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The Namesake : A Novel
by Jhumpa Lahiri

Published: 2004-09-01
Paperback : 291 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 14 of 14 members
 "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 ...
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Introduction

 "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.
 

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

1.

1968

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima

Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice

Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds

salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were

mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this

concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack

sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout

India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space

inside her, it is the one thing she craves. Tasting from a cupped palm, she

frowns; as usual, there’s something missing. She stares blankly at the

pegboard behind the countertop where her cooking utensils hang, all slightly

coated with grease. She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her

sari. Her swollen feet ache against speckled gray linoleum. Her pelvis aches

from the baby’s weight. She opens a cupboard, the shelves lined with a grimy

yellow-and-white-checkered paper she’s been meaning to replace, and

reaches for another onion, frowning again as she pulls at its crisp magenta

skin. A curious warmth floods her abdomen, followed by a tightening so

severe she doubles over, gasping without sound, dropping the onion with a

thud on the floor.

The sensation passes, only to be followed by a more enduring

spasm of discomfort. In the bathroom she discovers, on her underpants, a

solid streak of brownish blood. She calls out to her husband, Ashoke, a

doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at MIT, who is studying in the

bedroom. He leans over a card table; the edge of their bed, two twin

mattresses pushed together under a red and purple batik spread, serves as

his chair. When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name.

Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband,

even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his

surname but refuses, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first. It’s not the type of

thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or caress in a Hindi movie, a husband’s

name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over.

And so, instead of saying Ashoke’s name, she utters the interrogative that

has come to replace it, which translates roughly as “Are you listening to me?”

At dawn a taxi is called to ferry them through deserted Cambridge streets,

up Massachusetts Avenue and past Harvard Yard, to Mount Auburn Hospital.

Ashima registers, answering questions about the frequency and duration of

the contractions, as Ashoke fills out the forms. She is seated in a

wheelchair and pushed through the shining, brightly lit corridors, whisked into

an elevator more spacious than her kitchen. On the maternity floor she is

assigned to a bed by a window, in a room at the end of the hall. She is asked

to remove her Murshidabad silk sari in favor of a flowered cotton gown that, to

her mild embarrassment, only reaches her knees. A nurse offers to fold up

the sari but, exasperated by the six slippery yards, ends up stuffing the

material into Ashima’s slate blue suitcase. Her obstetrician, Dr. Ashley,

gauntly handsome in a Lord Mountbatten sort of way, with fine sand-colored

hair swept back from his temples, arrives to examine her progress. The

baby’s head is in the proper position, has already begun its descent. She is

told that she is still in early labor, three centimeters dilated, beginning to

efface. “What does it mean, dilated?” she asks, and Dr. Ashley holds up

two fingers side by side, then draws them apart, explaining the unimaginable

thing her body must do in order for the baby to pass. The process will take

some time, Dr. Ashley tells her; given that this is her first pregnancy, labor

can take twenty-four hours, sometimes more. She searches for Ashoke’s

face, but he has stepped behind the curtain the doctor has drawn. “I’ll be

back,” Ashoke says to her in Bengali, and then a nurse adds: “Don’t you

worry, Mr. Ganguli. She’s got a long ways to go. We can take over from

here.”

Now she is alone, cut off by curtains from the three other women

in the room. One woman’s name, she gathers from bits of conversation, is

Beverly. Another is Lois. Carol lies to her left. “Goddamnit, goddamn you,

this is hell,” she hears one of them say. And then a man’s voice: “I love

you, sweetheart.” Words Ashima has neither heard nor expects to hear from

her own husband; this is not how they are. It is the first time in her life she

has slept alone, surrounded by strangers; all her life she has slept either in a

room with her parents, or with Ashoke at her side. She wishes the curtains

were open, so that she could talk to the American women. Perhaps one of

them has given birth before, can tell her what to expect. But she has

gathered that Americans, in spite of their public declarations of affection, in

spite of their miniskirts and bikinis, in spite of their hand-holding on the

street and lying on top of each other on the Cambridge Common, prefer their

privacy. She spreads her fingers over the taut, enormous drum her middle

has become, wondering where the baby’s feet and hands are at this

moment. The child is no longer restless; for the past few days, apart from the

occasional flutter, she has not felt it punch or kick or press against her ribs.

She wonders if she is the only Indian person in the hospital, but a gentle

twitch from the baby reminds her that she is, technically speaking, not

alone. Ashima thinks it’s strange that her child will be born in a place most

people enter either to suffer or to die. There is nothing to comfort her in the off-

white tiles of the floor, the off-white panels of the ceiling, the white sheets

tucked tightly into the bed. In India, she thinks to herself, women go home to

their parents to give birth, away from husbands and in-laws and household

cares, retreating brie.y to childhood when the baby arrives.

