NEA Big Read

The Namesake

Back to NEA Big Read

The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)

“My grandfather always says that’s what books are for…to travel without moving an inch.” —from The Namesake

Overview

National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow Jhumpa Lahiri is known publicly by her nickname because her kindergarten teacher deemed it easier to pronounce than her proper name, Nilanjana Sudeshna. Born to Bengali émigré parents and newly arrived in the United States from London, she had to grapple early with questions of identity, and the impact of this is palpable in The Namesake. In this 2003 bestseller by the Pulitzer-prize-winning author, two generations of a Bengali-American family in Massachusetts struggle between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past. This is “a story of guilt and liberation; it speaks to the universal struggle to extricate ourselves from … family and obligation and the curse of history” (Boston Globe). The novel “beautifully conveys the émigré’s disorientation, nostalgia, and yearning for tastes, smells, and customs left behind” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Lahiri can be seen in a cameo as “Aunt Jhumpa” in the 2006 film adaptation.

Introduction to the Book

A father and mother, a son and daughter: two generations of a typical Bengali–American family, poised uneasily atop the complex and confounding fault lines common to the immigrant experience. Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake deftly demonstrates how the familiar struggles between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past, play out in one particular set of foreign-born parents and their American-born children.

In the novel's opening pages, Ashima Ganguli, who left India to join her husband Ashoke in America, is about to deliver their first child, a son. Following Bengali custom, the child is to have two names—a pet name, for use only by family and close friends, and a "good" name, to be used everywhere else. Almost by mistake, the boy comes to be known as Gogol, named for his father's favorite Russian author. In a harrowing flashback, the reason for Ashoke's attachment to the Russian writer is revealed.

Gogol's father embraces their new life, while his mother longs for her homeland. As Gogol enters school, they attempt to convert his unusual name to a more typical one, but the boy stolidly rejects the transition, refusing to become, as he thinks of it, "someone he doesn't know." Soon he regrets his choice, as the name he's held onto seems increasingly out of place.

The novel's finely wrought descriptions of Bengali food, language, family customs, and Hindu rituals draw us deep inside the culture that Gogol's parents treasure while highlighting his alienation from it. Gogol finishes school, becomes an architect, falls in love more than once, and eventually marries, without ever fully embracing his heritage. His decades-long unease with his name is a perfect distillation of the multiple dislocations—cultural, historic, and familial—experienced by first-generation Americans. At the novel's climax, when loss compounds loss and Gogol's family structure is forever changed, he begins to understand, at least in part, his parents' longing for the past, and the sacrifices they made to help him be what he is—truly American.

Major Characters in the Book

Ashoke Ganguli
A Bengali man who comes alone to the U.S. to study electrical engineering. Weds Ashima Bhaduri via an arranged marriage in Calcutta. Father of Gogol and Sonia, a dedicated but undemonstrative family man with a lifelong attachment to Russian literature.

Ashima Ganguli
Journeys alone to the U.S. shortly after marrying Ashoke. Caring mother to Gogol and Sonia; stays in close touch with her family in India and maintains a growing network of Bengali friends and neighbors, as her family moves from city to city for Ashoke's career. At the end of the novel she bifurcates her life to spend time in the U.S. with her children and in India with her family of origin.

Gogol Ganguli
The "namesake" of the title, named after his father's favorite Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852). A first–generation Indian American whose uneasiness with his name exemplifies his difficulties in fitting in, either to his parents' expatriate world or to the world inhabited so comfortably by his American peers.

Sonia Ganguli
Gogol's younger sister, who is less troubled than he by their shared cultural heritage, or by the strictures and oddities of their household. Her steadiness—a peaceful life with her mother after her father's death, and a happy marriage—throws Gogol's chronic discomforts into sharper relief.

Maxine Ratliff
The only child of wealthy, urbane New Yorkers, and Gogol's first post–college girlfriend. Maxine represents so many things that Gogol believes he values: art and music, sophistication, and ease in the world.

Moushumi Mazoomdar
Appears first as the book-reading child of a neighboring Bengali family, noteworthy only because of her aloof air and deliberate English accent. The adult Moushumi resurfaces as Gogol's love interest and eventual wife. She too stages a rebellion against her heritage, living alone in Paris for a time.

"He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn't know." —Jhumpa Lahiri, from The Namesake

Jhumpa-Lahiri.jpg

Jhumpa Lahiri

Photo by Elena Seibert.

Jhumpa Lahiri (b. 1967)

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali émigré parents in 1967. When she was three, her family moved to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, where her father was a librarian and her mother a teacher.

Like her character Gogol, Lahiri experienced some confusion over her name when starting school. Her parents tried to enroll her using her "good" names—Nilanjana and Sudeshna—but the teacher insisted that those were too long, and opted instead for her pet name, Jhumpa. Lahiri notes that, "Even now, people in India ask why I'm publishing under my pet name instead of a real name."

