The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is my favorite novel.
Gogol (Nikhil) is the main character. It is his name that the title references, and the book follows his life. I find him absolutely fascinating. He goes through life with a certain level of dissatisfaction with everything, a combination of self-loathing and other-loathing. His heritage makes him feel like an outsider, and a lot of the movement in the story line comes from his balance of resisting and embracing his family.
In ways it is a universal tale: a coming-of-age story and the changes of perspective that growing up brings. But the story is also so specific, so particular to the Indian immigrant experience.
The story is sad but sweet. Poignant. And the writing is absolutely fantastic, with a lyrical quality. My favorite passage is Gogol’s fond memory of a trip to Cape Cod with his father.
He and his father had walked to the very tip, across the breakwater, a string of giant gray slanted stones, and then on the narrow, final inward crescent of sand. His mother had stopped after a few stones….’Don’t go too far,’ his mother had warned, ‘don’t go so that I can’t see you.’…He had expected his father to turn back, but still they had continued, stepping onto the sand. They walked along the water to the left, heading toward the lighthouse, past rusted boat frames, fish spines as thick as pipes attached to yellow skulls, a dead gull whose feathery white breast was freshly stained with blood….Finally they stood by the lighthouse, exhausted, surrounded by water on three sides, pale green in the harbor, azure behind….He heard his father cry out—they had left the camera with his mother. ‘All this way, and no picture,’ he’d said, shaking his head. ‘We will have to remember it, then.’….
‘Will you remember this day, Gogol?’ his father had asked, turning back to look at him, his hands pressed like earmuffs to either side of his head.
‘How long do I have to remember it?’…
‘Try to remember it always….Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.’ (pp. 185-187)
Indeed, Gogol does remember the day. In the book, it is told as a remembrance. The day was cold and reminders of aging and death—rust, skulls, blood—were all around. But on that cold day was a moment of solidarity with his father, the excitement of having a parent’s undivided attention. A bittersweet memory recounted with Lahiri’s poetic flair.
In my most recent reading, I paid closer attention to the parents, mother Ashima and father Ashoke, especially Ashima. Her story is also bittersweet, and her struggle to do the right thing by all of her family members—parents, husband, children—is also a universal tale. Like her son, she feels a conflict of cultures. But for her, it is the American culture that is foreign, but that she comes to accept. In this rereading, I noticed how hers is the truest story of resilience and survival.
For a few final hours she is alone in the house. Sonia has gone with Ben to pick up Gogol at the train station. It occurs to Ashima that the next time she will be by herself, she will be traveling, sitting on the plane. For the first time since her flight to meet her husband in Cambridge, in the winter of 1967, she will make the journey entirely on her own. The prospect no longer terrifies her. (p. 276)
This book is a masterpiece. All the ingredients are just right, and I look forward to reading it again and again in the years to come.