Gogol’s search for identity in “The Namesake”


The Namesake  is the first novel by Pulitzer price-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Originally published in The New Yorker as a novella, the book was later expanded into a novel of the same name which went into publication in the year 2003. It was later made into a film by Mira Nair in the 2006. The Namesake is a novel about the  search for an identity  set in the backdrop of Kolkata and the US.  In a lifetime, we comes across several identities: an identity we are born into , by default, at birth; identities forged from a scratch in foreign lands and identity that we want for ourselves. And when so many choices are offered to us, defining who we really are becomes a crisis in itself. Caught in such a web of identity crisis is Ashoke Ganguli’s son, Gogol, named in a haste after Ashoke’s favourite author Nikolai Gogol. Gogol Ganguli was supposed to be someone else but the very first identity tag that could have been him gets lost in mail. Gogol suffers from the condition of namelessness right after birth. And this is a condition that plagues him throughout the rest of his life. Ashima and Ashoke decide on a ‘good name’ for him as per the Bengali custom of naming, but, much to their chagrin, Gogol refuses to be known as Nikhil on the first day of his kindergarten. But growing up in the US proves a daunting task for him, with conflicting ideals inside and outside the walls of the house on Pemberton Road. Gogol refuses to identify with a name so abstract, having no apparent connection with his life. Bearing a name that is neither Indian nor American, Gogol finds himself stranded in the middle of two contrasting and conflicting cultures. The name to him is a baggage that he unwillingly carries , much like the Bengali traditions he is forced to follow at home. He is an outcast in a country that, technically, is is motherland. The decision to change his name is his first attempt at gaining a superior sense of individuality that comes only with being an American. However, what he does not realize is that Gogol symbolizes a rebirth, a new life for his father Ashoke until much later in the story when Ashoke reveals the tale of his misfortune to him. It is after this revelation that the name Gogol becomes a legacy, a souvenir of his father that he never fully inherits. The name which was like a cancerous growth to Gogol, threatening to come back even after amputation (read name change) becomes something he identifies the most with towards the end of the novel. So far, he is neither fully an American nor fully a Bengali. All his life he stays in the US and he never experiences the crisis and exhilaration that comes with relocating to a foreign land. All the women he gets involved with define him, to the point where he feels like a poor substitute in his wife’s life who eventually cheats on him with an old colleague. He never finds a home. He is one without a home, without an identity. Throughout his life, he tries to conform to a world, to a culture, to a lifestyle and to the ideal of an identity that eludes him. Gogol exists in the shadow of his father and outside Ashoke’s domain, there is no Gogol. The story falls into a cliff after the sudden death of Ashoke Ganguli. In spite of being the unremarkable MIT doctorate, in spite of leading a lack-luster, uneventful life, it is Ashoke who has more adventures than Gogol ever does, culmination in an accidental heart-attack that takes his life! The sudden loss of his father marks the beginning of Gogol’s journey of introspection.  For the first time ever, he looks inside instead of searching outside for who he really is. He realizes that Gogol never existed and never will exist outside Gogol. Like Dostoyevsky, Gogol of The Namesake comes out of Ashoke’s overcoat. That apart, he is equally an outsider at both Maxine’s and Moushoomi’s friend’s place. The space he finds himself in is not where he belongs. Caught in self-doubt, Gogol never finds the courage of accepting this identity given to him by his father until the very end, where he begins his final search for identity in a book gifted to him by his father on his birthday.

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