Lahiri began to write at age seven, sometimes creating short fiction pieces with her friends during recess. She later wrote for the school newspaper. She received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College, then moved to Boston to attend Boston University, from which she received three master's degrees—in English, comparative literature, and creative writing—and a PhD in Renaissance studies.

While in Boston, she worked in a bookstore and interned at a magazine; she has noted that, had she stayed in New York, she might have been too intimidated to write: "In New York I was always so scared of saying that I wrote fiction. It just seemed like, 'Who am I to dare to do that thing here? The epicenter of publishing and writers?' I found all that very intimidating and avoided writing as a response."

Lahiri received a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown from 1997 to 1998. In 1998, The New Yorker magazine published "A Temporary Matter," one of the stories that would appear in her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies. In 2000, the collection won the PEN/Hemingway Award for the year's best fiction debut, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is the first Indian-American woman to receive this award.

In 2003, she published The Namesake, a novel, and followed that in 2008 with a second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Next she wrote The Lowland (2013) and a memoir—written in Italian—In Other Words (2016). Lahiri and her husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush have two children.

Updated July 2017

An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

On February 14, 2013, Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Josephine Reed: How would you describe the plot of The Namesake?

Jhumpa Lahiri: It's about the process of becoming American, understanding the ways in which that's possible. The heart of the book is about a family's relationship to America and to the change that inevitably happens when a person leaves one's place of origin and arrives in a new world, which is very much an American story.

JR: We see an uncertainty about identity filtering down to the next generation in The Namesake, in Gogol.

JL: Gogol is very typical in wanting to be American. I think most young people just want to conform on some level, and then they stop wanting to conform and maybe become more interesting; but there's a stage of simply wanting to be accepted and not questioned. [Gogol's parents] may be lost, and they may be homesick, but they never doubt for a moment where home is—whereas for Gogol that sense of home is not fixed because India is not his home, and America is not yet his home.

JR: Issues of identity play out in his relationship with his parents—he sees them as foreign, and that's troubling to him. Can you talk about some of that tension?

JL: I can speak maybe just from my own experience. I think my impulse as a child was to protect my parents from what I perceived as sort of ignorance. But the other emotion was a frustration with them, because I wasn't there to protect them; I was their child, and I wanted them to protect me. It creates a strange dynamic when you speak the language better than your parents, when you go into stores and you're a child and they ask you what kind of washing machine your parents are interested in because they don't trust your parents to articulate themselves. These kinds of things can be very troubling, they're frustrating, they made me angry, they made me sad, they made me overprotective of my parents, concerned for them and also frustrated that they weren't more seemingly capable.

JR: Names, as the title of your book suggests, are important. Can you explain pet names in the Bengali tradition as opposed to the "good" name?

JL: I think the pet name is very much connected to one's formative years and childhood and affection. And one's mother and father would never, ever, ever, ever use anything but a pet name for one's child. You tend to go to school with your good name and what ends up happening is that you've got two names to represent the sort of home version, the more intimate version, versus the out-in-the-world, being-educated, working-at-a-job version—the formal version, as it were, versus the informal.

JR: When Gogol goes to school, his father tells him the "good" name that he's chosen for him, which is Nikhil.

JL: I think in an American context, it would be doubly disconcerting to suddenly enter school and be told by your parents, "Oh, by the way, not only are you going to spend all day away from us in the company of a teacher you've never met and don't know, but she's going to call you this other name." I imagine that would be very distressing to any child.

JR: Can you touch on the sense of displacement the Ganguli family experiences?

JL: Gogol's parents appear most at home when they go back to Calcutta, where there is a certain sort of blissful abandonment of a...level of anxiety and uncertainty that they carry with them as foreigners. I think it's impossible, virtually impossible, to live as a foreigner in any country. No matter how at ease, affluent, educated, articulate you are. When it's not your place, it's not your place.

"I'm the least experimental writer. The idea of trying things just for the sake of pushing the envelope, that's never really interested me."
—Jhumpa Lahiri, from an interview in New York Magazine (2008)


Writers Corner (2006 Prose Fellowship)


  1. In the opening scene, Ashima is making a snack for herself, and near the end she prepares samosas for a party. Food plays a large role throughout the novel. How does the author use food to evoke specific emotions?
  2. This novel, less than 300 pages long, spans more than 30 years. What techniques does the author use to compress time and move the story forward?
  3. Much of the story is told in the present tense. Why would the author make this unusual choice?
  4. Maxine and her parents live in an elegant townhouse, while Gogol's family has an ordinary suburban house. How does the author use these two settings to help the reader understand these different families?
  5. Gogol's discomfort with his name is one of the novel's main themes. Also, Ashima never addresses her husband by his given name, because such a name is "intimate and therefore unspoken." What other names in the novel are important, and why?
  6. Gogol's sister Sonia is present in only a few scenes in the novel, and the story is never told from her point of view. Why do you think that Lahiri left her a less-developed character than Gogol? What purpose does she serve in the story?
  7. There are two train accidents in the novel, one involving Gogol and one his father. How are the two accidents linked, and how do they serve to drive the characters closer together, or farther apart?
  8. How does Gogol evolve as a character, from his first days of school to his life as an adult, with a profession and a wife? How does he stay the same?
  9. The author has stated in multiple interviews that she strives to write in a plain, unadorned way. What impact does her chosen style have on the reader?
  10. The Namesake is written in third person, but various characters serve as the "point of view" character, telling the story from their perspective. How many different "point of view" characters are there, and how does the author shift the narrative between them?