Another contraction begins, more violent than the last. She cries

out, pressing her head against the pillow. Her fingers grip the chilly rails of

the bed. No one hears her, no nurse rushes to her side. She has been

instructed to time the duration of the contractions and so she consults her

watch, a bon voyage gift from her parents, slipped over her wrist the last

time she saw them, amid airport confusion and tears. It wasn’t until she was

on the plane, flying for the first time in her life on a BOAC VC-10 whose

deafening ascent twenty-six members of her family had watched from the

balcony at Dum Dum Airport, as she was drifting over parts of India she’d

never set foot in, and then even farther, outside India itself, that she’d

noticed the watch among the cavalcade of matrimonial bracelets on both her

arms: iron, gold, coral, conch. Now, in addition, she wears a plastic bracelet

with a typed label identifying her as a patient of the hospital. She keeps the

watch face turned to the inside of her wrist. On the back, surrounded by the

words waterproof, antimagnetic, and shock-protected, her married initials,

A.G., are inscribed.

American seconds tick on top of her pulse point. For half a

minute, a band of pain wraps around her stomach, radiating toward her

back and shooting down her legs. And then, again, relief. She calculates the

Indian time on her hands. The tip of her thumb strikes each rung of the brown

ladders etched onto the backs of her fingers, then stops at the middle of the

third: it is nine and a half hours ahead in Calcutta, already evening, half past

eight. In the kitchen of her parents’ flat on Amherst Street, at this very

moment, a servant is pouring after-dinner tea into steaming glasses,

arranging Marie biscuits on a tray. Her mother, very soon to be a

grandmother, is standing at the mirror of her dressing table, untangling

waist-length hair, still more black than gray, with her fingers. Her father

hunches over his slanted ink-stained table by the window, sketching,

smoking, listening to the Voice of America. Her younger brother, Rana,

studies for a physics exam on the bed. She pictures clearly the gray cement

floor of her parents’ sitting room, feels its solid chill underfoot even on the

hottest days. An enormous black-and-white photograph of her deceased

paternal grandfather looms at one end against the pink plaster wall; opposite,

an alcove shielded by clouded panes of glass is stuffed with books and

papers and her father’s watercolor tins. For an instant the weight of the baby

vanishes, replaced by the scene that passes before her eyes, only to be

replaced once more by a blue strip of the Charles River, thick green

treetops, cars gliding up and down Memorial Drive.

In Cambridge it is eleven in the morning, already lunchtime in the

hospital’s accelerated day. A tray holding warm apple juice, Jell-O, ice

cream, and cold baked chicken is brought to her side. Patty, the friendly

nurse with the diamond engagement ring and a fringe of reddish hair

beneath her cap, tells Ashima to consume only the Jell-O and the apple

juice. It’s just as well. Ashima would not have touched the chicken, even if

permitted; Americans eat their chicken in its skin, though Ashima has

recently found a kind butcher on Prospect Street willing to pull it off for her.

Patty comes to fluff the pillows, tidy the bed. Dr. Ashley pokes in his head

from time to time. “No need to worry,” he chirps, putting a stethoscope to

Ashima’s belly, patting her hand, admiring her various bracelets. “Everything

is looking perfectly normal. We are expecting a perfectly normal delivery,

Mrs. Ganguli.”

But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen

months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at

all. It’s not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive.

It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land. For it was one thing to be

pregnant, to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepless nights, the

dull throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom.

Throughout the experience, in spite of her growing discomfort,

she’d been astonished by her body’s ability to make life, exactly as her

mother and grandmother and all her great-grandmothers had done. That it

was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those

she loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to raise a

child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little,

where life seems so tentative and spare.

“How about a little walk? It might do you good,” Patty asks when

she comes to clear the lunch tray.

Ashima looks up from a tattered copy of Desh magazine that

she’d brought to read on her plane ride to Boston and still cannot bring

herself to throw away. The printed pages of Bengali type, slightly rough to

the touch, are a perpetual comfort to her. She’s read each of the short stories

and poems and articles a dozen times. There is a pen-and-ink drawing on

page eleven by her father, an illustrator for the magazine: a view of the North

Calcutta skyline sketched from the roof of their flat one foggy January

morning. She had stood behind her father as he’d drawn it, watching as he

crouched over his easel, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his shoulders

wrapped in a black Kashmiri shawl.

“Yes, all right,” Ashima says.

Patty helps Ashima out of bed, tucks her feet one by one into

slippers, drapes a second nightgown around her shoulders. “Just think,”

Patty says as Ashima struggles to stand. “In a day or two you’ll be half the

size.” She takes Ashima’s arm as they step out of the room, into the

hallway. After a few feet Ashima stops, her legs trembling as another wave

of pain surges through her body. She shakes her head, her eyes filling with

tears. “I cannot.”

“You can. Squeeze my hand. Squeeze as tight as you like.”

After a minute they continue on, toward the nurses’

station. “Hoping for a boy or a girl?” Patty asks.

“As long as there are ten finger and ten toe,” Ashima replies. For

these anatomical details, these particular signs of life, are the ones she has

the most difficulty picturing when she imagines the baby in her arms.

Patty smiles, a little too widely, and suddenly Ashima realizes

her error, knows she should have said “fingers” and “toes.” This error pains

her almost as much as her last contraction. English had been her subject. In

Calcutta, before she was married, she was working toward a college

degree. She used to tutor neighborhood schoolchildren in their homes, on

their verandas and beds, helping them to memorize Tennyson and

Wordsworth, to pronounce words like sign and cough, to understand the

difference between Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedy. But in Bengali, a

finger can also mean fingers, a toe toes.

