We All Came Out of Gogol’s Overcoat

The Uneasy Duality of Identity in The Namesake

The Namesake (2006) | Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

“You are free.”

Mira Nair’s The Namesake is one of my favorite movies, and the person I was when I saw it first is not the same person I am now. 

I was a college sophomore when The Namesake came out in the United States, just beginning to write for and edit the entertainment section of my college newspaper. I had never seen a Mira Nair film, but I agreed to an interview with the director anyway. I remember Nair’s compassion, how she handed me a tissue when I talked about how the elders of the Ganguli family in her film reminded me of my parents. I wrote my review and incorporated her answers to my questions, and that was that. 

But excellent, singular movies have a way of seeping into you, and over the years, I thought about The Namesake all the time. I graduated from college, I struggled to find work in the journalism industry, I went to graduate school to study literature and film, my parents and I suffered an estrangement so severe that we didn’t speak for four years. During that time, I was desperate for anything that could make me feel closer to my parents—anything that could provide the perspective I lacked. So, I turned to Nair’s source material, the award-winning novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, dog-earing so many pages that eventually I gave up. There were too many favorite sections, too many favorite passages, too many favorite chapters. 

I bought the film on DVD, too. Yet I never watched the movie again. I was afraid of admitting who I was when I watched this movie last, and who I have become since then. Some experiences are too precious. Some truths are too hard.

“I have so many regrets,” Gogol says in The Namesake

So do I.

*

Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer of incomparably grateful, efficiently devastating prose. The Namesake, with its depiction of two generations of an Indian family living in the United States and experiencing the contrasts of the old country with the new, is shattering. Each sentence is packed with broad cultural detail and specific character nuance; Lahiri’s narrative construction is fluid and intentional, her observations about the unimaginable difficulty of living are delicate yet insightful. The novel focuses first on Ashima, a young woman studying classical Indian music and English, and Ashoke, a young man already living in the United States and pursuing a doctorate in engineering. The pair’s meeting in Calcutta1 is organized by their parents, and things move quickly when Ashima agrees to the arranged marriage before even knowing Ashoke’s name. 

After the Bengali newlyweds settle into Ashoke’s tiny graduate assistant apartment, they don’t so much fall in love as they fall into awareness: Ashima, of this new life, and Ashoke, of what he owes his wife. The things he must teach her as someone who has already lived in the United States—how to take the train, how to use the laundromat, how to use the gas range to boil water for tea—and, in turn, what Ashima will teach him. Like how to consider someone other than yourself. Like which cultural practices are worth holding onto, and which ones you can let go. Like finding the balance between mourning what you’ve lost, the family you’ve left halfway around the world, and adapting yourself to the life you’ve built on your own. Like how to trust someone you barely know.

When Ashoke tells Ashima the story of the train crash that nearly killed him back in India, that took so many lives while he survived, it’s an admission of something formative. Sharing that tragedy with Ashima so she can understand how deeply it transformed Ashoke is almost like a declaration of love. Nightmares of the crash still plague him, jolt Ashima awake alongside him, until she sings in Bengali to calm him down. Ashoke should have died that day—died with the crumpled pages of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, the story he was reading when the crash occurred, in his hand—but he didn’t. 

Again he tastes the dust on his tongue, sees the twisted train, the giant overturned iron wheels. None of this was supposed to happen. But no, he had survived it. He was born twice in India, and then a third time, in America. Three lives by 30. For this he thanks his parents, and their parents, and the parents of their parents. He does not thank God; he openly reveres Marx and quietly refuses religion. But there is one more dead soul he has to thank. He cannot thank the book; the book has perished, as he nearly did, in scattered pieces, in the earliest hours of an October day, in a field 209 kilometers from Calcutta. Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life.

His new life, halfway around the world from that of his parents, is as stupendous an occurrence as the birth of Ashima and Ashoke’s first child, a son who they name Gogol until they can settle on a proper “good” name, as is Bengali tradition. With Gogol’s birth and then his younger sister Sonia, The Namesake shifts into its second half: Following those first-generation American children as they navigate life in the country in which they were born, and yet still feeling other—in which so many tell them, through microaggressions and outright prejudice, that they don’t belong. 

