For several years I taught the short story “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri, which was part of an anthology of various authors, to college students. It was much later that I sought out Lahiri’s own collection, Interpreter of Maladies, in which the story was published. That reading experience happened before Grab the Lapels was created (2013), so it’s been quite a while since I’ve read any Lahiri at all. The Namesake read just as smoothly as her short stories, and she was not hampered at all by this different form.
The Namesake begins with Ashoke and Ashima, Bengalis from Calcutta who meet when their marriage is arranged. Ashoke is an engineering student in the United States and thus expects his bride to return with him. She does, but hates everything American — how they wear their shoes in the house and keep the cat box in the kitchen, etc. We learn these facts, intertwined with Ashima’s stay in the hospital, while she labors and gives birth to a boy. Family tradition is that Ashima’s grandmother will name her son, and they wait for the letter from Calcutta that never comes. Because American parents must have a birth certificate to leave the hospital, and the grandma’s name has not arrived, Ashoke chooses “Gogle” for his son, the namesake of a Russian author whose book literally saved Ashoke’s life.
Bengalis have “good” names and nicknames, one use legally and professionally, the other with friends and family. Gogle is meant to be a nickname, but when the boy enters Kindergarten and his parents attempt to dub him Nikhil, he won’t answer to it because he doesn’t understand everyday Indian tradition. The book largely focuses on Gogle and his name that causes him identity anxiety: American, Indian, Russian. Jhumpa Lahiri follows Gogle the entire novel, mapping out how his family changes, growing and diminishing in members, and how he separates himself as an American (and a yuppie one to boot) for much of his adult life.
Typically, I find novels about Indian immigration predictable. Someone from India moves to either England or the United States, discovers pot and sex, and becomes Westernized (which I often interpret as unmotivated, uppity, and embarrassed of their families) until they realize it’s not so bad being Indian, serendipitously settle down with an Indian spouse who is likely also Westernized (but maintains enough Indian culture to make the lead character homesick in a way) and “gets” the struggles of a double identity. Lahiri follows some of the cliches, but I was surprised many times when she zigged and I zagged. I found myself wrapped up in Gogle’s story because I really didn’t know where he was going or how it would end. I was incredibly invested in his relationships, profession, and feelings.
The writing is steady, comfortably so. I read a comment that Lahiri’s prose is so good that you forget you’re reading, and I agree with that. The book is not simplistic, but you don’t think about the work you’re putting into entering the story, engaging with it, and analyzing all the moving pieces and symbols as you do. An example: not long after Ashima gives birth to Gogol, she makes comparisons to pregnancy and immigration that ring truly, but more importantly, clearly:
Being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. . . . Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.
While Ashima and Ashoke’s life in America starts the novel, I wouldn’t call this a saga. We don’t follow multiple generations, and only briefly are Gogle’s parents the true focus. They’re more foundation for his identity, the fertile ground for meaningful connections he’s not aware of until he’s older, such as why he’s called Gogle, how his parents function as a couple, and what a father means to a son. I’m not a fan of sagas, so I appreciated the way Lahiri used different generations to add layers without booting readers down the family tree.
A highly recommended novel that easy to get lost in.