us and yet we don’t choose them; they are from our parents”, Jhumpa Lahiri

Image Source – Akshardhara

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