Calcutta Meets Boston In The Tale That Spans Three Generations: The Namesake By Jhumpa Lahiri

The first time I got the chance to read Jhumpa Lahiri's writing, I was in an Introduction to Literary Studies class at college, and I had no real knowledge of how to appreciate her writing.

But I picked up The Namesake two years later and thoroughly enjoyed listening to it via Libby, the Boston Public Library app. I also got a chance to read the paperback version of the book - something I rarely do when I pick up a book nowadays. 

I found myself drawn to The Namesake because I myself am an Indian immigrant, and the story made me wonder if by reading it I would feel more of a connection to my culture. I have lived in America for six years, and in Boston for three, so I sometimes find myself feeling like India, and Chennai, my Indian home, is a distant memory.

My experience reading The Namesake, which was published in 2003 and starts off in the 1960s, is one that has proved my hypothesis right, but it has also made me feel like I am not alone in the world, and there are probably other kids just like me who have one foot in the world of their own culture, and the other in America. 

Nilanjana Sudeshna "Jhumpa" Lahiri was born July 11, 1967, in London. She was born to West Bengali parents. She graduated from Barnard College with a B.A. in English Literature in 1989. After that, she got multiple degrees: an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from Boston College.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri

After several years of getting rejected, Lahiri got her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies published in 1999. Later she published The Namesake in 2003, and the book was previously published in The New Yorker before being turned into a full-length novel. 

She has published other works since then, including Unaccustomed Earth (2008), The Lowland (2013), and in 2018 she published her first Italian novel titled Dove mi trovo. 

Currently, Lahiri lives in Rome with her husband and their two children. 

What is The Namesake about?

The Namesake follows three generations of the Ganghouli family, starting with Ashima and Ashoke Gangouli, who had an arranged marriage and then moved from Calcutta (now known as Kolkatta) to Cambridge, Massachusetts. It also follows their first child Gogul as he comes of age and struggles with his identity and the two cultures he keeps having to navigate.

The namesake book cover
The Namesake

From the back of the book The Namesake

"Dazzling...An intimate, closely observed family portrait."—The New York Times

"Hugely appealing."—People Magazine

"An exquisitely detailed family saga."—Entertainment Weekly

Meet the Ganguli family, new arrivals from Calcutta, trying their best to become Americans even as they pine for home. The name they bestow on their firstborn, Gogol, betrays all the conflicts of honoring tradition in a new world—conflicts that will haunt Gogol on his own winding path through divided loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs.

In The Namesake, the Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri brilliantly illuminates the immigrant experience and the tangled ties between generations.

Main Characters in The Namesake

When I was listening to the audiobook I found that Ashoke Ganguli is an interesting character, but not interesting enough for me to feel any deep connection to him. When I got to the scene where he got into an accident on the train to Calcutta I could definitely understand his attachment to the author Gogol. I myself had deeply traumatic personal experiences when I was a teenager, and I can't deny that books and writing saved my life. I am extremely thankful that I myself have not gone through an accident as Ashoke did, but I still found it relatable. 

I also liked the fact that Ashoke put so much significance into the author who "saved his life". He consistently tried to get his son to understand and grow to like the author. Although it seems like he failed, but his persistence is admirable. What I didn't like was that the accident very much consumed Ashoke's personality, and that meant that he didn't really seem to have any other personality traits or a visible character arc because the accident was the basis of his personality. Of course, I do understand why that is the case. The accident wasn't something small, since he literally almost died. But I still wish he had a little bit more to his character.

Ashima is very traditional, and in the first half of the book she is clearly struggling to accept her new life in America, and she misses her family. She misses out on a lot because of not being close to her family in Calcutta, and she even demands that both herself and Ashoke should go back to Calcutta when Ashoke is done with his Master's degree. She seems alone in being a mother and caring for Gogol when he is a newborn, and it's almost as if Lahiri intentionally made it that way so that the readers would feel her loneliness and the changes she is going through.

As a couple, Ashoke and Ashima seem more like friends rather than a married couple. But once Ashoke passes away you can really see that Ashima loved him, and even when Ashoke is alive their love shines through although for the most part, it is extremely private - not just from the other characters but also from the readers. 

Gogol was very different and seemed so lost compared to his parents. In the different phases of his life, you can see him grow up and form opinions, and not a lot of them are favorable in regards to his culture. It just seems like he's fed up with being a Bengali, and wanting to be an American. 

That being said, that's what makes him so different and interesting to read about. Personally, I do understand where he is coming from. I love my country, and I love being Indian, but often I find that because I don't want to have to explain things about my culture I change things about myself. Things that are as simple as my name, which not one American has been able to pronounce correctly since I moved here six years ago. 

I feel like Lahiri strategically created these characters so that a variety of readers could relate to each of them from a different viewpoint. 

Jhumpa Lahiri's Writing Style

The most appealing part of Lahiri's writing style is the amount of description that she put in almost every scene. If I were to describe this aspect visually, I'd say that she places a character or characters in a scene, and then all around them, she fills in spaces like they are figures in a painting. The background has so much detail that if you look away and look back, there's always something new to find. 

Jhumpa Lahiri's comments on The Namesake

In the interview below Jhumpa Lahiri talks about her inspiration for The Namesake and her writing in general. She talks about the story that inspired the name 'Gogol' and then talks about her writing process, the critiques on the book, her reactions to the harsh critiques, and so on. 

Final thoughts on The Namesake

So, I was lucky enough to get to read the second half of the book in paperback form and then listen to the first half via Libby audiobook. I found that this book surprisingly kept my attention longer when I read the physical version. With the audiobook I found that I would be listening to it and my mind would drift off, resulting in me missing out on one or more scenes altogether, and so the audiobook wasn't as enjoyable as the physical book, for me at least. 

I would definitely recommend this to people who really like diverse reads or are interested in reading about characters that are from a different culture than their own. I would also say that if you like reading books that cover two to three generations, this is a good read. Lahiri blends the generations together seamlessly in her writing, and sometimes the switch is barely noticeable because the plot is so well done, and the character switches are so in tune with each other.

Menaka is a college student living in Boston. She hopes to continue writing after graduation, both creatively and on her blog, May-able.

No Saves yet. Share it with your friends.

Write Your Diary

Get Free Access To Our Publishing Resources

Independent creators, thought-leaders, experts and individuals with unique perspectives use our free publishing tools to express themselves and create new ideas.

Start Writing