Magazine article The Spectator

The Namesake

Magazine article The Spectator

The Namesake

Article excerpt

Cola versus curry THE NAMESAKE by Jhumpa Lahiri Flamingo, £15.99, pp. 291, ISBN 000225901X

Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her first volume of short stories. The Namesake is her first novel, graceful, funny and sad, its theme dislocation and the pain of building a new life in a different world. In building that new life, something must also be destroyed.

After an arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli leave Calcutta to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When, some years later, they take the family to India for a holiday, the couple sink happily into the old culture, but for their children, born in the US, America is home: they yearn for hamburgers and pepperoni pizza.

Bengalis, the author tells us, are given two names: a pet name to be used by family and friends and a 'proper' name for outside use. The Gangulis' son is nicknamed Gogol because his father feels a special kinship with the Russian writer. By mistake the boy is landed with the nickname on his birth certificate - a cultural calamity for any Bengali, for Gogol a cause for despair: 'At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.' When the opportunity arises, he changes it. But a name is just one part of an identity, as Gogol slowly discovers. Impatient with his parents' enduring loyalty to old traditions, he feels obscurely damaged when his friends find them odd. With extraordinarily effective economy, the author analyses the conflicting attractions of the American way of life and the tug of tradition. …

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