The Namesake

A crucial letter lost in the mail leads to a boy with a name that is neither Bengali nor American, foreshadowing crisis of identity that will last for decades. In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri uses the struggles of the Ganguli family to represent the identity struggle faced by millions of Bengali Americans, who struggle to be perceived as either Indian or American. The novel depicts the immense challenge of fitting in to a new culture while preserving past traditions.

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Table of contents

    The Namesake: novel (2003)

    The Namesake started out as a publication in The New Yorker, but after a positive response, Jhumpa Lahiri turned the narrative into her first full-length novel. Born in London in 1967 as a daughter to Indian immigrants, Lahiri experienced much of the identity confusion that her protagonist, Gogol, experiences in The Namesake. After moving to America at three years old, her teachers insisted on using her 'pet name', Jhumpa, because her full names were considered too long. Despite living in America, she remained close to Bengali culture, taking frequent trips to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to visit family.

    Lahiri published The Namesake in 2003 in an attempt to further illuminate the Indian immigration experience, building on the themes present in her earlier short story collection, The interpreter of Maladies (1999). The Namesake has since been widely acclaimed and was adapted into a film in 2006.

    The Namesake: summary

    The Namesake follows the journey of the Ganguli family across two generations, focusing on their experience as Indian immigrants in America. After meeting through an arranged marriage, Ashima follows Ashoke to Boston so he can study electrical engineering at MIT, where she enters labour with their first child.

    Ashoke committed to the America move after a devastating train accident in India left him in critical condition. He was only saved when a blowing page from the book he was reading – The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol (1835) – led to his discovery. The couple decide to give their new-born son the ‘pet name’ Gogol, in honour of the book that saved Ashoke’s life, while they await the legal name to arrive in a letter from the grandmother. After the letter is lost in the mail, and the sudden death of Ashima’s father forces them to quickly return to India, the name Gogol is made official.

    Gogol grows up divided between Bengali and American culture with a name which fits neither identity. Now with a younger sister, Sonia, the children often feel at odds with their parents, as their desire to fit in with their American friends often conflicts with Ashoke and Ashima’s desire to raise their children according to Bengali tradition. Gogol’s embarrassment at his name leads him to change it to Nikhil when he turns eighteen.

    Gogol begins dating art historian Maxine Ratliff, moving with her into the home of her wealthy parents – Lydia and Gerard Ratliff – distancing himself from his past. They live in New Hampshire, and even have their own graveyard in their home. This comfortable, secure life appeals to Gogol, who has felt uneasy and divided about his heritage throughout his life.

    Think of the graveyard as a symbol of legacy. Graves provide the Ratliff’s with a permanent space even after they die, whereas Gogol, as part of Bengali tradition, will be cremated. This mirrors the contrast between the Ratliff’s security and Gogol’s feelings of uneasiness about how he fits in to American society.

    It is only when Ashoke – Gogol’s Father – dies of a heart attack, that Gogol realises the importance of the heritage he has tried to escape from. At his mother’s suggestion, Gogol goes on a blind date with family friend Moushumi. Even though they are reluctant at first, they both discover that they are compatible because of their similar pasts, eventually falling in love. The couple marry in a Bengali ceremony and move in together.

    Gogol's multiple relationships throughout the novel mirror his attempt to distance himself, and later reconnect with, Bengali culture. When he wants to leave his past behind, he dates Maxine, but once he embraces tradition, he marries Moushumi.

    After some time, with strains beginning to show in their marriage, Moushumi begins to feel restricted by the relationship, leading to an affair with her former crush, Dimitri Desjardins. When Gogol eventually finds out, the marriage ends in divorce.

    Reuniting to celebrate one final Christmas party in their now sold home, it is revealed that Sonia is set to marry new fiancé Ben, and Ashima has resolved to spend six months of the year in Calcutta. Gogol, feeling melancholic that he is losing touch with his heritage, comes across a novel that his father bought him many years ago – The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Desiring nothing more than to maintain a connection to his past despite his previous effort to escape from it, he sits down to read the story that once saved his father’s life.

