The Namesake is the story of two generations of the Gangulis, a family of Indian immigrants to the United States.
When we first meet Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli they are living in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about to welcome their first child into the world. The young couple met through an arranged marriage in Calcutta, India, where Ashima had lived her whole life before leaving to accompany Ashoke as he studies engineering at M.I.T. Ashoke has been set on traveling abroad ever since a terrible train accident a few years previous, which he barely survived. He was discovered by the rescue party because of the blowing pages of the book he had been reading when the train derailed—a copy of The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol. For Ashima, however, the journey abroad has proven difficult. She feels lonely and homesick in America, clinging to letters from her family and devising makeshift Indian recipes with the ingredients she can scrounge together.
Soon their son is born, in the foreign environment of the American hospital. Ashoke reflects on how lucky this boy is—the baby receives the present of a book from a Bengali friend—and how different his life will be from Ashoke’s own. Ashima, too, is struck by how different her son’s life will be, but she pities him because he will grow up alone, without the extended family that was so central to her own development. The couple waits for their son’s “good name” to come in a letter from Ashima’s grandmother in India, but in the meantime they must give the hospital a temporary “pet name,” and so they settle on “Gogol,” the writer whose book saved Ashoke’s life and made possible this new one.
The novel then tracks Gogol’s growth, as the family moves into a small suburban town when Ashoke is hired as an assistant professor at the local university. Gogol becomes central to his mother’s life, filling some of the loneliness she feels for India. When he begins kindergarten, his parents decide that his “good name” will be Nikhil—Ashima’s grandmother had suffered a stroke, so her naming letter was lost in the mail—but at school Gogol continues to be called by his “pet name,” frightened by the idea of changing it. His sister Sonali (Sonia) is born, and the two siblings begin to bond as the carriers of American influence in the house. The two children, with their natural, unaccented English and socialization in the American school system, are the reason for Ashoke and Ashima’s adoption of Christmas and of certain American food items. At the same time, Ashoke and Ashima take their children to regular gatherings of their Bengali friends in America, and the family takes extended trips to Calcutta, at one point living with relatives for an eight-month period. During this trip, Sonia and Gogol feel like outsiders. India is a foreign place to them, even as they see their parents’ joy at being home.
Gogol grows to despise his name, and is deeply embarrassed by his namesake—the author Nikolai Gogol—and by the fact that the name is not linked to any part of his identity. He does not yet know the story of his father’s train accident. When he is eighteen, he decides to legally change his name to Nikhil, and when he leaves home for Yale this is the name that will follow him. It is as Nikhil that he meets his first love, Ruth, an English major who never meets his parents, even though the two are together for more than two years. They break up after Ruth spends a semester (and then a summer) abroad in England. Nikhil’s escape from the world of “Gogol” is still incomplete, though, as every other weekend he travels home, where his family stubbornly persists in calling him by his pet name.
The escape is pushed one step further when, living in New York after having finished an architecture degree at Columbia, Gogol falls in love with a sophisticated young art historian named Maxine Ratliff, who lives with her elegant and wealthy parents, Gerard and Lydia. Gogol moves into their house, which becomes almost a replacement for his own home. He is fascinated by the Ratliffs, whose vacation home in New Hampshire, with its own family graveyard, is emblematic of the ease, security, and solidity he has never felt growing up divided between two cultures.
His escape with Maxine’s family is cut short when his father dies, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. Ashoke had been living in Ohio on a teaching fellowship, and so was far from his wife and children at the time. Struck by the tragedy of this loss, Gogol returns to his family, finding comfort in the Bengali traditions he had once rebelled against. He drifts away from Maxine, who was never a part of that world, and the two stop seeing one another. Later, returning to New York, he goes on a date (suggested by his mother) with one of the other Bengali children present at the many gatherings of his childhood—Moushumi Mazoomdar. The two hit it off, surprised at the ways in which their familiarity and similar backgrounds draw them together, since both have tried hard to distance themselves from their past. Soon enough, they are married at a large Bengali ceremony in New Jersey.
Although they are happy enough at first, soon small remembrances of Moushumi’s past with her ex-fiancé Graham begin to trouble their relationship. Moushumi, a French Ph.D. candidate at NYU, has always sought independence, and cannot help but feel that marrying Gogol was in some way “settling.” In the end, she has an affair with an old crush, Dimitri Desjardins, and she and Gogol are divorced. In the novel’s last chapter, we see the family coming together again, Sonia accompanied by her new fiancé Ben, to celebrate one final Bengali Christmas Eve in their home, which has been sold. Ashima has decided to live for six months of every year in Calcutta. Reflective and sad that this link to his past is evaporating, Gogol finds a book in his room—a copy of The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol that his father had given him as a birthday present years before, when all Gogol had wanted was to escape that name. Now that there will soon be no one left to call him by it, he feels a desire to reach out toward his past once more, and he sits down on his childhood bed to read his father’s favorite story.