The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

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.

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28 comments

    • I also own The Lowland, so I’m glad to hear that she has a steady writing style and I’ve got a treat waiting for me. I’m curious about her translated work, but I can’t read Italian. Lahiri is definitely multilingual, but I wonder how many languages exactly.

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    • I think some of her short stories weren’t right on point for me, though it’s possible “A Temporary Matter” sticks out as strong because I’ve read it over and over. You totally can get lost in Lahiri’s novels, so get thee to a library!

      p.s. I’m in Madison, WI right now to hang with a friend, and his childhood friend (they lived in Detroit) now lives in Atlanta and flew up to surprise my buddy! I was telling Mr. Atlanta how my friend Shell is down there suffering in Georgia, too, because it’s so hot. I love that I can talk about my blog friends in real life too; you all are amazing.

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  1. Ive never read her though I have had The Lowland on my kindle for a few years now. I know what you mean about books about the immigrant experience, they do seem to follow a pattern (those featuring Chinese immigrants are the same as the Indian ones).

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    • Weirdly, I haven’t read any Chinese immigrant stories except one short story by Amy Tan in which the protagonist is first generation American. The other stories I’ve read about people moving out of Asia are ones of turmoil due to war, so it’s more about refugees than immigrants. I need to make a better effort to read non-Western authors. I’m slipping.

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  2. Great review! This does sound like a worthwhile read, and I just read A Temporary Matter yesterday and quite enjoyed the writing, so picking up a full novel seems in order. It’s nice to hear that Lahiri doesn’t follow the predictable immigration path, with her plot
    .
    I thought I had The Lowland by Lahiri on my TBR already, but it must’ve just been in my mental list… and this one actually sounds a bit more appealing to me- so I’m adding this one now instead!

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    • I know I own The Lowland, which I likely picked up used based on the author’s name alone, but I couldn’t remember what it is about, so I headed to Goodreads. The reviews are all over the place! It looks like Lahiri pushed the time period back a bit from what she normally uses (1960s – 1990s). The main character of The Namesake is born in 1968, whereas in The Lowland the story is set during Vietnam. I wonder if that makes a difference.

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      • Hmmm that is interesting! It does sound like something I’d like to compare, but I do think I’ll have better luck starting with The Namesake, in that case!

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  3. Great review! I liked this one a lot. There’s a lot I don’t know about Indian culture but the neighbourhood I lived in when I was a teenager was predominantly immigrants from India (though mostly Punjabi) so a lot of Lahiri’s work felt familiar to what I knew from my friends’ families.

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    • Oh, that’s so interesting. I think Canada has loads of Indian immigrants, if I’m not mistaken. The tricky thing for me is I never want to mix up where people are from and accidentally disrespect them in some way. South and North Indians are quite different, and then you have Pakistan and Bangladesh right there, and you don’t want to mix them up with Indians, etc. Reading The Milk Lady of Bangalore and The Namesake has really made it obvious to me that I’m not reading about other cultures in the way that I should, and I need to rectify that in the next few years.

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      • Vancouver has the second largest Punjabi/Sikh population in the world, right after India. And you’re right that different regions have very distinct cultures. So something like The Namesake is demonstrating a different cultural background than my Sikh high school friends had. It wasn’t until I started reading more books about India that I realized Sikhism was more of a minority religion. As a kid most people I knew from India were Sikh so I thought that was the norm. It’s a far more diverse country than I first realized!

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      • I don’t plan me reading for the year normally as I be such a mood reader. Though I do have lists and spreadsheets and such. But this year the 19 in 2019 has worked well for me in terms of readinig older books. So I am likely going to do a 20 in 2020 as well. I have ideas for that but nothing set in stone yet. Well that’s not true. The namesake has been added to the list officially. So I have one book picked out. It has been added to the spreadsheet. Official now. Arrr!
        x The Captain

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  4. I’ve read very little of her work but I always hear good things about everything she writes, this of course being no different! Gogle is an unfortunate name though, it always makes me think of google 😦

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  5. Big Indian populations in Australia too. Many come here as students and then transition to permanent residency. And without looking it up, about half of all Australians are first or second generation immigrants. So we have that experience where the ones born here are not always happy identifying with their parents’ culture, but yes, then tend to ease back into it. Path of least resistance maybe. I love it that you zigged when the author zagged – keeps you on your toes!

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    • I know a lot of people focus on all the ways Australia can kill you, and I’ve joked about that too, but honestly I think it has one of the most fascinating populations. People are from all over the place, there are Indigenous people, long-established families, new families — all sorts of people!

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