Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her very first book, a story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies, plus a bunch of other awards and honors. That was in 2000. Three years later she released her next work, a novel, The Namesake. OK, so I am only thirteen years late for getting on the bandwagon for this wonderful writer. But I have an excuse, if I can only think of one.
The story follows the life of Asima, a Bengali woman who marries a young Bengali fellow only hours after meeting him, in accordance with custom in India. He has been studying in the USA and has been looking for a wife, and has come home to finalize the agreed-upon union. After the ceremony, they immediately leave for Cambridge, Mass., where he is a doctoral student and teacher at the university.
In the years before he goes to the USA for study, Ashoke Ganguli is on an overnight train journey, but cannot sleep, so instead of making up his berth, he sits up reading one of his favorite authors, Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat. The train is involved in a terrible accident, and everyone in the sleeping car is killed except our young man, destined to be the husband of Asima, who is thrown partway through a window, and is eventually saved by rescuers.
Fast forward to Cambridge, Mass, circa 1971. He is always working or studying and Ashima is left on her own in a small unpleasant apartment where she has no acquaintances, nothing. And so begins the story of the immigrant experience, the loneliness, the ways of coping and integrating into a new culture and society.
The Gangulis become pregnant, and since this is 1971 and there is no internet, no email, no Skype, they write a real honest-to-goodness paper letter to the family with the good news. The custom (of at least this family) is for the elderly matriarch of the family to name the newborns, so the Gangulis wait excitedly for the letter which will contain their child’s name. In addition, the custom is to have a pet name, for only the family to use, and a ‘good name’, a formal name for use in public and on official documents. The elderly matriarch in India decides on names, one for a boy, one for a girl, and hobbles out personally to the post office to mail the important letter.
The baby is born, and the letter has still not arrived. The hospital is pressuring them to choose a name for the birth certificate. The Gangulis stall as long as possible, but are eventually forced to pick something, anything in order for the hospital to release their son. They are at a loss, until dad says, ‘Gogol’. His favorite writer, Gogol’s book having saved Ashoke’s very life, they will use that name for his family pet name, and put it on the birth certificate, and later, when the letter finally arrives, change his name officially so that he can have a ‘good name’ when he enters school.
The letter never arrives, and before he registers for school, his mother in desperation chooses some formal name, and registers him with that name. When it is clear that young Gogol does not even know that name, and insists that his name is Gogol, the school administration changes his formal name on all documents to Gogol. His mother and father are horrified ….. their child being known by all and sundry by his pet name, but nothing they can do reverses the action.
The book is all about Gogol growing up, sometimes hating his name until very late in his adolescence when his father finally tells him how he got his name. Before he goes to college, he secretly files to officially change his name to his ‘good’ name, and for many years is known by that, but learns that names are less important than our family ties.
It is a beautiful story, following the family members to the deaths of the parents, following Gogol’s life as he matures and finds his way in the world. It is just a wonderful book, and if you are like me and have not yet read it, I urge you to add it to you TBR list. It is a look into a culture that is foreign to me, gives me a bit of insight into the way a family can sustain its members through good and bad.
You know, I never liked the name my parents gave me. It was old fashioned even before I was born. I never appreciated that I was named after a grandmother who had died long before I came into the world. So I used a nickname And you know? Frankly, I never really liked that name, either. I discovered when I moved to Mexico that my formal name is actually rather common here, and one time an immigration officer smiled at me and told me proudly it was her name, too. I came to like it a lot more after that.
I often wonder how many of us dislike our names.
In case you were curious about Nikolai Gogol, (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) I did the heavy lifting for you. Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was born in 1809 and died in 1852. He was a Russian dramatist, novelist and short story writer of Ukrainian ethnicity. Russian and Ukrainian scholars still
fight over debate whether or not Gogol was of their respective ethnicities. His work is considered to be romanticism with strains of surrealism and the grotesque.
The Overcoat, the story that Ashoke was reading at the time of the train accident, is about Akaky Akakievich (“Poopy Pooperson” in rough translation), an impoverished civil servant and scrivener, who must maintain his respectability by possessing a decent overcoat. How he gains a new overcoat, loses that overcoat, and seeks to have the overcoat restored to him constitutes the whole of the story.
Dostoevsky has been quoted as saying, “We all come from under Gogol’s Overcoat”, and it is true that much of Russian literature can be glimpsed in this single short story: it is a satire ranging from buffoonery to social commentary, a realist work rooted in naturalistic detail that sometimes descends to the grotesque and the surreal, and yet remains compassionate, maintaining its sympathy for all of us humans and our tragic and ludicrous plight.
I lifted this plot description word for word from a review by Bill Kerwin in Goodreads. I am not Melania Trump. I tell you when I am plagiarizing.