    The Namesake: characters

    Let's look at the key characters in The Namesake.


    Gogol is the protagonist of The Namesake. We follow along with his journey as he attempts to navigate the difficulties of living divided between American and Bengali culture. He grows up hating his name, which affiliates with neither his Bengali nor American heritage, leading to his decision to change it to Nikhil at eighteen. At first, he distances himself from his culture, before later attempting to reconnect with it.


    Ashoke is a devoted husband father to Gogol and Sonia and husband to Ashima, who resolves to create a different life for himself after a train accident in India leaves him near death. He names Gogol based on the book that saved his life, before moving to America, taking Ashima along with him. He explains the reason behind Gogol’s name and hopes that his son will reconnect with his culture in the future – a desire that only comes true once Ashoke dies from a sudden heart attack in Ohio.


    The wife in an arranged marriage, Ashima follows her husband Ashoke from Calcutta to Boston, feeling uneasy and out of place about the cultural differences in America. She slowly begins to come to terms with her new life while raising Gogol and Sonia and enjoying throwing big parties for other Bengali Americans. After Ashoke dies, and Sonia and Gogol move out, she decides to spend six months of every year in Calcutta.


    As the younger sister of Gogol, Sonia also feels divided between Bengali and American culture. Her name is planned well in advance because of the struggles surrounding Gogol’s birth. When Ashoke dies she moves back home to support Ashima, and eventually becomes engaged to marry Ben, planning her wedding in Calcutta.


    Moushumi was a family friend of Gogol’s from a young age. After Ashima pushes for a blind date, the two reconnect, falling in love based on mutual understanding of each other’s struggles to forge an identity. They arrange to marry. Moushumi feels stifled by the marriage after some time, and begins an affair with Dimitri, an old friend, leading to divorce.


    Maxine is an art historian living with her wealthy parents, and Gogol’s second girlfriend. Gogol withholds information about his Bengali heritage from Maxine. When Ashoke dies of a heart attack and Gogol decides to reconnect with his heritage, Maxine and Gogol realise they have nothing in common culturally and break up.

    The Namesake: setting

    The setting in The Namesake opens in Massachusetts, but changes repeatedly throughout the novel as different characters travel to locations like New York, Calcutta, Ohio, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Paris. The most important settings are America and India, as these two locations represent the two conflicting parts of Gogol's identity, as well as the cultural divide faced by Bengali Americans.

    The Namesake: genre

    It's difficult to classify The Namesake because it includes elements from multiple genres. Two of the most prominent genres in the novel are:

    Bildungsroman ( coming-of-age)

    The Namesake can be described as a bildungsroman novel.

    A Bildungsroman (coming-of age) depicts a protagonist that grows morally or psychologically as the novel progresses

    The Namesake follows Gogol's coming of age as he transitions into adulthood and journeys to find his identity as a Bengali American.

    Realistic fiction

    The Namesake is an example of realistic fiction.

    Realistic fiction places fictional characters in a realistic setting, showing the characters tackling relationship, familial and societal problems that exist in our world.

    Despite creating fictional characters, Lahiri writes about real problems that are applicable to our society today. From identity issues and personal struggle, to familial conflict and relationship trouble, everything mirrors our world today.

    The Namesake: themes

    Let's analyse some of the themes within the novel.

    The experience of Indian immigrants in America

    The experiences of the Ganguli family are representative of the variety of issues faced by Indians migrating to America. While Ashoke enjoys being thrust into a different lifestyle, Ashima struggles to adapt to America, and clings to Indian traditions in order to stay close to her cultural heritage. In this way, Ashima can be seen as the glue that holds the family together through shared Bengali traditions.

    For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.

    - Chapter 3

    This quote empasises how out of place Ashima feels in Massachusetts. She is forced to learn a new culture and set of customs in order to fit in to America, and deeply misses her home in Calcutta, She comments that she feels completely out of sorts and that in a new place, being a foreigner feels like a lot of hard work.

