I sometimes read in cycles and right now, I’m interested in books that deal with cultures that I think of as ‘eastern’ as opposed to ‘western.’ In seeking these books, I’ve found several enjoyable novels (as well as solid works of fiction) that have Indian or Indian-America characters. The Namesake is the story of the Ganguli family. In the mid-1960s, after an arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima leave Calcutta to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ashoke is a doctoral student at MIT and will become a professor. When the couple’s first child is born, they don’t know what to name him. They await a letter from Ashima’s grandmother which will assign the name, but it never arrives. Needing a name for the birth certificate, the parents christen the child Gogol, a pet name (one supposed to be used by family members only) that his father chooses.
Gogol is named after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol because Ashoke believes that reading the story “The Overcoat” by this favorite author, saved him when he was in a train wreck and most of the passengers died. However, until he goes to college, Gogol doesn’t know why he is so named. He only knows that he hates the strange name. It comes to represent the burden of being the son of immigrant parents who are holding on to their traditional ways, who associate with other ex-patriot Bengalis, and who visit Calcutta as often as possible, weeping when they must leave their extended families.
The Namesake artfully details the difficulties of the immigrant experience as well as those of the first American-born generation. As Gogol (who legally changes his name to Nikhil) becomes a man, he tries to leave his Indian past. For a time, he has a wealthy girlfriend from Manhattan whose family and life seem to be ideally American (although in reality, most Americans wouldn’t recognized the cultural milieu that includes fine dining, foreign films and awareness of artistic movements). Though there are times when the book moves in fits and starts, the progress is always forward and plot structure shouldn’t confuse students. (I mention this because some of the books I’ve recommended move back and forth through time and have really confused the people I thought would like them most!) This is a good story about self-acceptance that any reader could relate to.