National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Namesake

The Namesake

by Jhumpa Lahiri

That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.


Jhumpa Lahiri. Photo by Elena Seibert.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

How many times does a person write his name in a lifetime — a million? Two million?

Josephine Reed: That’s actor Kal Penn reading from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Welcome to The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to unite communities through literature. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

Lillian Faderman: The Namesake is about two generations of an Indian family. The mother and father are Bengali and they’ve come to the United States so that the father can get his Ph.D. in engineering.

Vijay Iyer: It’s largely the story of the son, his name is quite spectacularly, Gogol Ganguli. Gogol as in the Russian author, Nikolai Gogol.

Manil Suri: And his search for identity, his attempts to reconcile both the Indian and American parts of his identity.

Jhumpa Lahiri: I think more loosely it’s about the process of becoming American.

Reed: The Namesake may be Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, but the young author had already received multiple honors for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, including the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Hemingway award. Published in 2003, The Namesake continues her exploration of the cultural dissonance experienced by first and second generation Bengali immigrants to the United States. In The Namesake, Lahiri introduces the Ganguli family who find themselves in Cambridge, Massachusetts where husband Ashoke pursues graduate studies in engineering at MIT. He and his wife, Ashima, barely know one another, as they left India for Massachusetts soon after an arranged marriage. They were part of the wave of immigrants who came to the United States as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Musician Vijay Iyer was born in the United States to Indian parents.

Iyer: A change in immigration law in the ‘60s opened the door to a lot of non-Western immigrants, particularly those with scientific and technical training, which then accounts for a lot of the clichés you tend to receive about the Indian community, that we’re a bunch of doctors and engineers. That’s partly because those are the people that the U.S. initially let in.

Reed: Born in London in 1967 to Bengali parents, Jhumpa Lahiri was three when her family moved to Rhode Island. We can see traces of the Lahiri family's immigration experiences echoed in the Ganguli's. Author Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: When I ask my father why did you leave India? And really he says I wanted to know what was out there. It’s not a pressing, it’s not that we were going to be sent away to a concentration camp. It’s not that same kind of situation. It was a choice, in other words. It was more of a choice. It was less of a need.

Reed: Deborah Treisman is the Fiction Editor of The New Yorker.

Deborah Treisman: It’s a voluntary emigration. And at the same time it is difficult. It is emotionally difficulty and probably more difficult psychologically than they bargained on.

Reed: Ashima feels increasingly alienated in this foreign country with its cold climate, strange food, language, people and sensibilities. When she discovers that she's pregnant, the disconnection from all that she knows and all whom she loves threatens to overwhelm her. Deborah Treisman

Treisman: Ashima is afraid to have a child in this country because for her, childbirth and the creation of family is very much tied into the larger family, the extended family in India and cousins and aunts and uncles. And here she is in a country where she has her husband and that’s it.

Reed: Writer, Lillian Faderman.

Faderman: This is a young woman who married at the age of 19, an arranged marriage. She’s disoriented at the idea of having to go to a hospital to have a child.

Reed: Novelist and mathematician, Manil Suri.

Suri: It’s a very different situation if you give birth in India because you just have this enormous support system from your family, which unfortunately Ashima doesn’t have.

Penn: It’s not so much the pain which she knows somehow she will survive, but she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: Her life is spare in that it has very few attachments. It’s quite plain. She has a pared down existence in this home while her husband is out. And it’s tentative because she makes very tentative steps into this new culture and into this new life.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: When people from a very distinct culture like India come to the U.S., there’s a lot of nostalgia for the ways of the old country; lots of attempts to actually recreate India or wherever you’ve come from in this land, in this new land of immigrants. And that’s why you can find in most urban areas a Little India or a Little Saigon where immigrants have found a community, have founded a community. They’ve managed to really recreate restaurants and shops and so on that remind them of their home country. So that’s kind of the physical part of assimilation. And then there’s also the cultural and the emotional part, which is much harder. How do you actually live in a place that might be completely alien to you?

Penn: For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy, a perpetual weight, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.

Faderman: I think that children can't appreciate how difficult that is for the immigrant generation, and I know that I couldn't appreciate it in my mother until I thought more deeply about her when I wrote my book My Mother's Wars.

Reed: Lillian Faderman explores immigration and assimilation in her two memoirs, Naked in the Promised Land and My Mother's Wars.

Faderman: My mother, of course, is an immigrant from Latvia, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant. I realized as I wrote that book how astonishing it was for a seventeen-year-old, as my mother was, to come to this country not knowing the language, knowing almost no one, and wanting, trying as best she could to become American, to adjust to this society. I think that Gogol's parents have the same kinds of challenges and the same incredible bravery to do what they did, to become immigrants, to find a new culture and adjust to it as best they can.