It had been after tutoring one day that Ashima’s mother had met

her at the door, told her to go straight to the bedroom and prepare herself; a

man was waiting to see her. He was the third in as many months. The first

had been a widower with four children. The second, a newspaper cartoonist

who knew her father, had been hit by a bus in Esplanade and lost his left

arm. To her great relief they had both rejected her. She was nineteen, in the

middle of her studies, in no rush to be a bride. And so, obediently but

without expectation, she had untangled and rebraided her hair, wiped away

the kohl that had smudged below her eyes, patted some Cuticura powder

from a velvet puff onto her skin. The sheer parrot green sari she pleated and

tucked into her petticoat had been laid out for her on the bed by her mother.

Before entering the sitting room, Ashima had paused in the corridor. She

could hear her mother saying, “She is fond of cooking, and she can knit

extremely well. Within a week she finished this cardigan I am wearing.”

Ashima smiled, amused by her mother’s salesmanship; it had

taken her the better part of a year to finish the cardigan, and still her mother

had had to do the sleeves. Glancing at the floor where visitors customarily

removed their slippers, she noticed, beside two sets of chappals, a pair of

men’s shoes that were not like any she’d ever seen on the streets and

trams and buses of Calcutta, or even in the windows of Bata. They were

brown shoes with black heels and off-white laces and stitching. There was a

band of lentil-sized holes embossed on either side of each shoe, and at the

tips was a pretty pattern pricked into the leather as if with a needle. Looking

more closely, she saw the shoemaker’s name written on the insides, in gold

lettering that had all but faded: something and sons, it said. She saw the

size, eight and a half, and the initials U.S.A. And as her mother continued

to sing her praises, Ashima, unable to resist a sudden and overwhelming

urge, stepped into the shoes at her feet. Lingering sweat from the owner’s

feet mingled with hers, causing her heart to race; it was the closest thing she

had ever experienced to the touch of a man. The leather was creased, heavy,

and still warm. On the left shoe she had noticed that one of the crisscrossing

laces had missed a hole, and this oversight set her at ease.

She extracted her feet, entered the room. The man was sitting in

a rattan chair, his parents perched on the edge of the twin bed where her

brother slept at night. He was slightly plump, scholarly-looking but still

youthful, with black thick-framed glasses and a sharp, prominent nose. A

neatly trimmed mustache connected to a beard that covered only his chin

lent him an elegant, vaguely aristocratic air. He wore brown socks and

brown trousers and a green-and-white-striped shirt and was staring glumly at

his knees.

He did not look up when she appeared. Though she was aware of

his gaze as she crossed the room, by the time she managed to steal

another look at him he was once again indifferent, focused on his knees. He

cleared his throat as if to speak but then said nothing. Instead it was his

father who did the talking, saying that the man had gone to St. Xavier’s, and

then B.E. College, graduating first-class-first from both institutions. Ashima

took her seat and smoothed the pleats of her sari. She sensed the mother

eyeing her with approval. Ashima was five feet four inches, tall for a Bengali

woman, ninety-nine pounds. Her complexion was on the dark side of fair, but

she had been compared on more than one occasion to the actress Madhabi

Mukherjee. Her nails were admirably long, her fingers, like her father’s,

artistically slim. They inquired after her studies and she was asked to recite

a few stanzas from “The Daffodils.” The man’s family lived in Alipore. The

father was a labor officer for the customs department of a shipping

company. “My son has been living abroad for two years,” the man’s father

said, “earning a Ph.D. in Boston, researching in the field of fiber optics.”

Ashima had never heard of Boston, or of fiber optics. She was asked

whether she was willing to fly on a plane and then if she was capable of living

in a city characterized by severe, snowy winters, alone.

“Won’t he be there?” she’d asked, pointing to the man whose

shoes she’d briefly occupied, but who had yet to say a word to her.

It was only after the betrothal that she’d learned his name. One

week later the invitations were printed, and two weeks after that she was

adorned and adjusted by countless aunts, countless cousins hovering

around her. These were her last moments as Ashima Bhaduri, before

becoming Ashima Ganguli. Her lips were darkened, her brow and cheeks

dotted with sandalwood paste, her hair wound up, bound with flowers, held in

place by a hundred wire pins that would take an hour to remove once the

wedding was finally over. Her head was draped with scarlet netting. The air

was damp, and in spite of the pins Ashima’s hair, thickest of all the cousins’,

would not lie flat. She wore all the necklaces and chokers and bracelets that

were destined to live most of their lives in an extra-large safety deposit box in

a bank vault in New England. At the designated hour she was seated on a

piri that her father had decorated, hoisted five feet off the ground, carried out

to meet the groom. She had hidden her face with a heart-shaped betel leaf,

kept her head bent low until she had circled him seven times.

