The Namesake is a heart wrenching story which portrays the struggle involved in family, growing up, the circle of life and one's identity. The novel begins with the birth of Gogol, the main character. The reader is given background information on the lives of both Gogol's parents (Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli) and each character's story is told from his or her own perspective. Ashima and Ashoke grew up in Calcutta, India. They came to America as young adults right after they got married (which was also right after they met). Ashima in particular had a difficult time adjusting to American society. This background information causes the reader to become more attached to each of the characters individually. It also helps the reader to better understand the choices each makes throughout the novel and to better comprehend each of their identities.
From the very beginning the issue of names and identity is presented. As Ashima's water breaks she calls out to Ashoke. However, she does not use his name because this would not be proper. According to Ashima, "It's not the type of thing Bengali wives do - a husband's name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over" (2). From this statement we are shown how important private life and feelings are to Bengali families. It is explained that members of this culture are given two names: one that is a pet name (used only by family and close friends) and one that is used by the rest of society. At birth Gogol is given a pet name as his official name because his official name from his grandmother was lost in the mail. As a child, Gogol is told by his family that he is to be called Nikhil (a good name) by teachers and the other children at school. Gogol rejects his proper name and wants to be called Gogol by his family and society. This one decision, on the first day of kindergarten causes him years of distress, though it was also his first attempt to reject a dual identity. This importance of names and identity is brought up throughout the story and becomes a concept that is central to the novel.
Throughout his life Gogol greatly suffers from the uniqueness of his name. In Bengali families, "individual names are sacred, inviolable. They are not meant to be inherited or shared" (28). However, Gogol spends his life living in the United States where children are often ashamed of their differences from others. In adolescence, Gogol desires to blend in and to live unnoticed. This presents a struggle between two cultures. The Ganguli's wish is to raise Gogol and his younger sister with Bengali culture and values. On the other hand Gogol and Sonia grow up relating mostly to their peers and the surrounding culture in the United States. It is only much later in their lives that they begin to truly value their Bengali heritage and that Gogol finds the importance in his name.
Gogol is ashamed of his name throughout high school. He refuses to accept it himself and to fully identify with it. His first relationship with a girl is under this pretense. He hides behind his shame and creates a front of someone entirely different from himself. He is not Gogol for this one night and he is relieved. When he leaves for college Gogol rejects his identity completely and becomes Nikhil (his long lost proper name that he rejected as a child). He dreads his visits home and his return to a life where he is "Gogol. " To him, Gogol is not just a name; it signifies all his discomfort and struggles to fit into two different cultures as he grew up. Being away from home at college makes it easy for Gogol to live as Nikhil in an American culture. He does so happily for many years, detaching himself from his roots and his family as much as possible. Lahiri provides such intense detail and realism to what Gogol is feeling that one actually reverts back to past desires of wanting to fit in with peers as an adolescent.
Gogol's next relationship with a girl (Ruth) is far more passionate than the first. He goes through this relationship as Nikhil, never revealing his inner struggle between Gogol and Nikhil. He hides Ruth from his family and he hides from everyone, including himself. When this bond ends in heartbreak, Gogol hides himself even more behind his strong exterior of Nikhil.
Gogol graduates college planning to live life as Nikhil. He enters another relationship (with Maxine) where he throws himself into an American family who has little worries or concerns for life. He lives with their traditions, in their care-free atmosphere. This lasts until Nikhil gets a stab in the heart that sends him home, finally, as Gogol, causing Nikhil to begin to mesh with Gogol to form one identity. Gogol is drawn back to the one place he has avoided for so many years. He no longer wants to run and hide. Even Maxine can no longer change his mind. She tries to coax Gogol by saying, "Do you want to try to go up to New Hampshire?. . .It might do you good to get away from this" . His reply shows that he finally wants to face reality: "I don't want to get away" (182).
Gogol's final relationship in the novel is one not only accepted by his family, but encouraged. Moushumi was the daughter of Ganguli's good friends, and it was therefore enforced by his parents. He marries Moushumi as Gogol and lets his family and his culture back in with full force. He learns that the answer is not to fully abandon or attempt to diminish either culture, but to mesh the two together. Gogol is not fully in tune with his identity until he realizes that it is embellished by both cultures. He does not have to be one or the other; he does not have to choose. He is made up of both and instead of weakening it, his pride is strengthened. Though the novel wraps up with more downfalls occurring in Gogol's life, he is able to stand up on his feet. He is no longer ashamed of himself or the way he has lived. He is proud of who he is and where he comes from. Most importantly, he is proud of his name and all that it means. Lahiri provides detailed descriptions of heartache, grief, love and joy, which are all part of every human's identity and it is the passion portrayed by the characters she invented that helps cause the novel to tug at the reader's heart strings.