The opening of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel finds Ashima Ganguli standing in her kitchen in the latter stages of her first pregnancy. Ashima tries to satisfy her cravings with concoctions that imitate the flavours of home. She mixes Rice Krispies with Planters peanuts, chopped red onion, salt, lemon juice and green chili peppers. It is an inadequate substitute for the Indian snack but a valiant attempt to stall the slippage of sensual familiarities that accompanies removal from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Namesake is really the story of Ashima’s son, but it is fitting that the tale begins in the kitchen: the losses and shifts in Lahiri’s novel are as intense and ineffable as the aromas and flavours of food. Food is one of the chief planes upon which the young Gogol and his sister Sonia work to define themselves against their Bengali heritage. They insist on pizza and Coke. Ultimately though, Gogol is drawn back by forces as bewitching as the emotional potency of aromas his mother’s cooking, his father’s horrific trauma and, strangely enough, the Russian author from whom he inherits his name.
When Gogol is fourteen, his father Ashoke gives him a copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke imparts Dostoyevsky’s adage that we all came out of Gogol’s overcoat, telling the indifferent adolescent that one day he will understand what this means. However, Nikolai Gogol’s harrowing little fable ‘The Overcoat’ is not given much play in Gogol’s own imaginative development. For Gogol, who does not bother to read the stories of his namesake, the overcoat remains unworn; an odd-shaped ornament that he has inexplicably accrued along with his unusual name.
The narrative follows Gogol as he journeys through school, college and the early stages of his career in architecture. He makes and forsakes a series of relationships all of which shape or reflect upon his relationship with his past as encapsulated in his name. Gogol becomes Gogol at birth because the letter from his great-grandmother containing the name she has chosen for him, never arrives. Even this has a provocative metaphorical valence. Both he and his parents know that somewhere there is a letter with his real name inscribed upon it, the name that, had the proper naming practice been observed, should be his. But the letter goes astray and the real name hovers as a perpetual mystery on the edge of his consciousness.
The exigencies of American bureaucracy demand that the child be given a name before he is released from hospital. And so, Ashoke pulls a name from the air: the name of the author who saved his life. In Lahiri’s novel, names enfold stories and the narrative of Ashoke’s rescue by the textual Gogol is a deeply embedded one. Travelling to Jamshedpur in his early twenties, Ashoke was involved in a horrific train crash. At the time of the crash he was reading Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat.’ Hours after the crash, lying blood-drenched in the twisted wreckage, Ashoke had raised his hand clutching a single crumpled page of ‘The Overcoat.’ This and the white pages of the book lying nearby arrested the attention of the rescue party.
Gogol is never meant to be Gogol’s official or ‘good’ name. It is given as a temporary solution, intended to serve only as a daknam or pet name, until his real name arrives. But Gogol becomes complicit in the burden of this name. On his first day at school, despite his father’s advice, that his ‘good’ or official name is now ‘Nikhil,’ he opts truculently for Gogol. He very shortly regrets this and throughout his school years conceives of his name as a kind of loathsome mantle: ‘At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.’
When Gogol leaves his family home to attend Yale, he tries to leave his name behind. Nikhil to his friends and Gogol to his family members, he lives out a new mode of dislocation over the span of his college years. He is disconcerted when his family complies, calling him Nikhil in front of his college friends. Much later, when he meets Moushumi who shared his childhood in the circle of their parents’ Bengali friends, he is annoyed that she knows him as Gogol first and Nikhil second.
Despite his multiple long-term relationships with other women he eventually marries Moushumi. An air of narrative hesitancy attends this bringing of the plot full circle. In one sense it reads as an abortive attempt by the author to force closure. In another sense it elucidates the vulnerability of all narrative constructions, including Gogol’s own narrativising impulse.
Gogol’s and Moushumi’s wedding ‘is not the type of wedding either of them really wants.’ Despite their usually defiant individuality they agree that it is better to submit to the overbearing wishes of their families, than to put up a fight. Unlike compromises made in previous relationships, the cost of conforming to these expectations is a known quantity. They pay a heavy price for beginning with resignation. Drawn together by their individual plights for self-determination, their aspirations dissolve into a comfortably predictable but secretly resented shape. Moushumi finds that the mantle of marriage does not fit. During and after the breakdown of their marriage the confident and often wry narration of the first part of the novel gives place to a detached and uncertain tone. The narrator becomes uncharacteristically equivocal about what Gogol has gained or lost in this relationship.
The anomaly of the concept of ‘namesake’ and, by extension, of the person to whom it is applied, is that it is always once removed; held in perpetual relation to an original. The Namesake is an elusive title because the term ‘namesake’ usually follows a possessive noun or pronoun; ‘Gogol’s namesake’ or ‘your namesake.’ Lahiri’s is a provocative ellipsis. Without being anchored to the primary possessive noun, ‘namesake’ itself becomes the primary noun; at once the subject of the phrase but also, a vacancy. Gogol’s plight, like that of many protagonists of the psychological realist novel, is to remedy an internal vacuum. What is unique about Lahiri’s formulation is the way a name becomes the site upon which contested aspects of his identity converge.
The novel’s preoccupation with names and titles and the freight they carry, gives it a fable-like quality. It bears faint glimmers of the fantastical thought structures, the feverishly detailed obsessions that pervade Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and, in less virtuosic fashion, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Yet there is less magic and less subterranean complexity. India, in The Namesake, is once removed: the fragrance is diluted and the flavours are makeshift approximations.
This gives The Namesake a paradoxical capacity to voice the general experience of displacement. Its rather eclectic blend of cultural remnants—Russian, Bengali, American—and its very immediate sensuality, lend palpable force to the typically nebulous experience of heterogeneity. The Namesake gives vivid particularity to the sense of being held in perpetual relation to a distant original, of wearing a garment of unknown proportions, of having a name, the imaginative legacy of which you can never fully inhabit.