Eight thousand miles away in Cambridge, she has come to know

him. In the evenings she cooks for him, hoping to please, with the

unrationed, remarkably unblemished sugar, flour, rice, and salt she had

written about to her mother in her very first letter home. By now she has

learned that her husband likes his food on the salty side, that his favorite

thing about lamb curry is the potatoes, and that he likes to finish his dinner

with a small final helping of rice and dal. At night, lying beside her in bed, he

listens to her describe the events of her day: her walks along Massachusetts

Avenue, the shops she visits, the Hare Krishnas who pester her with their

leaflets, the pistachio ice cream cones she treats herself to in Harvard

Square. In spite of his meager graduate student wages he sets aside money

to send every few months to his father to help put an extension on his

parents’ house. He is fastidious about his clothing; their first argument had

been over a sweater she’d shrunk in the washing machine. As soon as he

comes home from the university the first thing he does is hang up his shirt

and trousers, donning a pair of drawstring pajamas and a pullover if it’s cold.

On Sundays he spends an hour occupied with his tins of shoe polishes and

his three pairs of shoes, two black and one brown. The brown ones are the

ones he’d been wearing when he’d first come to see her. The sight of him

cross-legged on newspapers spread on the floor, intently whisking a brush

over the leather, always reminds her of her indiscretion in her parents’

corridor. It is a moment that shocks her still, and that she prefers, in spite of

all she tells him at night about the life they now share, to keep to herself.

On another floor of the hospital, in a waiting room, Ashoke hunches over a

Boston Globe from a month ago, abandoned on a neighboring chair. He

reads about the riots that took place during the Democratic National

Convention in Chicago and about Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor, being

sentenced to two years in jail for threatening to counsel draft evaders. The

Favre Leuba strapped to his wrist is running six minutes ahead of the large

gray-faced clock on the wall. It is four-thirty in the morning. An hour before,

Ashoke had been fast asleep, at home, Ashima’s side of the bed covered

with exams he’d been grading late at night, when the telephone rang. Ashima

was fully dilated and being taken to the delivery room, the person on the

other end had said. Upon arrival at the hospital he was told that she was

pushing, that it could be any minute now. Any minute. And yet it seemed

only the other day, one steel-colored winter’s morning when the windows of

the house were being pelted with hail, that she had spit out her tea, accusing

him of mistaking the salt for sugar. To prove himself right he had taken a sip

of the sweet liquid from her cup, but she had insisted on its bitterness, and

poured it down the sink. That was the first thing that had caused her to

suspect, and then the doctor had confirmed it, and then he would wake to the

sounds, every morning when she went to brush her teeth, of her retching.

Before he left for the university he would leave a cup of tea by the side of the

bed, where she lay listless and silent. Often, returning in the evenings, he

would find her still lying there, the tea untouched.

He now desperately needs a cup of tea for himself, not having

managed to make one before leaving the house. But the machine in the

corridor dispenses only coffee, tepid at best, in paper cups. He takes off his

thick-rimmed glasses, fitted by a Calcutta optometrist, polishes the lenses

with the cotton handkerchief he always keeps in his pocket, A for Ashoke

embroidered by his mother in light blue thread. His black hair, normally

combed back neatly from his forehead, is disheveled, sections of it on end.

He stands and begins pacing as the other expectant fathers do. So far, the

door to the waiting room has opened twice, and a nurse has announced

that one of them has a boy or a girl. There are handshakes all around, pats

on the back, before the father is escorted away. The men wait with cigars,

flowers, address books, bottles of champagne. They smoke cigarettes,

ashing onto the floor. Ashoke is indifferent to such indulgences. He neither

smokes nor drinks alcohol of any kind. Ashima is the one who keeps all their

addresses, in a small notebook she carries in her purse. It has never

occurred to him to buy his wife flowers.

He returns to the Globe, still pacing as he reads. A slight limp

causes Ashoke’s right foot to drag almost imperceptibly with each step.

Since childhood he has had the habit and the ability to read while walking,

holding a book in one hand on his way to school, from room to room in his

parents’ three-story house in Alipore, and up and down the red clay stairs.

Nothing roused him. Nothing distracted him. Nothing caused him to

stumble. As a teenager he had gone through all of Dickens. He read newer

authors as well, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, all purchased

from his favorite stall on College Street with pujo money. But most of all he

loved the Russians. His paternal grandfather, a former professor of European

literature at Calcutta University, had read from them aloud in English

translations when Ashoke was a boy. Each day at tea time, as his brothers

and sisters played kabadi and cricket outside, Ashoke would go to his

grandfather’s room, and for an hour his grandfather would read supine on the

bed, his ankles crossed and the book propped open on his chest, Ashoke

curled at his side. For that hour Ashoke was deaf and blind to the world

around him. He did not hear his brothers and sisters laughing on the rooftop,

or see the tiny, dusty, cluttered room in which his grandfather read. “Read all

the Russians, and then reread them,” his grandfather had said. “They will

never fail you.” When Ashoke’s English was good enough, he began to read

the books himself. It was while walking on some of the world’s noisiest,

busiest streets, on Chowringhee and Gariahat Road, that he had read pages

of The Brothers Karamazov, and Anna Karenina, and Fathers and Sons.