Reed: Although both find life in the United States requires a great deal of adjustment, Ashima feels the burden of dislocation more keenly than Ashoke.

Faderman: I think Ashoke, he comes to America and I think he adjusts much more quickly than Ashima can adjust. And the reason for that is that he’s out in the world. He becomes a professor. They move. He’s involved with the faculty. Ashima is at home with her children and tries to create a whole new community, a Bengali community in the little town where they finally move so that her husband can take an academic job.

Reed: Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: I think to come to a new country certainly is bewildering no matter who and when and what circumstances, but to come with a purpose, to come with a job, to enter into some kind of an institution, whether it’s a university or a company. You’re here because you’re needed.

Reed: Yet at home, Ashoke is a reticent if loving figure, reluctant to reveal to his children the challenges that shaped his life. Manil Suri.

Suri: The father is not entirely successful in actually conveying to his son exactly what hardships and what cultural difficulties he has overcome.

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: The father was in a gigantic train accident when he was a young man that he nearly died from. And many people around him did perish. And somehow he survived and at the time he was clutching this book of Gogol’s short stories. He was pretty badly injured by this accident and he spent a year in bed recovering.

Reed: Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: It was of enormous impact on his life and sort of put him on his path, opened the door to a new life and a new everything so it's lived with him.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

He was raised without running water, nearly killed at twenty-two. Again, he tastes the dust on his tongue, sees the twisted train, the giant overturned iron wheels. None of this was supposed to happen. But no, he had survived it. He was born twice in India, and then a third time, in America. Three lives by thirty. For this he thanks his parents, and their parents, and the parents of their parents. He does not thank God; he openly reveres Marx and quietly refuses religion. But there is one more dead soul he has to thank.… Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life…

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: He carried that sort of as a secret for a while, but when it came to their firstborn, Ashoke chose to give his son this nickname, Gogol.

Reed: Traditionally, in India, when a child is born, a respected relative like a grandmother gives him or her what’s called a "good"name.The good name is the child’s official formal name, it's the public name; the name he or she will be known by in school, and throughout his or her adult life. But children are also given more intimate “pet” names. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: The pet name for a Bengali is very much a household name, not at school, though, because the school friends would know you with your proper name, your good name. And 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. So the formal name, the good name, is really for other people.

Reed: Deborah Treisman

Treisman: There’s a complication at his birth where the parents are waiting for him to be given a name by a grandmother back in India, but her letter doesn’t arrive and he doesn’t get this name. So he’s given instead as his actual legal name what should have been a pet name.

Reed: But when Gogol enters school and is told by his parents that there he will be called by his good name rather than Gogol, he resists.

Treisman: When he starts school he is supposed to be starting school as Nikhil, his formal, official name. But that name for him, it's not him, it's not his identity. He hasn't grown up in a tradition where everyone has two names. So this name is him, and he insists on keeping it.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: Having pet names and more formal good names is something that’s widespread in all of India. I can really empathize with Nikhil, or Gogol, because I myself had a pet name. It was a short form of my middle name, which is Nithan; and the pet name was Nitu. And so for many years that’s all I was called. Now when I went to school, my parents made it clear that I was supposed to be called by my true name, which is Manil. And so what happened was this duality where people in school called me one name and then all my neighbors and friends and parents called me my pet name.

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: Growing up Indian in America, you know, you’re marked by all of this difference and navigating difference is a sort of primary narrative of your day to day life, especially in those beginning years when our community was very scarce. So you already have brown skin and you don’t look like anybody else. Your family has different household habits and dietary habits and different set of friends. And you have this last name that nobody can pronounce. And then on top of that you have this bizarre first name that, that isn’t even a first name. It was a surname of a Russian writer. So Gogol the boy grows up resenting this.

Reed: Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: Gogol is, I think, 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, I think, of wanting to be accepted and not questioned.

Reed: The normal angst of adolescence is compounded for Gogol by his increasing desire to blend in with his peers. His shyness with girls is heightened by his sense of difference. This comes into sharp focus at a party where he’s certain that the simple act of introducing himself as Gogol Ganguli will raise questions about his background that he doesn’t want to answer.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

He wishes there was another name he could use, just this once, to get him through the evening. It wouldn’t be so terrible.… He could introduce himself as Colin, or Jason or Marc, as anybody at all, and their conversation could continue, and she would never know or care.… But then he realizes there’s no need to lie. Not technically. He remembers the other name that had once been chosen for him, the one that should have been.
"I’m Nikhil." he says for the first time in his life.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: When he adopts this name Nikhil and he takes on this other identity which is the identity of an independent young man he’s no longer quite part of his family.

Reed: Lillian Faderman.

