- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003


By Jhumpa Lahiri

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 291 pages


“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet asks. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” But others would disagree passionately. From Simon Peter in the New Testament to Allen Stewart Konigsberg (Woody Allen), the centuries are replete with figures who attached great importance to their titles.

It is this strange relationship of identity, name and self that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri — author of the much-acclaimed collection of stories “Interpreter of Maladies” — explores in her first novel. “Namesake” is a haunting emotional travelogue about one man’s struggle to find himself within the context of his ethnicity and amid conflicting loyalties to his family and himself.

Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli are recent immigrants from India, struggling to adapt to the cultures and customs of the new land to which they have chosen to come. As Ashoke finishes his graduate program in engineering at MIT, Ashima awkwardly builds a home in a place where she feels strangely isolated. But the pair gropingly discovers a path in the midst of their cultural confusion, preserving as many Bengali traditions as they can, and befriending people with whom they share their ethnic heritage.

Gogol Ganguli, their eldest son, is born into this somewhat murky mix of cultures. He is named, reluctantly, after a favorite Russian author when the name his maternal grandmother has chosen for him — his “good name” — is lost in the mail. In his parents’ country, the country where most of his relatives still reside, a name has great significance and is carefully selected. So it is the happenstance of his name that will haunt him for years to come. And as he struggles to reconcile his parents’ distinctively Indian ways with his own American perspective, he comes to loathe a name that is neither Indian nor American — but distinctly Russian — in his struggle for selfhood.

Though “Namesake” has special relevance to anyone who has ever had to make a new home in a foreign country, its themes are meaningful for anyone who has ever questioned who they are, or who others have told them to be. It is a delicate, touching tribute to the growing pains of adolescence and young adulthood in the universal quest for self-discovery.

As Gogol evolves from a boy to a man, he casts off his loathed moniker and legally changes his name to Nikhil. The customs surrounding names are numerous in Bengali culture, and although his parents acquiesce to his request, their consent is forced. Gogol is unaware of the turmoil his decision causes his father, for his name contains a secret that his father has yet to divulge.

So the newly-dubbed Nikhil enters Yale and pursues architecture as a career. As the years pass by, the name is a symbol of the disconnect between Nikhil and his family, one more custom that has been forgotten as he eats non-Bengali meals and dates non-Bengali women. He senses his parents’ vague disapproval, but they allow him his freedom and he eagerly takes it. When an unexpected tragedy occurs, however, Nikhil places a fresh sense of importance on his family ties. It is tragedy that allows him to explore the possibility of bridging his two worlds, and so he marries a Bengali woman who also struggles with the same complex identity. But this, too, ends badly.

Yet all is not lost. The story’s conclusion reminds us, as every good story does, that the end is just another beginning. There is hope; but there is no contrived happiness. Rather, Mrs. Lahiri deliberately affirms that happiness is often not found where one expects to see it, and that preconceived bias and stereotypes, left on their own, will prove their wrong assumptions. Mrs. Lahiri’s conclusion is bittersweet: the reaching of an understanding between mother and son, between two generations molded by very different — and yet similar — influences, a reconciliation to the idea that although your past can influence your future, perhaps this is not so distasteful.

“Namesake” is a confident exhibition of Mrs. Lahiri’s poetic prose, as she eloquently contrasts the loud, crowded streets of Calcutta with the empty, quiet streets of Boston suburbia. She softly paints the stark differences of the Gangulis’ two worlds — the curious, questioning relatives and their chappal-clad feet, and Gogol’s and his sister’s bouts with dysentery.

The story’s omniscient narrative voice allows readers to travel freely among the thoughts of father, mother and son, to experience their confusion, frustration and devotion as they clumsily relate to one another and their surroundings. “Namesake” is not only a portrait of an ethnic family, but of every family as its members attempt to communicate.

The book is also a vivid portrait of the Bengali social scene in America. While one generation clings steadfastly to the traditions in which they were raised, their children, drawing on at least two cultural influences, struggle to forge a new identity. They are, after all, the generation of ABCDs, “American-born confused Deshi.”

Much has been written about the difficult process of assimilation, but Jhumpa Lahiri handles the subject deftly, bringing a tenderness and thoughtfulness to a deeply personal subject. With “Namesake,” she has proven again that she is a more than capable storyteller.

Stephanie Taylor is the letters editor of The Washington Times.

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