Once, a younger cousin who had tried to imitate him had fallen down the red

clay staircase in Ashoke’s house and broken an arm. Ashoke’s mother was

always convinced that her eldest son would be hit by a bus or a tram, his

nose deep into War and Peace. That he would be reading a book the

moment he died.

One day, in the earliest hours of October 20, 1961, this nearly

happened. Ashoke was twenty-two, a student at B.E. College. He was

traveling on the 83 Up Howrah–Ranchi Express to visit his grandparents for

the holidays; they had moved from Calcutta to Jamshedpur upon his

grandfather’s retirement from the university. Ashoke had never spent the

holidays away from his family. But his grandfather had recently gone blind,

and he had requested Ashoke’s company specifically, to read him The

Statesman in the morning, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in the afternoon.

Ashoke accepted the invitation eagerly. He carried two suitcases, the first

one containing clothes and gifts, the second empty. For it would be on this

visit, his grandfather had said, that the books in his glass-fronted case,

collected over a lifetime and preserved under lock and key, would be given

to Ashoke. The books had been promised to Ashoke throughout his

childhood, and for as long as he could remember he had coveted them more

than anything else in the world. He had already received a few in recent

years, given to him on birthdays and other special occasions. But now that

the day had come to inherit the rest, a day his grandfather could no longer

read the books himself, Ashoke was saddened, and as he placed the empty

suitcase under his seat, he was disconcerted by its weightlessness, regretful

of the circumstances that would cause it, upon his return, to be full.

He carried a single volume for the journey, a hardbound collection

of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, which his grandfather had given him when

he’d graduated from class twelve. On the title page, beneath his

grandfather’s signature, Ashoke had written his own. Because of Ashoke’s

passion for this particular book, the spine had recently split, threatening to

divide the pages into two sections. His favorite story in the book was the

last, “The Overcoat,” and that was the one Ashoke had begun to reread as

the train pulled out of Howrah Station late in the evening with a prolonged and

deafening shriek, away from his parents and his six younger brothers and

sisters, all of whom had come to see him off and had huddled until the last

moment by the window, waving to him from the long dusky platform. He had

read “The Overcoat” too many times to count, certain sentences and phrases

embedded in his memory. Each time he was captivated by the absurd,

tragic, yet oddly inspiring story of Akaky Akakyevich, the impoverished

main character who spends his life meekly copying documents written by

others and suffering the ridicule of absolutely everyone. His heart went out to

poor Akaky, a humble clerk just as Ashoke’s father had been at the start of

his career. Each time, reading the account of Akaky’s christening, and the

series of queer names his mother had rejected, Ashoke laughed aloud. He

shuddered at the description of the tailor Petrovich’s big toe, “with its

deformed nail as thick and hard as the shell of a tortoise.” His mouth

watered at the cold veal and cream pastries and champagne Akaky

consumed the night his precious coat was stolen, in spite of the fact that

Ashoke had never tasted these things himself. Ashoke was always

devastated when Akaky was robbed in “a square that looked to him like a

dreadful desert,” leaving him cold and vulnerable, and Akaky’s death, some

pages later, never failed to bring tears to his eyes. In some ways the story

made less sense each time he read it, the scenes he pictured so vividly, and

absorbed so fully, growing more elusive and profound. Just as Akaky’s ghost

haunted the final pages, so did it haunt a place deep in Ashoke’s soul,

shedding light on all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world.

Outside the view turned quickly black, the scattered lights of

Howrah giving way to nothing at all. He had a second-class sleeper in the

seventh bogie, behind the air-conditioned coach. Because of the season,

the train was especially crowded, especially raucous, filled with families on

holiday. Small children were wearing their best clothing, the girls with

brightly colored ribbons in their hair. Though he had had his dinner before

leaving for the station, a four-layer tiffin carrier packed by his mother sat at

his feet, in the event that hunger should attack him in the night. He shared

his compartment with three others. There was a middle-aged Bihari couple

who, he gathered from overhearing their conversation, had just married off

their eldest daughter, and a friendly, potbellied, middle-aged Bengali

businessman wearing a suit and tie, by the name of Ghosh. Ghosh told

Ashoke that he had recently returned to India after spending two years in

England on a job voucher, but that he had come back home because his wife

was inconsolably miserable abroad. Ghosh spoke reverently of England. The

sparkling, empty streets, the polished black cars, the rows of gleaming white

houses, he said, were like a dream. Trains departed and arrived according to

schedule, Ghosh said. No one spat on the sidewalks. It was in a British

hospital that his son had been born.

“Seen much of this world?” Ghosh asked Ashoke, untying his

shoes and settling himself cross-legged on the berth. He pulled a packet of

Dunhill cigarettes from his jacket pocket, offering them around the

compartment before lighting one for himself.

“Once to Delhi,” Ashoke replied. “And lately once a year to

Jamshedpur.”

Ghosh extended his arm out the window, flicking the glowing tip of

his cigarette into the night. “Not this world,” he said, glancing disappointedly

about the interior of the train. He tilted his head toward the window.

