The Namesake overflows with the subtle grace and dignity of a family forced to make peace with their divided loyalties to India and America. In quiet yet compelling prose, Jhumpa Lahiri portrays the temperaments of the Calcutta-born parents, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, a pair tied to their Indian roots, customs and rituals. The traditionally-wed young couple emigrate to America in 1967 and must adjust to an entirely new world. After the birth of their son, circumstances force them to forego custom and offer a name for the birth certificate. Nonplussed, Ashoke offers the ďsecondĒ name, Gogol, never meant for use as the childís public, or formal, name. Ashoke impulsively makes this choice based on the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who inspired Ashoke in a very personal manner as a young man.
The Ganguliís fit readily into an academic community where they eventually find a group of other Bengalis, establishing a network of friends who gather for holidays and special occasions common to Bengali traditions. As for their son, Gogol, who is a well-mannered and dutiful boy, he nevertheless detests his name, although he is helpless to change it until he is an adult. The majority of second-generation Bengali children become gradually Americanized, less drawn to tradition. These children never really participate in the family celebrations or occasional visits to see relatives in Calcutta to the same degree as their parents but are more attracted to their new culture.
The unfortunate Gogol is tethered to this dual Indian-American life, never quite fitting anywhere. At first he gravitates to the social acceptance of Americanization, pushing aside the Indian rituals that draw attention to his differences. But after a number of relationship failures and some few successes, Gogol is attracted to the comfort of his heritage, one that has settled deep in the marrow of his bones. His perspective changes dramatically over the years, and he becomes a man who seeks a connection with his family of origin.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lahiri (for The Interpreter of Maladies) delves into the heart of the Indian-American experience: the difficult and tedious adjustments, the pain of leaving a warm and comforting home and years of tradition. The real beauty of her prose is the way it flows into graceful character definition, particularly that of Gogol and his mother. The author lives inside her characters, exposing their flaws and noting their strengths with compassion, bringing them to life.
Gogolís story is actually a simple one, as lived by many multii-cultural citizens of America. The human complaints and complications stem from the dichotomy Gogol endures for most of his early years, but the strength of Lahiri's writing is in the exquisite details. These people are not strangers; they are our neighbors, friends and fellow workers, whose lives are just as fraught with indecision as ours. With enviable ease, Lahiri illuminates the intimate traits that are so appealing and familiar.
From Gogol's fearful, cling-to-tradition immigrant parents to his continuous struggle for comfort in his own skin, the reader is privy to the intricate process of assimilation, particularly that of Indian-American life and the ties to family that comfort an immigrant population. There is an incredible generosity that is transferred from one generation to another in The Namesake. Add in culture shock and the need for acceptance in American society and the novelís focus is familiar: the value of family in any land.