Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Namesake ~ by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake ~ by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2003, fiction
"The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question." -- Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat
In this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri explores just about everything about names.  Her main character is Gogol Ganguli, named for the author quoted above because his father loves "The Overcoat" story.  Considering his name, he thinks:  "This writer he is named after -- Gogol isn't his first name.  His first name is Nikolai.  Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name.  And so it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name.  Not even the source of his namesake" (page 78).
Apart from his father, the baby has three visitors, all Bengali ... Maya and Dilip give the boy a rattle and a baby book, with places for his parents to commemorate every possible aspect of his infancy. ... Dr. Gupta gives the boy a handsome illustrated copy of Mother Goose rhymes.  "Lucky boy," Ashoke remarks, turning the beautifully sewn pages.  "Only hours old and already the owner of books" (page 24).
Lahiri also explores identity.  Your name gives you one kind of identity, but so do other things, like owning books.  This book focuses on national identity and the confusion immigrants feel while trying to assimilate.  In an interview, Lahiri said,
"I have always been interested in why so many Indians come to America, because typically it is for very different reasons from, say, those of many of the European groups who have come, and those of many non-European groups as well.  On the whole, Indians are not escaping some sort of dire political situation, a war, a famine, or social or religious persecution. ... [My parents] were here for the sake of greater opportunities, perhaps a better standard of living."
Jhumpa Lahiri was born 1967 in London, England, and raised in Rhode Island.  Her parents were from India.  Not only is our world growing smaller, but our cultures are being mixed together as never before (at least in the United States and many European countries).  It is incumbent upon us to try to understand these differences so we can live together in harmony.

==================== ( 8 of 10, a very good book )

1. How did you get your name? Were you named for someone? Do you know what your name means? Who chose it for you? Do you like your name? Do you have a nickname?
2. One of the characters in the book has his name legally changed. Have you ever wanted to change your name?
3. This book is all about names. Moushumi complains that someone "mispronounced [her name], as most people did" (page 258). Then she explains how her name SHOULD be pronounced. Is your name, first or last, one that seems to confuse people? Do you have a usual way of telling them how to say it?
4. Astrid says, "It just feels like such a huge responsibility to name a baby. What if he hates it?" (page 243) How did you choose names for your children?
5. Do you know why your ancestors came to this country? Do you know when they came?
6. Identity is a difficult thing for immigrants and their children. Jhumpa Lahiri said, in an interview, "As a young child, I felt that the Indian part of me was unacknowledged, and therefore somehow negated, by my American environment, and vice versa. I felt that I led two very separate lives." Has anything like this ever been a problem for you? Did The Namesake help you understand the immigrant experience? In what ways?
7. Which culture, other than your own, would you like to understand better?

Click here for a video, author interview, and discussion questions:
Another look at this book: http://literaryfeline.blogspot.com/2007/03/namesake-by-jhumpa-lahiri.html
March 11, 2008 update:
Read this NYT article: "Bad Baby Names" by J. Marion Tierney