‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)

23Apr05

I mean this statement in the best way possible, but reading The Namesake is like reading a Mukherjee novel. As Mukherjee does in Jasmine, Lahiri explores the idea of identity and the dual identity that many immigrants and children of immigrants to the United States experience. Naming is also an important aspect of the novel, as well as adaptation.

Lahiri emphasizes the expected dual identity in Bengali culture, the “good name” and the “pet name” that every Bengali has. Except Gogol. Gogol has only a pet name—that isn’t even Indian—which separates him in a way from his family’s culture. But his name doesn’t make him feel quite integrated into American culture either. When he leaves for college, he seizes the opportunity to be unshackled from the shame that “Gogol” causes him and adopts his good name, Nikhil. While “Nikhil” connects him to his parents’ culture, it somehow seems to separate him from his family. His parents had finally become resigned to the fact that his name was simply Gogol, and “Gogol” gave him an essential connection to his father. When his father finally tells him of the significance of his name, Gogol feels badly for changing his name. At the end of the novel, when Gogol realizes that with his mother moving to Calcutta his identity as Gogol is disappearing, he finally begins to read the book of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, which suggests that perhaps he intends to reclaim Gogol as, at least part of, his identity.

Food. We have to talk about the food because it’s everywhere in this book. And I’m not exactly certain of what to make of it. Food is very obviously a cultural marker. Ashima tries to find American ingredients to substitute in Indian recipes, but when she is about to leave for Calcutta at the end of the novel she admits that she never managed to duplicate the recipes as accurately as she would have liked—she never fully adjusted to the United States, but she managed well enough. Gogol and Sonia requesting to have turkey at Thanksgiving and hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch suggests their Americanism and introducing more of American culture into their parents’ lives. The food also manages to indicate emotions as well. As soon as I read the line about the chickpeas going bad at Gogol and Moushumi’s wedding reception, I knew that the marriage would not last. At their anniversary dinner, Moushumi mentions that she and Gogol switched plates as usual but she did not like Gogol’s meal and sticks with her own. Then I knew the end was near. Actually, I should have known that Moushumi and Gogol’s relationship would come to no good end when their dinner burned on their date.

I’ll probably get a “The hell?” look for this statement, but the way that Lahiri characterizes the relationships kind of reminds me of D.H. Lawrence. Emphasis on the “kind of.”

Oh, and Moushumi wanting to hook up with Dimitri coupled with Isadora’s reaction to Adrian in Fear of Flying compels me to ask: am I the only woman who would be repulsed and disturbed by a man making overt sexual advances on a first encounter?

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