The family saga is a tried-and-true literary genre, one that usually follows a central clan as they grow, marry, have children, age and eventually die. There’s a certain rhythm to these types of stories — unlike so many other novels, they don’t focus on a particular period or event in the main characters’ lives, but rather the grand, sweeping arc of a generation or sometimes generations.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is such a novel. The narrative follows the Ganguli family, starting with patriarch Ashoke’s close encounter with death as a young man when he survives a train crash in his native India. On the train, he happened to be reading a book by his favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. So it is that years later, when he is living in America with his new wife, Ashima, he decides to give their newborn son the pet name “Gogol.” It soon becomes his given name, but for years little Gogol is unaware of the significance behind it.
We follow the family as Gogol grows from child to teenager, and becomes increasingly alienated from his parents’ immigrant way of doing things. He’s the quintessential first-generation American son. He never speaks to them in Bengali, and he’s embarrassed by their idiosyncrasies. He is also increasingly embarrassed by his strange name. When he turns fourteen, Ashoke gives Gogol a little volume of Nikolai Gogol stories, but Gogol barely gives it a glance. Throughout the book, the theme comes back again and again to the contentious relationship Gogol has with his name and ultimately his heritage, his birthright.
Besides this question of heritage, another one of the themes that’s very effectively dealt with is death. Ashoke’s near-death experience as a young man continues to color his understanding of the world in the decades that follow. It gives him a deep appreciation for life and for his family, including his two terribly American children.
So when Ashoke dies unexpectedly while on a business trip years later, it feels for Ashima, Gogol and his sister that it is far too soon. The shock of the experience is sparsely, skillfully expressed in Lahiri’s narrative: Ashima speaks to Ashoke on the phone after he has checked himself into the emergency room — it seems like something minor, he asks her to make a doctor’s appointment for him when he gets home. Later that evening, she is trying to reach him, and she calls the hospital to inquire after him. This is when a nurse tells her that her husband has “expired.”
Expired. A word used for library cards, for magazine subscriptions. A word which, for several seconds, has no effect whatsoever on Ashima.
‘No, no, it must be a mistake,’ Ashima says calmly, shaking her head, a small laugh escaping from her throat. ‘My husband is not there for an emergency. Only for a stomachache.’
‘I’m sorry, Mrs… Ganguli, is it?’ (168-169)
Gogol, the prodigal son, leaves his swanky, independent life in New York City to help, flying to Cleveland to claim the body and pack up his father’s temporary apartment. “Thinking of his father living here, alone these past three months, he feels the first threat of tears, but he knows that his father did not mind, that he was not offended by such things.” (174) In the apartment, Gogol finds sneakers, flip-flops, a photo of the family on the refrigerator, four plates, two mugs, four glasses, some tea and sugar and rice. He cancels the utilities, calls his father’s workplace, returns the leased car.
These mundane activities are, for Gogol, at once therapeutic and unfulfilling. After packing up all of his father’s belongings, he lies on the couch to sleep, and unable to do so, thinks about what happened to his father. “Gogol imagines his father by the door, bending over to tie his shoelaces for the last time. Putting on his coat and scarf and driving to the hospital. Stopping at a traffic light, listening to the weather report on the radio, the thought of death absent from his mind.” (178)
This blunt portrayal of losing a loved one is refreshing in its candor, no extraneous explorations of feelings or soul-searching or analyzing relationships. It’s simply how the family deals with losing Ashoke, what they think about, what they do and how they proceed. Buoyed by Jhumpa Lahiri’s lucid, lovely writing, The Namesake treats the story of the Ganguli family with respect and honesty, so that we all see ourselves in their experiences, no matter how particular — it still feels universal.
If you enjoyed this post, check out our film review The Darjeeling Limited.
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