The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
In the late 1960’s, Ashoke Ganguli returned to Calcutta, married Ashima and brought her back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his life at Harvard. Now she is having their first child. Gogol, and later his sister, grow up in Massachusetts as American children.
Their parents, especially Ashima, can’t let go of their culture. Their friends in the United States are all from their homeland. They return every two or three years for vacation in Calcutta visiting family. When he’s young, Gogol keeps his odd name. As he grows older, though, being named for a Russian author is difficult in a world of Johns and Bobs. Ashoke and Ashima raise their children in two cultures – the Indian culture of their families and the American culture where they now live.
Jhumpa Lahiri understands that culture and writes a story that shows the inner conflict of the two worlds that Gogol tries to conquer. Once he leaves for college he moves on to his own life, trying to define his own self. He has lovers and internships and jobs. He navigates adulthood with him straddling two cultures – his parents and his own.
The Namesake is realistic and appealing, poignant at times and funny at others. Lahiri makes the outsider (like me) understand the difficulties of being trapped between two cultures, between parents and friends, between instilled beliefs and new learned ones.
As well as the culture story, The Namesake is also a story of growing up. As a child becomes an adult, he or she pulls away into a new life. Gogol dates women his parents can’t easily accept. He gets tied up in his own world and doesn’t get home as often as his parents would like. Unfortunately, that leads to Gogol’s guilt, as every child of loving parents learns when faced with their parents’ aging.
I was able to ask an Indian friend about the cultural problems the Ganguli family has. She said The Namesake did well in showing life in conflicting cultures and adapting for both.
It’s not long and while not a quick read, The Namesake is worth the time.
Notice: Suggestive dialogue or situations