    Both Gogol and Sonia find it much easier to adapt to American culture – having been raised entirely within it – so much so that they see India as a foreign country. The confliction they feel between American and Bengali culture often leaves them uneasy about their identity.

    Feeling divided between cultures is a common theme in fiction that focuses on immigration. Despite being born in America, Gogol and Sonia will be perceived as outsiders. Similarly, they are seen as Americans when in India, and so struggle to fit in with either identity. Is the best option for them to integrate with American culture, or to try and connect with their Indian heritage?


    One primary focus of The Namesake is the search for identity. The very act of Gogol receiving neither an American nor a Bengali name symbolises the alienation he feels from both cultures. Although he tries to forge his own path by changing his name to Nikhil at eighteen, Gogol still does not feel at ease with his identity, realising that his identity is made up of more than just his name. He changes a lot as the novel progresses, and transitions through multiple identities, only coming to appreciate both his multi-faceted identity towards the end of the novel.

    There is only one complication: he doesn’t feel like Nikhil. Not yet. Part of the problem is that the people who now know him as Nikhil have no idea that he used to be Gogol. They know him only in the present, not at all in the past. But after eighteen years of Gogol, two months of Nikhil feel scant, inconsequential. At times he feels as if he’s cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different.

    - Chapter 5

    This quote illustrates how Gogol's transition to Nikhil isn't complete, and he still feels uncomfortable with his identity despite changing his name. He doesn't like it when his parents visit him at university, tries to stop other people finding out his past identity, and even keeps his girlfriend separate from his Bengali culture. In doing so he is distancing himself from the first eighteen years of his life, and is not at a stage where he feels completely comfortable putting his Bengali upbringing behind him.


    The two generations of the Ganguli’s perceive the concept of family in different ways. For Ashoke and Ashima, family is everything, and immense importance is placed on reinforcing familial bonds through traditions like rituals and holidays. In contrast, for Gogol and Sonia, who didn’t grow up in India, family and tradition become burdens that distracts them from completely fitting in to American society. They do not understand the need for reinforcing family through tradition and would rather celebrate American holidays.

    However, when tragedy strikes and Ashoke dies, Gogol and Sonia quickly realise that family is the only consistent presence that has remained with them throughout the confusion and uneasiness of their lives. In this way, Bengali tradition provides the siblings with a strong foundation to fall back on when hard times fall.

    The Namesake - Key takeaways

    • The novel was created in 2003 by Jhumpa Lahiri, the daughter of Indian immigrants from Calcutta.
    • The novel follows Gogol's attempts to distance himself and later reconnect with his culture as he grows.
    • The key themes in The Namesake are: the Indian immigration experience, identity, and family.
    • The Namesake can fit in to multiple genres, two of which are the Bildungsroman and realistic fiction genre.
    • The novel shows the battle between fitting in and preserving tradition that many Bengali Americans face.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Namesake

    What happens at the end of The Namesake?

    After Moushumi cheats on Gogol and they divorce, Gogol reflects on the importance of his family in providing comfort, and sits down to read the book he was named after, The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol.

    What is The Namesake about? 

    The Namesake is about the Ganguli family's struggles to forge their identity as Bengali Americans, relating to the broader experience of Indian immigrants in America. 

    Who wrote The Namesake?

    The Namesake was written by Jhumpa Lahiri.

    What is the theme of The Namesake?

    The key themes of The Namesake are the Indian immigration experience, identity, and family.

    Why is this book called The Namesake?

    A namesake is someone who takes a name from someone else. Gogol takes his name from Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, symbolising his struggle to forge his own identity as a Bengali American. The Namesake is symbolic of this struggle.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is not a theme present in The Namesake?

    In what year was the novel published?

    Who says that being a foreigner is a 'sort of lifelong pregnancy' in Chapter 3?


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