Recently, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s first full length novel, The Namesake. I’ve reviewed her other books prior to this and have spoken at length about her compelling narratives, the ones that draw you wholly into the book, such that you are not reading so much as you’re being immersed in the most intoxicating of wines.
At the outset, let me mention this is not going to be a review. These are just a few thoughts I had while reading this book. There will be no rating at the end.
The reason why this is not going to be a review is, I have nothing new to add to what I’ve already shared in my reviews of Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. One of the reasons is, like Lahiri’s other works, The Namesake is also about a Bengali family making their way across the seas, in the US, mingling with other Bengali families, desperately holding on to the shred of Indianness they all have left behind. It deals with the children of these families who feel torn between the country they are growing up in, and the environment their parents create for them that they feel forced to accept. But mainly, The Namesake is the story of Gogol, named after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, a favourite of his father’s (the reason for which you must read the book to find out). Among his struggles as the child from an immigrant family, he also struggles with his unusual name – the embarrassment it causes him and a lack of confidence thereof. He changes his name before entering college, but does he ever find out the real significance of Nikolai Gogol in his father’s life?
The search for one’s identity is something that we have all undergone in our lives. Readers can relate to Gogol’s life and actions. But I could relate to him on a deeper level, for various reasons. For one thing – some of you may agree India, despite being a country, is a continent in itself. I belong to a family of Keralites, but grew up everywhere else. Whichever city I spent my childhood in, I was always identified as a southerner (or the moniker given by the ignorant ones – Madrasi). But once my family moved to Kerala, they all referred to me as the outsider. Existential crisis level – India! Then there were the constant references to the fact that I did not “look” like someone who belonged to <insert name of city presently residing in>. Much like Gogol’s parents, my own parents were collecting phone numbers of every Keralite relative every time we changed cities, and their ways were just – different – from the ways of my friends’ families. It’s funny to think about now, how I’ve imbibed the essence of every city I’ve lived in – you could even call it enriching! But it was not all that pleasant growing up, wondering where you really belong. In fact, I still sometimes question where “home” is.
Then of course, there is Gogol’s hatred of his name. I’ve made peace with my name now, but it was not something I was fond of. Gogol’s parents intended it to be his nickname and for Nikhil to be his official name; but due to something that happened at school, he is stuck with Gogol, much to the initial disappointment of his parents. Later he changes his name to Nikhil. I, on the other hand, always felt burdened by my official name, and even considered changing my name officially to my pet name (Chinki, in case you were wondering). It just sounded “cooler” to me.
With Gogol, I’ve sought answers to questions that have plagued me all my life. I can’t quite say the book answers them. But reading it was like a journey I took with a mirror image of myself. I am sure it is not just me, but there are so many like me who can find themselves in Gogol (I even found shades of me in Gogol’s wife Moushumi). That tells a lot about Lahiri’s storytelling prowess, which I have drooled over in my other reviews. Highly recommended for these and a lot more reasons!