Book Review of ‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Shakespeare wrote: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Maybe Shakespeare was wrong. Names matter. A name isn’t merely an identifying word, but everything in many cases. The name given to a person, sometimes, decides the shape his life would take, foreshadowing the sorrows and the triumphs, the loves and the longings.

‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri is a novel about two generations of a Bengali family who go to the USA to live the American Dream. The protagonist of the novel is born to the Ganguli couple, Ashoke and Ashima, and is named by a set of fortuitous events as Gogol. There are reasons he is given this peculiar name – Ashoke, the father once was saved from a fatal train-wreck by a copy of a book containing the famous short story ‘The Overcoat’ by the Russian writer Gogol and the grandmother who was authorized to name the child dies, and her letter carrying the name never arrives. The Bengalis believe in bestowing two names upon an individual: the good name and the pet name. Nikhil, the good name is rejected by the American school, and the boy grows with the freakish, unusual name Gogol. During his rebellious teen years, the boy starts to detest the name and his Bengali identity. He ultimately goes for another name Nikhil. The novel is about the rootlessness and the conflicts internalized by the migrants who try to straddle two distinct worlds – modern America and traditional Bengal.

The rejection of the name Gogol by Nikhil, initially brings him success and confidence, as he is able to assimilate in the young American crowd and win love of a slew of true blue American girls. Yet, it creates a distance between him and his Bengali roots, alienates him from his parents. Gogol was the bridge between the Gangulis and the Indian state of Bengal; Nikhil is the nagging sign of divorce from their ancient homeland. When Nikhil falls in love with Maxine, a beautiful American girl, he is happy, yet at the back of his mind there is a feeling that “his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own.” He compares the easy, effortless sophistication of Maxine’s family with “his parents’ perpetual fear of disaster”. Gradually Nikhil Gogol Ganguli learns to value his family and his roots. But will it bring him happiness? Can someone trapped in two worlds at the same time and trying to make sense of the distinct demands, the diverse cultures be successful in reconciling the two? Can a fishbowl marriage be happier than clandestine relationships? The novel, which was filmed by Mira Nair in 2006 into an equally exquisite movie, tries to answer all these questions without resorting to any clichés or stereotypes.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a modern great. Her debut short story collection ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ won a Pulitzer in 2000. That book too talked about the themes of the fears and trials of the migrants, the rootlessness, the Indian-American experience, and the marital problems. ‘The Namesake’ is her debut novel and it again is an example of her intricate detailing, simplicity of language, mingling pathos and gentle humour to conjure a reality before our eyes. All her characters – the studious and gentlemanly Ashoke, the homely and stoic Ashima, the repressed and rebellious Moushumi, the outgoing and sophisticated Maxine, the melancholic and silent Nikhil Gogol – are painted with a fine brush by Lahiri, thus creating, in vivid colours, their loves and rebellions, sorrows and betrayals.

A must read book by a modern maestro!

Some similar books:

  1. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  3. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
  4. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


©2017, Bhupendra Singh


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