Faderman: There’s some ambivalence always about who this child is who’s an American. That they can’t quite recognize, can’t quite control. So he in many ways Nikhil, “Nik,” as he wants to be known as an adult, he’s quite autonomous.

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: And when he goes to college he decides to change his name to Nikhil which was a good name for him but it never really took hold. And so he actually goes through the legal rigmarole himself of changing his name as a teenager.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

The idea to change his name had first occurred to him a few months ago.…
That night at the dinner table, he brought it up with his parents.
…“No one takes me seriously,” Gogol said.
“Who? Who does not take you seriously?” his father wanted to know, lifting his fingers from his plate, looking up at him.
“People,” he said, lying to his parents. For his father had a point; the only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished it were otherwise, was Gogol. And yet, he’d continued, saying that they should be glad, that his official name would be Bengali, not Russian.
“Then change it,” his father said simply, quietly, after a while.
“Really?”
“In America, anything is possible. Do as you wish.”

Reed: Welcome back to The Big Read. Today, we're discussing Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, The Namesake.

Reed: Tired of feeling like an outsider, the Ganguli's son legally changes his name from Gogol to Nikhil. Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: So then he’s officially Nikhil Ganguli when he’s an undergraduate.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: He becomes a slightly different person, and he becomes slightly unrecognizable to himself. It goes back to that his childhood insistence on keeping Gogol as his name because that was part of his identity, he loses that part of his identity. And he hasn’t quite built an up alternative identity to go with the name Nikhil. So I think there’s a struggle there at that point in the book.

Reed: Gogol, now Nikhil, lives as an architect in New York City where he finds it increasingly detached from his Bengali heritage. This detachment becomes more pronounced when he falls in love with a non-Indian woman from an upper-middle class family. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: And he ends up being involved with a very American woman who lives with her parents.

Suri: So when Gogol meets Maxine…

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: …he is really looking at her family, at her interaction with her parents and comparing them to what he has with his parents.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: He’s very seduced by the traditions of this family which are so different from his own.

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: They have this big brownstone that they live in, so he ends up going to their house and checking out the way that they live and they seem to be so at ease in their own skin.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: He’s really struck by the fact that there is not this parent/child hierarchy that is common in India. Maxine’s parents are more like friends to her, they’re like pals to her, and they go out for dinners together and things like that. And they’re very "with it." And so he’s always kind of wishing that his parents had some more of that kind of character, that he was close to them in the same way.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: So when he sees adults of his parents’ age who are so fully immersed in the culture that he’s actually partially grown up in he’s compelled towards that.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

Quickly, simultaneously, he falls in love with Maxine, the house, and Gerald and Lydia’s manner of living, for to know her and love her is to know and love all these things.…
She is surprised to hear certain things about his life: that all his parents’ friends are Bengali, that they had had an arranged marriage, that his mother cooks Indian food every day, that she wears saris and a bindi.… To him the terms of his parents’ marriage are something at once unthinkable and unremarkable; nearly all their friends and relatives had been married in the same way. But their lives bear no resemblance to that of Gerald and Lydia.… Seeing the two of them curled up on the sofa in the evenings, Gerald’s head resting on Lydia’s shoulder, Gogol is reminded that in all of his life he has never witnessed a single moment of physical affection between his parents. Whatever love exists between them is an utterly private, uncelebrated thing.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: And this is, once again, part of his eternal struggle with his own identity, with his roots, and again, trying to say okay what’s the right thing to do in terms of being American? So he’s always circling around that question.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: Gogol is always on the cusp. He’s not one thing or the other. He’s not quite loyal. He’s not quite disloyal. He, he can’t quite cross this divide and this is what he struggles with throughout the book.

Reed: But Ashoke's sudden death pulls Gogol back to the Bengali traditions that he had been resisting. Lillian Faderman.

Faderman: When he learns of his father’s death that’s a huge turning point in Gogol’s life.

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: He has to kind of take on a position of strength and authority and has to represent tradition and culture.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

For ten days following his father’s death he and his mother and Sonia eat a mourner’s diet, forgoing meat and fish. They eat only rice and dal and vegetables, plainly prepared. Gogol remembers having to do the same thing when he was younger, when his grandparents died… He remembers, back then, being bored by it, annoyed at having to observe a ritual no one else he knew followed, in honor of people he had seen only a few times in his life. He remembers his father sitting unshaven on a chair, staring through them, speaking to no one. He remembers those meals eaten in complete silence, the television turned off. Now, sitting together at the kitchen table at six-thirty every evening, the hour feeling more like midnight through the window, his father’s chair empty, this meatless meal is the only thing that seems to make sense.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: The connection that he has to his father and his father’s culture is something that’s an integral part of his life. That’s something he has never acknowledged. He’s never really told his father how much this debt that he carries, this cultural debt that he carries means to him. And he doesn’t even know that it means anything to him. It’s only when you lose something that you realize its importance.

