In Anne of Green Gables, Anne muses: “How do you know but that it hurts a geranium’s feelings just to be called a geranium and nothing else?”
The act of naming is one of primary importance — from PEI to India — and, as Jhumpa Lahiri explains in The Namesake, in Bengali culture, this importance is compounded by each person having two names.
If Anne’s flower had been a Bengali geranium, it would have been given a pet name (a daknam, which is used by friends, family and intimates, in private) and a good name (a bhalonam, which is used for identification in the outer world). “Within Bengali families, individual names are sacred, inviolable.”
Readers who have no familiarity with Bengali culture need not be anxious when entering the world sketched by this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author. From the novel’s first pages, when Ashima is calling out to her husband in the next room, shortly before the birth of their child, she does not use his first name and that omission is explained, matter-of-factly, in unadorned prose.
Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t writing a textbook; the information is shared in the context of the story. But it’s not always straightforward because Ashima and Ashoke are adjusting to their new life in America, so their culture is evolving as their interaction with varying elements of American culture intensifies.
That child Ashima births in the opening pages is first known as Gogol. He is “the namesake”. And it’s fitting the novel opens with a birth, as it’s a story about origins and outcomes, about emergence and identity, about life and living.
In reading this novel, readers may, at times, find themselves sharing in a sense of wonder and, shortly afterwards, sharing the desire to recoil. Here is a glimpse of the breadth of emotions that crosses from characters to reader, from Ashima’s early experience of motherhood:
“One day she lifts him [Gogol] high over her head, smiling at him with her mouth open, and a quick stream of undigested milk from his last feeding rises from his throat and pours into her own. For the rest of her life she will recall the shock of that warm, sour liquid, a taste that leaves her unable to swallow another thing for the rest of the day.”
It’s not simple. And how could it be? For in addition to all the shifting identities that unfold as people’s lives change, the Ganguli family is pulled meaningfully in two directions, slipping from one culture to the next.
Sometimes this sensation is magnified by weekend events and celebrations in local gatherings of Bengali families, other times by longer holidays in Calcutta, and once by an eight-month-long stay overseas. That’s a long time to be away from what has become everyday life; it is not a holiday, it’s all-encompassing. But then they return to America. “And so the eight months are put behind them, quickly shed, quickly forgotten, like clothes worn for a special occasion, or for a season that has passed, suddenly cumbersome, irrelevant to their lives.”
How does one identify when one is subject to vastly different — sometimes outright conflicting — influences? How does one establish a home when one has left their home behind? What does love mean — and what does it become — in the context of shifting identities?
In some ways, The Namesake is very much a story about place. At times, the story feels rooted in geography, in streets and buildings. Ashima, in short order, can recount the addresses at which she has lived, only five houses: “ her parents’ flat in Calcutta, her in-laws’ house for one month, the house they rented in Cambridge, living below the Montgomerys, the faculty apartment on campus, and, lastly, the one they own now. One hand, five homes. A lifetime in a fist.”
But in other ways, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is more about belonging. In this way, even though the characters we meet in its early pages are Bengali, it’s not a story that’s all-that-different from Anne Shirley’s. Even though Anne’s story is rooted in PEI, millions of readers have responded to her story because they understand her quest to belong, to a place, yes, but more so to other people who recognize her for the person she is, the person she becomes. The Namesake is a richly detailed novel about belonging and becoming.
Companion Reads: Dennis Bock’s Olympia (stories, 1998); David Bezmozgis’ Natasha (stories, 2003); Anar Ali’s Baby Khaki’s Wings (stories, 2006)