Audio

The Namesake Audio Guide

the_namesake.mp3

Audio Tabs

A National Endowment for the Arts audio guide for Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake featuring the author, Lillian Faderman, Kal Penn, Manil Suri, Vijay Iyer, and Deborah Treisman.

Download audio guide: 

Video

The Big Read: Discussion of Three New Books in the Catalog

Three new novels have been added to The Big Read library. Communities across the country will experience the conflicts of first-generation Americans in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake; embark on a quest to vanquish a father's murder in Charles Portis's True Grit; and join a mission to protect a town from the bandidos in Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North.

On February 26, 2013, Ira Silverberg led a discussion with Lahiri, Urrea, and Professor Carlo Rotella, who spoke about True Grit.

The Namesake Celebrates Indian Culture and Initiates Dialogue in Charlottesville, Virginia

“[We offered] a panel discussion on arranged marriage, a live arts night at the University of Virginia featuring performances by award-winning student singing and dancing groups, henna programs, a photograph exhibit titled That ABCD Life that featured the experiences of “American Born Confused Desi” and the premier of the film The Ashimas of Charlottesville, which followed women who migrated from India directly to our community. This was followed by a panel discussion with the women from the film moderated by the filmmaker. The Indian community also invited the wider community to a potluck Holi spring celebration in honor of the Big Read. A joint concert we presented with SPICAMACAY and the Hindu Students Council drew 320 adults and 160 students to a performance by teens, university students and adult community members at the University.

Man reads a quote about “ABCD Life” written on a whiteboard. Whiteboard rests on a table decorated with Hindu statues, flowers, and copies of The Namesake. Behind, a wall displays photographs as part of the exhibit.

ABCD = American Born Confused Desi. Why are they confused? What goes on in the minds of these people, split between two cultures? “That ABCD Life,” a photo exhibit by Madhavi Reddi seeks to share the sentiments of Indian-Americans from all over the country. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Madison Regional Library

The Namesake’s themes of the universal immigrant experience, family relations and the struggle for identity while transitioning from childhood to adulthood resonated with our readers. Book discussion members shared their families’ immigration stories as well as insights on intergenerational relations. The Indian community was thrilled to share their traditions with wider community, such as when they opened participation in their annual Holi celebration to Big Read participants. One young man frequently posted flyers for his mother’s Bengali cooking class at the library. We asked him if he thought his mother might like to do a program for our Big Read. He came back the next week to tell us that his mother loved The Namesake, that it was her story in America and that she insisted that we work together.”

– from a report by the Jefferson Madison Regional Library, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2014-15.

The Namesake Gets People Talking about the Meaning of Names in Reading, Massachusetts

“Each attendee had a place setting with their name, its origin and meaning. A big ‘nametag’ was provided to each staff member to write down and share the meaning of their name, why that name was chosen and who, if anyone, was their namesake. This proved to be a really wonderful way to connect to The Namesake; fostering conversations around culture, family, and identity in the novel as well as our own lives. Due to the success of this activity we continued to use it in all the discussion groups we facilitated to great effect.”

 A library display in front of a Name Game poster featuring books and other items on the theme of names and genealogy

: A library display featuring the theme of names and genealogy. Photo courtesy of Reading Public Library

– from a report by the Reading Public Library, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-2014.

Community Members Learn How to Wrap Saris in Spearfish, South Dakota

The Matthews Opera House and Arts Center (MOH) created a successful series of events that included art projects, a film festival, library story times, art exhibits, school residencies, and musical performances. MOH staff, in conjunction with its partners all over town and a student studying abroad in India, worked to make sure that the program gave participants an “eye opening” experience by exposing them to issues and ways of life different from their own.

Four picture collage: two female event participants in saris; a teacher and two youngsters in front of a world map; students watching a sitar player; two women holding an open sari starting a wrapping demonstration

Top left: A mother and daughter participating in sari wrapping demonstration. Photo by Joshua Feist. Top right: Local residents trace their origins on a world map. Courtesy of The Matthews Opera House and Arts Center. Bottom left: Ashwin Batish Ensemble leading an elementary classroom workshop. Photo by Joshua Feist.
Bottom right: A sari wrapping demonstration. Photo by Joshua Feist.

– from a report by the Matthews Opera House and Arts Center, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-2014.