Last week I read and was much impressed by Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short fiction called Interpreter of Maladies (1999), especially the first story "A Temporary Matter," which shouldn't leave a dry eye in the house. I've now read Lahiri's only published novel, The Namesake(2003). It's a fine book. I didn't know, although I should have, that a film of The Namesake, directed by the great Mira Nair, is now in release. I'll try to see it.
Lahiri writes about Bengali immigrants in America. Acculturation is not a new subject in our fiction. Like other groups, the Bengalis bring their own flavor to the American gallimaufry. In The Namesake, the first generation keeps the customs and the food and largely self-segregates; members of the second generation go to good colleges and become engineers and doctors, understand but don't write Bengali, eat pizza and Chinese takeout, and aren't all that keen about arranged marriages.
In Bengali society, individuals apparently have two names: an official public name, and what Lahiri calls a pet name, but which anthropologists call a hypocoristic. The central character in The Namesake was supposed to be called Nikhil, but through a bureaucratic error, his pet name, Gogol, became his school name. So he goes through the first years of his life as Gogol Gangulia. The name inhibits and embarrasses him. Before he matriculates at Yale, he changes his name back to Nikhil, yet he's always caught between the two identities signified by these rival appellations.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a pseudonym for Nilanjana Sudeshna. She's married to Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. I can't imagine what's on her passport or what's she's named her two children, but it's a sure thing that she's thought more than a little about nomenclature -- as must anyone who feels that his name doesn't properly fit his character. I myself am ambivalent about my own name. Vivian de St. Vrain isn't exactly "me," if the truth by told. It's French, and I don't always feel French. My teachers couldn't always pronounce it properly, and I had to correct them, which was embarrassing for a shy youth. And Vivian -- it's so ambisexual. I would have preferred to have been named something decisive and less ethnic. I should have had Gogol's courage. Or Nilanjana Sudeshna's.