In ‘The Namesake,’ novelist Jhumpa Lahiri’s quirky characters illustrate cultural tradition in turmoil

It was on a recent 4-hour bus ride to Boston that I first opened Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, “The Namesake,” and met Gogol Ganguli. He introduced himself as the son of Bengali parents, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli and the older brother of Jhumpa Lahiri was the winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize of fiction for her short story collection “Interpreter of Maladies.” Her first book was an intellectual bestseller, praised for its distinctive, elegant and deceptively simple voice. For months, Lahiri was the center of attention in literary circles.

I confessed that while I owned a copy of Lahiri’s first publication, it had lain untouched on my bookshelf. Gogol didn’t mind; he assured me that he understood completely because it had taken him 14 years to finally open a birthday present from his father, “The Short Stories By Nikolai Gogol.”

As the bus drove on, I slowly lost track of time. For a change, I didn’t have to deal with annoying passengers pressing me against the windowpane, snoring into my ears, or poking their noses in front of my face.

My new acquaintance continued to talk to me about this and that; his down-to-earth, modest and melancholic personality absorbing me completely. Out of a sudden urge to express my admiration, I congratulated him for his creative mother, who had scaled his character to actual human existence – with none of the self-conscious, unappeasable literary flourish that makes the reader stumble, sentence after sentence. Despite Gogol’s mostly unremarkable life of mundane experiences, Lahiri writes about his daily struggles with an incredible gift to inhabit emotional spaces. I was impressed.

We hit it off right away. Although Gogol was a fictional character, we were on the same wavelength. He began to talk about his expatriate parents, who held on to their “annoying” Indian traditions; how he used detest their annual trips to Calcutta to visit grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who were basically strangers to him and his sister; and his parents’ parents disapproval of his sloppy America friends and snobby girlfriends. Oh, he felt so embarrassed when his mother refused to wear anything but her Bengali sari and when his father randomly got into conversations with fellow countrymen on the street or in taxicabs. Of course, his parents gave in to their children’s American way of life.

In the end, they had to admit that Sonia and he “sounded just like Americans, expertly conversing in a language that still at times confounded them, in accents they were accustomed not to trust.” Maybe he was just another “American-born confused deshi,” who struggled with his identity and belonging. His name didn’t help lessen his confusion: “it is both absurd and obscure, it has nothing to do with who he is. . .it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian.”

After listening to his guilty conscience, I persuaded Gogol that there was no reason to suffer. We all went through the same parental distress; it didn’t matter where your parents came from. I assured him that I, for instance, always blushed when my mother started cursing in her Spanish accent in public areas, or when she would blasted her salsa music through the entire house.

But would I go so far as to change my name, Gogol interrupted? He had committed that mistake – everyone knew him as Nikhil – in his struggle to transform himself and escape the traditions of his family and Indian community. To me, Nikhil seemed a good alternative. Of course he agreed with my commentary, but he still argued that it didn’t matter how much we created and what choices we made, we couldn’t escape our origins. That was his last advice.

I have finished “The Namesake,” but as a testament to Lahiri’s prowess as a weaver of stories, I have not stopped thinking of Gogol Ganguli. His character will always remain vividly in my mind, like a long-lost friend that I have yet to meet.

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