The Namesake, Lahiri’s first novel, tracks the life experiences of the Ganguli family. It begins in 1968, in Ashima Ganguli’s kitchen, as she attempts to recreate the taste of her favourite Indian snack. While she struggles unsuccessfully with Rice Krispies and spices, her waters break, and she is whisked to hospital to give birth to a baby boy. Her husband, Ashoke, is a professor at MIT, they live in a small apartment in Massachusetts, but when he joins her at the hospital they face a problem, the authorities won’t allow them to leave with their baby until it is given a name. The staff are ignorant of the cultural difference which allow for Bengali families to spend a good deal of time and deliberation before deciding their child’s name. Thus, Ashima and Ashoke are forced to enter a pet name as formal name - Gogol. But they still wait for news of Gogol’s formal name, the privilege of which, according to family tradition, is given to Ashima’s grandmother in Calcutta. We are told that the Grandmother thinks of two names, one for a boy, one for a girl, and folds them into a letter bound for America. She tells no-one else of the names. Ashima and Ashoke wait patiently for the letter, many months, but it does not arrive, and then Ashima is told the sad news that her Grandmother has suffered a stroke, and can remember very little of anything. This news is quickly followed by that of Ashima’s father’s death.
By page 63 Ashima and Ashoke are both orphaned, and Gogol is entered into a local elementary school with the formal name of Nikhil, a Bengali name meaning ‘he who is entire’, but a name that also links to his pet name by virtue of the association with Nikolai Gogol, his father’s favourite writer. Ashima gives birth to another child, a girl, which they call Sonali. On his first day at elementary school Gogol is asked which name he would prefer; he shuns his parents’ wishes and sticks with his pet name, a decision he comes to regret in high-school, to the extent that he will appear before a judge in order that it can be changed. Throughout his university career at Yale he is thenceforth known as Nikhil. Sonali later becomes, though misuse and convenience, Sonia. These name changes are important details; the deliberate development of Gogol, to Nikhil, and later to Nick, illuminate hidden concerns and his feelings for the society in which he lives with neat precision; Gogol is a name which excludes him from the normalcy of American names; in a graveyard on a school excursion where the children take etchings from gravestones he is struck by the oddity of Victorian names such as Ezekiel and Uriah, and feels comforted; years later when his wife reveals his pet name to her friends he is hurt by the revelation; towards the end of the book he realises with sadness that no-one will call him Gogol after his mother dies. The name comes to represent an alter-ego that shames him, irritates him, consoles him, worries him, and it is only at the book’s close that he starts to read Gogol’s short stories for the first time.
At Yale, where he majors in Architecture, he has his first serious affair with a girl called Ruth. Their blossoming relationship, however, is interrupted by a year abroad which she spends in Oxford. He goes on to have two more important relationships, one with the well-to-do Maxine, an assistant editor of an art publisher who lives on her own floor of the family home, and then Moushimi, a family friend, mothers conspiring successfully to see them married. His relationship with Maxine breaks up because of the death of his father. A training architect at this stage, at a firm in New York, he is seduced by the welcoming elitism of Maxine’s family; he lives with her in their house, enjoys their food, informed chat, and wine, and reminds himself with discomfiture of his formerly insular, intellectually dull family life. The death of his father, however, jolts himself into a guilty recognition of this cultural treachery. Hestays wwith his mother for a long time after the death, and when he moves back to New York makes a habit of visiting her on the weekends alone, which Maxine finds intolerable. His marriage to Moushimi, tellingly known as ‘Mouse’ by her lover, only lasts for a year after she lets slip that she is having an affair. The book ends in the year 2000, at a last Christmas gathering before Ashima moves to Calcutta.
Lahiri writes of relationships, love, sex, and the complications of passion, with prose that is direct, accurate and touching. She is never melodramatic, nor over-elaborate, and she navigates the difficult issues of mixed-race romance, guilt, adultery, and cultural alienation and compromise, with expertise. Furthermore she is a writer who touches the heart. One cannot help feeling, at the end of The Namesake, when Ashima prepares to divide her life between America and India, Sonia marries, and the divorced Gogol begins his new job, that a life has been unravelled entirely, with all its moments of joy, love, pain, difficulty, and subtlety, and considering the book falls short of three-hundred pages, this is a remarkable achievement. The Namesake is the work of an accomplished stylist and a questioning mind.