Gogol Ganguli is fated from birth for a unusual life; product of a strange, somewhat obscure Russian author, whose life and leech-ridden death is irretrievably linked with the life of Gogol’s father, Ashok, saved from oblivion by his love of reading (in this case Gogol) during a train crash. Gogol is constantly trying to shed the Bengali culture which he is brought up within; his mother’s food discarded for the blandness of American cuisine, his familial warmth for the coldness of American individuality, his parents for the veneer of contentment offered by independence, his name for the shallow happiness brought about by acceptance. This is not so much a criticism of Gogol; as a product of, like Gogol, the Indian diaspora, the constant pressure to conform to Western standards of behaviour and cultural norms, to discard the culture of your origin as backward and parochial against the all encompassing liberalism of the West can be impossible to resist and in many ways the key them of ‘The Namesake’ is one of acceptance, of, like Gogol, being pulled into two different cultures, of the suffocation of never being free from the limitations of each, of never being truly yourself but being seen via the lens of two disparate societies. Lahiri skilfully navigates this topic; instead of judging Gogol she seeks to understand what causes him to become the person he is, we may not like the adolescent and young adult Gogol becomes, but we do end up liking the man Gogol becomes, the tragedy of his father’s death acting as the catalyst which allows him to re-engage with his culture, to accept himself and become a man who is comfortable with his place in the world and whose failures allow him to achieve some measure of success.
The other key theme is that of love; from the descriptions of the kicks and gurgles of baby Gogol as seen via the eyes of his mother, Ashima, the the slow, imperceptible bloom of love between Ashima and Ashok, to Gogol’s love for Moushumi, from almost undetectable build of of down on her forearms in the morning, to her quirks and idiosyncrasies, her sense of independence and his acceptance of these, just as Ashima is able to accept that her children will one day (in her eyes) abandon her. Love may break down, as it does between Gogol and Moushumi, or bloom as it does between Ashima and Ashok, but it is the thing which defines us and which allows Gogol to find some meaning and guidance, the evenstar against the darkness which was slowly engulfing him.