Review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

My final semester of my Master’s degree was one of my favorite parts of my program. One of my classes was called “Minorities’ Literature.” The course focused on books written by immigrants living in America and highlighted the diaspora they each experienced.

We focused on the Chinese, Indian, and Cuban diaspora in America. As an immigrant myself, albeit a white immigrant in a majority white country, I couldn’t help but relate to several of the books that we covered. Although I immigrated from one western country (the United States) to another (France), there’s no denying the culture shock, separateness, loneliness, and homesickness I experienced. It was obviously the hardest in the beginning, but even now, six and a half years later, there are still days when I just feel…different. As humans, we crave to belong and we crave to connect. French culture is nothing like American culture, and it can be really difficult at times.

A huge theme of the course was the power of language. Learning French, nearly three years after I had lived in France, would go on to change my entire experience here. I finally felt some semblance of belonging — hey, at least now I could understand and be understood. But, again, even six and half years later, there are people who can’t understand me, make comments about my accent, or simply ignore me once they hear that I am a foreigner.

I know that my own personal experience is one of privilege. As I said, I’m white, cis-gendered, and American. I came to France on my own free will, no one forced me to come here and I can go back to America whenever I want (I wouldn’t want to…but that’s a different story for a different day). I’m generally accepted here — even if sometimes French people make fun of my accent. Compared to a lot of other immigrants or refugees’ stories, mine sounds like a fairytale.

In The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the story revolves around the Ganguli’s, a Bengali family who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. The novel begins with the young couple, Ashoke and Ashima, who were the first to arrive in the country, and continues to follow the lives of their children. The book focuses mostly on Ashoke and Ashima’s firstborn, a son named Gogol. Gogol is named after the Russian poet Nikolai Gogol (who I still need to read. I’ll get there eventually), and you’ll have to read the book to find out why as the reason is an important part of the plot. In any case, Gogol hates his name as he grows older.

In Indian culture, children are usually given a pet name that is used around the house and amongst family members, and a “good name,” the one on their birth certificates and that is used in public. In India, traditionally, the grandparents chose the children’s good names. Because Ashoke and Ashima were already living in the United States when Gogol was born, they wait for a letter from Ashima’s grandmother to arrive with the chosen good name. Unfortunately, the letter gets lost, and they chose to put Gogol on the birth certificate.

When Gogol starts kindergarten, his parents decide that although Gogol is the name on his birth certificate, he should also have a good name. So they enroll him in school with the name Nikhil. Understandably, 5-year old Gogol doesn’t want to change his name. He asks his teachers to call him Gogol, and to his parent’s chagrin, they agree.

This all begins to change when Gogol is around 14 years old and begins to hate his name. It is here the reader starts to see a change in Gogol: he begins to reject his Indian culture, pushing it aside so that he can is recognized for the American that he is. It’s heartbreaking to read the exchanges between Gogol and his parents, as they don’t understand why he isn’t more proud of his culture. When he is 18, Gogol legally changes his name to Nikhil Ganguli.

Along the way, Gogol meets an Indian-American girl named Moushumi. The pair instantly bond over their shared experiences as first-generation immigrants. I was already enjoying the novel, but the introduction of Moushumi carried me even deeper into the storyline. And, as this is a feminist book review, you know I have to take a closer look at one of the more important female main characters.

Spoiler alert: I related to Moushumi and disliked her all at the same time. In an attempt to carve out a place for herself in the world that wasn’t related to her Indian culture or American upbringing, Moushumi secretly double majors in French and immediately after graduating moves to Paris.

Moushumi thrives in her new life in Paris. She speaks French and the language becomes an escape for her, and it is all hers. It isn’t pushed on her like her Indian roots, and it is a way for her to declare her independence from her parents and their adopted country. I couldn’t help but relate to Moushumi, there is something so alluring about moving to a new country and immersing yourself into a culture where you know no one. A place where no one knows your name, so to speak. It’s liberating and terrifying at the same time, and the passages that take a closer look at what’s going on in Moushumi’s head really stuck with me. I ended up disliking her character because of the ending of the novel. I won’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to pick up the book for yourself to find out why she ended up rubbing me the wrong way.

It’s impossible to deny that The Namesake echos some of Lahiri’s own experiences as a child of Indian immigrants. Inside the novel, she reminds the reader of the power that language, and in particular, a name can have over a person. It is a commentary on the pressure and expectations that can come from family. The Namesake is also undeniably a coming of age story, and over the course of the book, the reader watches as Gogol grows up (sometimes painfully, sometimes beautifully), comes into his own, and eventually begins to accept and embrace his roots. It’s a beautiful story of the importance of knowing where you came from.

Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on September 4, 2020.

Musings on feminism, books, and human connections.

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