“England. America,” he said, as if the nameless villages they passed had

been replaced by those countries. “Have you considered going there?”

“My professors mention it from time to time. But I have a family,”

Ashoke said.

Ghosh frowned. “Already married?”

“No. A mother and father and six siblings. I am the eldest.”

“And in a few years you will be married and living in your parents’

house,” Ghosh speculated.

“I suppose.”

Ghosh shook his head. “You are still young. Free,” he said,

spreading his hands apart for emphasis. “Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too

late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket

and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it

will be too late.”

“My grandfather always says that’s what books are for,” Ashoke

said, using the opportunity to open the volume in his hands. “To travel

without moving an inch.”

“To each his own,” Ghosh said. He tipped his head politely to one

side, letting the last of the cigarette drop from his fingertips. He reached

into a bag by his feet and took out his diary, turning to the twentieth of

October. The page was blank and on it, with a fountain pen whose cap he

ceremoniously unscrewed, he wrote his name and address. He ripped out

the page and handed it to Ashoke. “If you ever change your mind and need

contacts, let me know. I live in Tollygunge, just behind the tram depot.”

“Thank you,” Ashoke said, folding up the information and putting it

at the back of his book.

“How about a game of cards?” Ghosh suggested. He pulled out a

well-worn deck from his suit pocket, with Big Ben’s image on the back. But

Ashoke politely declined, for he knew no card games, and besides which,

he preferred to read. One by one the passengers brushed their teeth in the

vestibule, changed into their pajamas, fastened the curtain around their

compartments, and went to sleep. Ghosh offered to take the upper berth,

climbing barefoot up the ladder, his suit carefully folded away, so that

Ashoke had the window to himself. The Bihari couple shared some sweets

from a box and drank water from the same cup without either of them

putting their lips to the rim, then settled into their berths as well, switching off

the lights and turning their heads to the wall.

Only Ashoke continued to read, still seated, still dressed. A

single small bulb glowed dimly over his head. From time to time he looked

through the open window at the inky Bengal night, at the vague shapes of

palm trees and the simplest of homes. Carefully he turned the soft yellow

pages of his book, a few delicately tunneled by worms. The steam engine

puffed reassuringly, powerfully. Deep in his chest he felt the rough jostle of

the wheels. Sparks from the smokestack passed by his window. A fine

layer of sticky soot dotted one side of his face, his eyelid, his arm, his neck;

his grandmother would insist that he scrub himself with a cake of Margo soap

as soon as he arrived. Immersed in the sartorial plight of Akaky Akakyevich,

lost in the wide, snow-white, windy avenues of St. Petersburg, unaware that

one day he was to dwell in a snowy place himself, Ashoke was still reading

at two-thirty in the morning, one of the few passengers on the train who was

awake, when the locomotive engine and seven bogies derailed from the

broad-gauge line. The sound was like a bomb exploding. The first four bogies

capsized into a depression alongside the track. The fifth and sixth,

containing the first-class and air-conditioned passengers, telescoped into

each other, killing the passengers in their sleep. The seventh, where Ashoke

was sitting, capsized as well, flung by the speed of the crash farther into the

field. The accident occurred 209 kilometers from Calcutta, between the

Ghatshila and Dhalbumgarh stations. The train guard’s portable phone would

not work; it was only after the guard ran nearly five kilometers from the site of

the accident, to Ghatshila, that he was able to transmit the first message for

help. Over an hour passed before the rescuers arrived, bearing lanterns and

shovels and axes to pry bodies from the cars.

Ashoke can still remember their shouts, asking if anyone was

alive. He remembers trying to shout back, unsuccessfully, his mouth

emitting nothing but the faintest rasp. He remembers the sound of people half-

dead around him, moaning and tapping on the walls of the train, whispering

hoarsely for help, words that only those who were also trapped and injured

could possibly hear. Blood drenched his chest and the right arm of his shirt.

He had been thrust partway out the window. He remembers being unable to

see anything at all; for the first hours he thought that perhaps, like his

grandfather whom he was on his way to visit, he’d gone blind. He

remembers the acrid odor of flames, the buzzing of flies, children crying, the

taste of dust and blood on his tongue. They were nowhere, somewhere in a

field. Milling about them were villagers, police inspectors, a few doctors. He

remembers believing that he was dying, that perhaps he was already dead.

He could not feel the lower half of his body, and so was unaware that the

mangled limbs of Ghosh were draped over his legs. Eventually he saw the

cold, unfriendly blue of earliest morning, the moon and a few stars still

lingering in the sky. The pages of his book, which had been tossed from his

hand, fluttered in two sections a few feet away from the train. The glare from

a search lantern briefly caught the pages, momentarily distracting one of the

rescuers. “Nothing here,” Ashoke heard someone say. “Let’s keep going.”

But the lantern’s light lingered, just long enough for Ashoke to

raise his hand, a gesture that he believed would consume the small

fragment of life left in him. He was still clutching a single page of “The

Overcoat,” crumpled tightly in his fist, and when he raised his hand the wad

of paper dropped from his fingers. “Wait!” he heard a voice cry out. “The fellow

by that book. I saw him move.”

