By Angelina Eimannsberger
Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, might seem like an American immigrant story like we’ve seen before: Bengali parents arrive in Massachusetts, raise their Indian American children there, and all of them struggle with loneliness, belonging, and freedom, if in their own ways. The Namesake, though, is a beautiful and observant novel. It is set apart from other storytelling about the immigrant experience by its insistence on literature as survival, rather than seeing culture as a consequence of, some sort of extra to, survival. Literature as nurture, as life-giving, as sustenance, is assumed from the beginning in novel, and especially by Ashoke, the character who sets the story in motion. Ashoke’s son Gogol, who turns out to be the main character for most of the novel, needs to learn that literature is nurture so he can get back on his feet after his happy life of ease is shaken by a series of plot events.
The mother, Ashima, reads the few Bengali novels she brought to find solace in her loneliness. The life of the father, Ashoke, was saved because the pages of a Russian short story–Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat— were in his hand in a train crash in India. The son’s life, Gogol’s life, is made by the luxurious, wonderful opportunity of a liberal arts education. However, this formal education is not sufficient. In crisis after his life feels derailed, Gogol turns to the same Russian writers his father and grandfather adored and–in a compelling scene I don’t want to spoil here–“starts to read” (291). Coming to appreciate literature lets Gogol connect to his father in a new way, find nurture for himself, and know what to do with his life. The reader never learns about the daughter’s, Sonia’s, relationship to books because she and to a lesser extent her mother are dwarfed by the experience and interiority of Ashoke and Gogol.
Gogol the author literally saves Gogol’s, the boy and main character, father’s life: after his train derailed, the rescuers see a page from his book moving and come get him from the dead around him, “The fellow by that book. I saw him move.” (18) And that’s almost sappy but also true. How did Ashoke come out of this traumatic event? Not because of his physical survival but because of his vision for a life, sustained by what he has read and conversations he has had. When Ashoke’s son Gogol is born, “Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life” (21). Ashoke chooses the Russian last name Gogol as his son’s first name: “He remembers the page crumbled tightly in his fingers, the sudden shock of the lantern’s glare in his eyes. But for the first time he thinks of that moment not with terror, but with gratitude” (28). Ashoke later tells his son that because of his namesake, Gogol reminds his father not of the train accident but “of everything that followed.” (124) After surviving the train crash, Ashoke moves to the United States, begins his graduate program, has a family, and finds fulfillment:
The job is everything Ashoke has ever dreamed of. He has always hoped to teach in a university rather than work for a cooperation. What a thrill, he thinks, to stand lecturing before a roomful of American students. What a sense of accomplishment it gives him to see his name printed under “Faculty” in the university directory (49)
Gogol attends college with no major or profession in mind. Because it is a Liberal Arts college, this is not just perfectly fine but also works out well. Over time his dream chrysalises to be a career in architecture, a profession he comes to work in quite successfully. It is not simply in classes but the overall college experience that let Gogol find what he wants to do.
But now it is his room at Yale where Gogol feels most comfortable. He likes its oldness, its persistent grace. He likes that so many students have occupied it before him. He likes the solidity of its plaster walls, its dark wooden floorboards, however battered and stained. He likes the dormer window he sees first thing in the mornings when he opens his eye and looking at Battell Chapel. He has fallen in love with the Gothic architecture of the campus (108)
Unlike his father, Gogol affords to luxuriate–he has all the nurture at his disposal–but he does not use it as progressively as his father. Ashoke built a new life with American efficiency by quickly accumulating the ingredients of a life: income, wife, a house in the suburbs, two kids. Gogol hovers closer to confusion. He has no understanding of literature as survival because he never knew survival could be precious. His suburban existence familiarizes him with plenty, security, and stability even if he also experiences loneliness and ennui. His pain is closer to the typical struggle of a teenager than the pressure of fighting for a life he wants to live. Gogol floats around, is bothered by his Russian last name as the first name for an Indian American boy. He can only unlock the potential of his namesake when he is in crisis in adulthood and starts to read.
For Gogol, the progress he desires is about ease, not about a good life. His parents always felt to him like sorely sticking out from the white, suburban, American neighborhood that treats them as immigrants and racial and cultural others, not with violence but with a clear ideology of difference. Gogol is influences by this American life around him, so he himself blames his parents for being different from the American life around him, lacking the more breezy, more worldly culture and knowing of the Americans around Gogol in high school, at Yale and Columbia. As Gogol grows closer with his girlfriend Maxine’s parents Lydia and Gerald, he cant help but notice the difference between his own parents and the ease and eloquence of hers. At the same time, he notices his own ability to transcend the gap and be one of them.
He cannot imagine his parents sitting at Lydia and Gerald’s table, enjoying Lydia’s cooking, appreciating Gerald’s selection of wine. He cannot imagine them contributing to one of their dinner party conversations. And yet here he is, night after night, a welcome addition to the Ratliffs’ universe, doing just that. (141)
However, Gogol breaks up with Maxine and another woman after her because this ease he has attained is not enough. Like his dad as a young man in India before him, Gogol and his American life is saved by a book by a Russian writer (and how Nabokov would love that) and his short story. In turn, Lahiri’s reader is reminded by The Namesake that literature is nurture, nothing less, and it is our privilege to attend to it. Novels might not feel like survival, but they make survival be something.