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Title: The Namesake
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Summary: The Namesake is a novel about how two generations assimilate into a new country; what it means to each; what they leave behind, what they take with them.
The story begins with a newly wed Bengali couple's immigration to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1968. Ashoke, the husband, is an engineering doctoral candidate at MIT; Ashima, his wife, is pregnant and desperately unhappy moving so far from her family in India. The distance from her country is not just in miles, but in culture, attitude, food, dress, mores and beliefs.

1. Who was the most interesting character in this book and why?

2. The significance of names is used many times: the "intimate" name that Ashima never calls her husband by; the "pet" name, the "good" name. In what other instances did the importance of name influence this story?

3. Were you known by a "pet" name or family name??

4. In what ways do you think a person's name impacts their lives? How has your name impacted yours? What does it mean to you?

5. Ashima was working toward a college degree and was in no hurry to marry when she was introduced to Askove and their marriage arranged. Do you think she might have reacted in a similar way to Moushima had she been born in the United States to Indian parents?

6. Did this book change your mind in anyway about Indian culture? Do you have a better understanding of the struggle people have assimilating into the American way of life?

7. Do you think it is more difficult for an Indian, for instance, to assimilate into American society than an American assimilating into Indian society? Why?

8. Do you think it was fair for the parents to impose their Indian heritage on the children?

9. How does Gogol's rebellion against his parents differ from any other American kid's rebellion?

10. Do you think Moushima's resistance to her Indian culture is self destructive?

11. The Gangulis differ in many ways from typical American families. When they go to the beach they go in the evenings, after everyone has left, for instance. What else do they do that makes them so different from other Americans?

12. What do you think happens to Gogol from the point the story ends?

13. Why do you think this novel is important to read?

Related Information:
The beginning of the novel focuses largely on Ashima, whose ties to her homeland will not be broken, even while she strives dutifully to adapt to the American way of life. Ashima, more than her husband, clings to her past, and true to her grandmother's prediction, is destined to never change. Ashima dresses in a sari, cooks authentic Indian food at home, keeps close contact with her relatives in India and observes all Indian special days and ceremonies. The Gangulis gradually cultivate a large circle of Bengali friends who serve as their surrogate family and with whom they are not seen as "foreign." "Being a foreigner," the book states from Ashima's viewpoint, "is a lifelong pregnancy, a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts."

As could easily be predicted, the Ganguli's children do not share their parents' devotion to their Indian heritage. They wish to be Americans. The novel follows the development of Gogol, the first born. Once he reaches his teens, the boy does everything he can to shed his Indian upbringing and plunge headlong into American culture, without looking back on the distress this causes his parents. Gogol is, however, burdened with a name that announces his difference every time it is spoken. It is not even an Indian name but a Russian name, borrowed from his father's favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. It is over the boy's name that one of the Ganguli's fundamental beliefs is challenged. Gogol was originally selected as a pet name for the boy while the Gangulis awaited a good name, to be chosen by Ashima's grandmother. The letter with the name never arrives and the Gangulis are forced to choose another name, Nikhil, for the boy when he registers for school. However, the boy considers himself Gogol, and so does the school system despite the parent's wishes. The consequence of this breach of Indian custom reverberates throughout the novel.

Even while they slip into the mainstream of American life, Ashoke and Ashima attempt to instill the customs of their native country in their children. They make frequent, difficult trips to Calcutta to visit family; they observe Indian customs and send their son to Bengali language classes. Slowly, however, the ties to their homeland begin to fray. The Ganguli's gradually give in to the pressures of assimilation. Gogol and his younger sister, Sonia, become typical American teenagers, both rebelling against the authority of their parents, and what they see as the burden of their Indian heritage. Gogol' s rebellion is also against his name, and when he is 18, just entering Yale, he changes it to Nikhil.

Despite his best efforts to reinvent himself as Nikhil, Gogol is unsuccessful, as the author reminds us throughout the book by almost solely referring to him as "Gogol." His new life is built on self evasion. This is most evident in his love affair with Maxine, a wealthy book publisher and New York socialite. Gogol is more drawn to Maxine's family and their way of life than to Maxine herself. Lying to his family and avoiding them whenever possible, he immerses himself in Maxine's family, all the while aware that he is betraying his own.

His father's sudden death brings Gogol back home. In reuniting with his mother and sister in the house where he grew up, he is drawn back into the family he tried so
desperately to leave behind. The three participate in the lengthy mourning ceremony for Ashoke which lasts ten days and includes their extended Bengali family. Maxine, who
has no understanding of Gogol's family's traditions, is pointedly left out. She tells Gogol he should "get away from all this." Gogol's reply, "I don't want to get away," signifies his personal turning point.

After the breakup with Maxine, Gogol meets Moushimi Mazoombar, an Indian woman who had once been among the Bengalis that were entertained at his parent's home. The two have shared the same quest: to disassociate themselves from all things Indian. However, they discover an attraction for one another and a comfort in a mutual understanding of their histories and struggles to assimilate. Their relationship is doomed, however, because Moushima is still running from who she is; while Gogol is just beginning to discover himself.

The book ends with Gogol coming full circle -- back on Pemberton Street where he grew up. Ashima is preparing a last dinner party for all the Bengali acquaintances and friends. She is selling the house to move back to India. During the party, Gogol visits his old room and finds there the book by his namesake still on the bookcase. He has never read the book that his father had given him for his 14th birthday. When he opens it, he discovers the inscription by his father: "The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name." For the first time, he begins to read.

Questions and related information provided by Mary Cuffe-Perez.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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