He was pulled from the wreckage, placed on a stretcher,

transported on another train to a hospital in Tatanagar. He had broken his

pelvis, his right femur, and three of his ribs on the right side. For the next

year of his life he lay flat on his back, ordered to keep as still as possible

as the bones of his body healed. There was a risk that his right leg might be

permanently paralyzed. He was transferred to Calcutta Medical College,

where two screws were put into his hips. By December he had returned to

his parents’ house in Alipore, carried through the courtyard and up the red

clay stairs like a corpse, hoisted on the shoulders of his four brothers.

Three times a day he was spoon-fed. He urinated and defecated into a tin

pan. Doctors and visitors came and went. Even his blind grandfather from

Jamshedpur paid a visit. His family had saved the newspaper accounts. In a

photograph, he observed the train smashed to shards, piled jaggedly

against the sky, security guards sitting on the unclaimed belongings. He

learned that fishplates and bolts had been found several feet from the main

track, giving rise to the suspicion, never subsequently confirmed, of

sabotage. That bodies had been mutilated beyond recognition. “Holiday-

Makers’ Tryst with Death,” the Times of India had written.

In the beginning, for most of the day, he had stared at his

bedroom ceiling, at the three beige blades of the fan churning at its center,

their edges grimy. He could hear the top edge of a calendar scraping

against the wall behind him when the fan was on. If he moved his neck to the

right he had a view of a window with a dusty bottle of Dettol on its ledge and,

if the shutters were open, the concrete of the wall that surrounded the house,

the pale brown geckos that scampered there. He listened to the constant

parade of sounds outside, footsteps, bicycle bells, the incessant squawking

of crows and of the horns of cycle rickshaws in the lane so narrow that taxis

could not fit. He heard the tube well at the corner being pumped into urns.

Every evening at dusk he heard a conch shell being blown in the house next

door to signal the hour for prayer. He could smell but not see the shimmering

green sludge that collected in the open sewer. Life within the house

continued. His father came and went from work, his brothers and sisters from

school. His mother worked in the kitchen, checking in on him periodically,

her lap stained with turmeric. Twice daily the maid twisted rags into buckets

of water and wiped the floors.

During the day he was groggy from painkillers. At night he

dreamed either that he was still trapped inside the train or, worse, that the

accident had never happened, that he was walking down a street, taking a

bath, sitting cross-legged on the floor and eating a plate of food. And then

he would wake up, coated in sweat, tears streaming down his face,

convinced that he would never live to do such things again. Eventually, in an

attempt to avoid his nightmares, he began to read, late at night, which was

when his motionless body felt most restless, his mind agile and clear. Yet he

refused to read the Russians his grandfather had brought to his bedside, or

any novels, for that matter. Those books, set in countries he had never seen,

reminded him only of his confinement. Instead he read his engineering

books, trying his best to keep up with his courses, solving equations by

flashlight. In those silent hours, he thought often of Ghosh. “Pack a pillow

and a blanket,” he heard Ghosh say. He remembered the address Ghosh had

written on a page of his diary, somewhere behind the tram depot in

Tollygunge. Now it was the home of a widow, a fatherless son. Each day, to

bolster his spirits, his family reminded him of the future, the day he would

stand unassisted, walk across the room. It was for this, each day, that his

father and mother prayed. For this that his mother gave up meat on

Wednesdays. But as the months passed, Ashoke began to envision another

sort of future. He imagined not only walking, but walking away, as far as he

could from the place in which he was born and in which he had nearly died.

The following year, with the aid of a cane, he returned to college and

graduated, and without telling his parents he applied to continue his

engineering studies abroad. Only after he’d been accepted with a full

fellowship, a newly issued passport in hand, did he inform them of his

plans. “But we already nearly lost you once,” his bewildered father had

protested. His siblings had pleaded and wept. His mother, speechless, had

refused food for three days. In spite of all that, he’d gone.

Seven years later, there are still certain images that wipe him flat.

They lurk around a corner as he rushes through the engineering department

at MIT, checks his campus mail. They hover by his shoulder as he leans

over a plate of rice at dinnertime or nestles against Ashima’s limbs at night.

At every turning point in his life—at his wedding when he stood behind

Ashima, encircling her waist and peering over her shoulder as they poured

puffed rice into a fire, or during his first hours in America, seeing a small gray

city caked with snow—he has tried but failed to push these images away:

the twisted, battered, capsized bogies of the train, his body twisted below it,

the terrible crunching sound he had heard but not comprehended, his bones

crushed as fine as flour. It is not the memory of pain that haunts him; he has

no memory of that. It is the memory of waiting before he was rescued, and

the persistent fear, rising up in his throat, that he might not have been

rescued at all. To this day he is claustrophobic, holding his breath in

elevators, feels pent-up in cars unless the windows are open on both sides.

On planes he requests the bulkhead seat. At times the wailing of children fills

him with deepest dread. At times he still presses his ribs to make sure they

are solid.