Reed: Lillian Faderman.

Faderman: Once his father dies, he understands what he lost in not honoring that connection with the father more.

Reed: Vijay Iyer.

Iyer: Through that whole process of mourning and suddenly being back with his family, with his mother and sister, bonding with them again he loses his sense of connection to this white woman Maxine that he’s been involved with for years and eventually their relationship ends because it doesn’t really make sense any more.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: He kind of veers towards the Indian direction and sort of tries to find those roots. And what that leads him to do is that he eventually finds Moushumi and marries her and this is an Indian-American woman who’s grown up in similar circumstances to him.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: Both of them as young adults have at least temporarily given up their rebellion against Bengali culture and they’ve come together and they can sympathize with each other and they share so many things.

Reed: Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: I imagine there’s some sense of comfort that they represent to one another, particularly after Gogol loses his father.

Reed: Deborah Treisman.

Treisman: It’s interesting to me that Gogol at this point has reached this state of greater acceptance and he’s coming to terms with himself, with his past, with his future in ways that she isn’t quite doing yet.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: And so this is a picture perfect marriage except that it also doesn’t work out. So at the end, you know, when his marriage dissolves he’s, again, left there still wondering about what his identity is.

Reed: Lillian Faderman.

Faderman: The conclusion of the novel is a sort of goodbye party for the mother because she's going to return to India where she'll live for six months.

Reed: Manil Suri.

Suri: And at I think at that point towards the end of the book is when he really decides that he’s going to look back into this very cryptic book by the Russian author Gogol that his father has named him after. He’s going to look into that and perhaps find the secret there.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

The spine cracks faintly when he opens it to the title page. The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. “For Gogol Ganguli,” it says on the front endpaper in his father’s tranquil hand, in red ballpoint ink, the letters rising gradually, optimistically, on the diagonal towards the upper right-hand corner of the page. “The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name” is written within quotation marks. Underneath the inscription, which he has never before seen, is his birthday, and the year, 1982.… The name he had so detested here hidden and preserved—that was the first thing his father had given him.

Treisman: The Namesake is in some ways very specific because it deals with the very specific details of Gogol’s life and the very specific details of Bengali immigrants in the Boston area. At the same time there are some things in these stories of immigration and first generation children of immigrants that are extremely universal.

Iyer: We are a nation of immigrants. Many people have lived versions of this story.

Suri:  Jhumpa Lahiri is saying that okay you’re going to have different facets of your identity. You’re going to be pulled in different directions but eventually you’re going to have to do the work. You’re going to have to live through all of these things, live through these identities and then try to shape and sculpt your own identity.

Treisman: And there’s something in Gogol’s search to fit in, to adjust, to assimilate, to absorb his parent’s traditions and yet be part of this new country that’s extremely universal I would say to all immigrant stories.

Faderman: This is the quintessential American story. It's the story that all of us have in our background somewhere. It's the story of immigrants who have to try as best they can to become Americans and their children who are born in this country and who try to escape from the immigrant culture but who come to realize ultimately that not only can you not totally escape, but you should honor the journey that your parents have been through, and you should honor what their lives meant and who they were because, of course, that's a part of you, it's a part of us.

Kal Penn reads from The Namesake

The givers and keepers of Gogol’s name are far from him now. One dead. Another, a widow, on the verge of a different kind of departure, in order to dwell, as his father does, in separate world.… Without people in the world to call him Gogol, no matter how long he himself lives, Gogol Ganguli will, once and for all, vanish from the lips of loved ones, and so, cease to exist. Yet, the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. Today’s program was written and produced by Adam Kampe. Kal Penn read the excerpts from The Namesake. Excerpts from Vijay Iyer's albums Solo, Tirtha, and Accelerando used courtesy of ACT Records. Excerpts from Indian Music for Sitar and Surbahar: For Love and Meditation by Ustad Imrat Khan, used courtesy of Lyrichord Discs, Inc. Special thanks to Stephen Cohen, J. Rachel Gustafson, and to our contributors: Lillian Faderman, Vijay Iyer, Manil Suri, Deborah Treisman, and of course, Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri: To me the book is so much about a process and something that doesn’t have a past, literally. I mean the family, the Ganguli family don’t have a past in America. That’s what the book is about. It’s about a beginning. It’s about a becoming. As I said in the beginning of our conversation, the book is about a family becoming American, trying to become American, falling short, succeeding, a range of experiences having to do with that process, something that’s not neat and clean, something that’s not obvious and easy but something that is possible and individual, individual for each family. And this is just one invented family’s invented set of experiences.

Reed: To find out more about the Big Read, go to NEABigRead.org, that’s NEABigRead.org. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m your host and executive producer, Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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