He presses them now, in the hospital, shaking his head in relief,

disbelief. Although it is Ashima who carries the child, he, too, feels heavy,

with the thought of life, of his life and the life about to come from it. He was

raised without running water, nearly killed at twenty-two. Again he tastes

the dust on his tongue, sees the twisted train, the giant overturned iron

wheels. None of this was supposed to happen. But no, he had survived it. He

was born twice in India, and then a third time, in America. Three lives by

thirty. For this he thanks his parents, and their parents, and the parents of

their parents. He does not thank God; he openly reveres Marx and quietly

refuses religion. But there is one more dead soul he has to thank. He cannot

thank the book; the book has perished, as he nearly did, in scattered pieces,

in the earliest hours of an October day, in a field 209 kilometers from

Calcutta. Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who

had saved his life, when Patty enters the waiting room.

Copyright © 2003 by Jhumpa Lahiri. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. The Namesake opens with Ashima Ganguli trying to make a spicy Indian snack from American ingredients — Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts — but "as usual, there's something missing." How does Ashima try and make over her home in Cambridge to remind her of what she's left behind in Calcutta? Throughout The Namesake, how does Jhumpa Lahiri use food and clothing to explore cultural transitions — especially through rituals, like the annaprasan, the rice ceremony? Some readers have said that Lahiri's writing makes them crave the meals she evokes so beautifully. What memories or desires does Lahiri bring up for you? Does her writing ever make you "hunger"?

2. The title The Namesake reflects the struggles Gogol Ganguli goes through to identify with his unusual names. How does Gogol lose first his public name, his bhalonam, and then his private pet name, his daknam? How does he try to remake his identity, after choosing to rename himself, and what is the result? How do our names precede us in society, and how do they define us? Do you have a pet name, or a secret name — and has that name ever become publicly known? Do different people call you by different names? Did you ever wish for a new name? How are names chosen in your family?

3. Newsweek said of Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, "Jhumpa Lahiri writes such direct, translucent prose you almost forget you're reading." The Namesake is also subtle in style, elegant, and realistically paced. How are the events of the novel simultaneously dramatic and commonplace? What details made the characters real to you? Did you ever lose yourself in the story?

4. When Gogol is born, the Gangulis meet other Bengali families with small children, and Ashima finds that with a new baby "perfect strangers, all Americans, suddenly take notice of her, smiling, congratulating her for what she's done." How, for all of us, do children change our place in the community, and what we expect from it? Have you ever connected with someone you may have otherwise never spoken to — of a different ethnic background or economic class — through his children or your own?

5. In his youth, Ashoke Ganguli is saved from a massive train wreck in India. When his son, Gogol, is born, Ashoke thinks, "Being rescued from that shattered train had been the first miracle of his life. But here, now, reposing in his arms, weighing next to nothing but changing everything, is the second." Is Ashoke's love for his family more poignant because of his brush with death? Why do you think he hides his past from Gogol? What moments define us more — accidents or achievements, mourning or celebration?

6. Lahiri has said, "The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially for those who are culturally displaced, as immigrants are . . . who grow up in two worlds simultaneously." What do you think Gogol wants most from his life? How is it different from what his family wants for him, and what they wanted when they first came to America to start a family? How have expectations changed between generations in your own family? Do you want something different for your own children from what your parents wanted for you?

7. Jhumpa Lahiri has said of The Namesake, "America is a real presence in the book; the characters must struggle and come to terms with what it means to live here, to be brought up here, to belong and not belong here." Did The Namesake allow you to think of America in a new way? Do you agree that America is a real presence in The Namesake? How is India also a presence in the book?

8. The marriage of Ashima and Ashoke is arranged by their families. The closest intimacy they share before their wedding is when Ashima steps briefly, secretly, into Ashoke's shoes. Gogol's romantic encounters are very different from what his parents experienced or expected for their son. What draws Gogol to his many lovers, especially to Ruth, Maxine, and eventually Moushumi? What draws them to him? From where do you think we take our notions of romantic love — from our family and friends, or from society and the media? How much does your cultural heritage define your ideas and experience of love?

9. Lahiri explores in several ways the difficulty of reconciling cross-cultural rituals around death and dying. For instance, Ashima refuses to display the rubbings of gravestones young Gogol makes with his classmates. And when Gogol's father suddenly dies, Gogol's relationship with Maxine is strained and quickly ends. Why do you think their love affair can't survive Gogol's grief? How does the loss of Gogol's father turn him back toward his family? How does it also change Sonia and Ashima's relationship?

10. Did you find the ending of The Namesake surprising? What did you expect from Moushumi and Gogol's marriage? Do you think Moushumi is entirely to blame for her infidelity? Is Gogol a victim at the end of the book? In the last few pages of The Namesake, Gogol begins to read "The Overcoat" for the first time — the book his father gave him, by his "namesake." Where do you imagine Gogol will go from here?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by krilljack (see profile) 07/04/20

 
by kffcmf (see profile) 06/17/20

 
by [email protected] (see profile) 12/31/19

I read this book for the second time and it stands the test test of time. Exploring the duality between eastern and western culture within one family, the Namesake is well written and woven tightly by... (read more)

 
by [email protected] (see profile) 04/06/19

Couldn’t put it down.

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