*

Nair’s adaptation of The Namesake, released four years after Lahiri’s novel, stars Indian superstars Irrfan Khan2 and Tabu as Ashoke and Ashima, respectively, and Indian-American Kal Penn as Gogol, whose identities—Indian heritage, American nationality—exist concurrently in an uneasy, ever-shifting balance. In the film, Gogol is presented first as a sulky, standoffish high school outcast, resentful of his peers’ mocking but simultaneously disinterested in their acceptance. Penn is lanky and gangly, peering out from behind a curtain of frizzy hair, eschewing a lot of the goofy silliness he portrayed in his breakout Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

At home, Gogol is casual, almost to the point of rudeness, with his parents, who don’t understand why he needs to listen to Pearl Jam so loudly, why he can’t get along with Sonia (Sahira Nair), or why he is so obsessed with legally changing his name from Gogol to Nikhil. Ashoke answers Gogol’s request for a name change with “Anything is possible in America. Do as you wish,” and his son mistakenly treats it like a victory. He smiles over his bowl of cereal when Ashoke leaves the kitchen, unaware of why the name of this Russian author means so much to his father—and in that moment, self-involved enough not to ask. 

I recognized Gogol’s delight, sympathizing with what seems initially like a triumph, because I lived that feeling every day. My parents are distinctly different from Ashoke and Ashima. Our family is Iranian, not Indian; my parents were raised Muslim, not Hindu; they met here in the United States in graduate school and fell in love. They went back to Iran to wed, and then settled in the D.C. suburbs to raise my older brother and myself. 

As a child, I learned the accommodations you make as a first-generation immigrant, the space you build into your life for additional rituals and behaviors that your classmates or your neighbors or the school bully—the one who makes third-grade recess a personal hell for you every single day—don’t entirely understand. The weekend trips to the specialty Iranian grocery store for rice and pomegranate molasses and cheese, and to the Iranian bakery in another state for barbari flatbread, fluffy and warm and nutty from the sesame seeds baked on top; semi-regular phone calls to relatives in Iran, voices I barely recognized belonging to faces I did not know; adapted versions of the American holidays my parents celebrated to humor us (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas) and Iranian holidays, like Nowruz, that garnered more sincere efforts; cooking days beforehand for big dinner parties with other Iranians—people we knew because, most importantly, they came from the same place as us and, more often than not, that kinship was the only thing that mattered. In Lahiri’s novel, I saw so much that reminded me of my parents, of the communities they tried to build for us, and of the immense sacrifices that never quite stop:

In some senses Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost, those who survive and are consoled by memory alone. Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch.

There are enough similarities between Ashoke and Ashima and my own parents for me to feel a kinship with Gogol that I haven’t felt with another fictional character ever since. I too grew up in a house that sometimes felt stuck in another place and time, chafing against my parents’ restrictions instead of thinking about how they also grew up in another place and time. In college, I shook off the weight of familial expectations. I took a class in Persian literature and film and began a relationship with the only non-Iranian in the class, and didn’t tell my parents.

I knew the rules I grew up with—no dating, no kissing, no sex, no boys, and certainly not any non-Iranian boys—and only very briefly considered the effect of breaking them before doing it anyway. Much like Gogol expresses to his high school friends, and later to his girlfriend Max (Jacinda Barrett), I wanted to be “free.” 

*

Kal Penn in The Namesake (2006) | Fox Searchlight Pictures

Chunks of Lahiri’s text are left out of or rearranged in Nair’s adaptation of The Namesake. In the novel, the family visits the Taj Mahal before Gogol’s junior year of high school, while in the film, the trip takes place after Gogol’s graduation. Lahiri spends a good amount of time following Gogol, now Nikhil, as an undergrad studying architecture at Yale University, where he dates a young white woman named Ruth. When she goes abroad for a year and comes back disinterested in continuing the relationship, Lahiri writes, “He longs for her as his parents have longed, all these years, for the people they love in India—for the first time in his life, he knows this feeling.” But in the film, Ruth is entirely absent. Instead, we jump forward into Nikhil’s adult years. 

There is a streamlined quality to Nair’s adaptation that moves the film along at a brisk pace, a preference for the most impactful plot developments instead of the many little steps Lahiri takes to get there. If certain scenes in the film’s back half feel choppy, it’s because they are—but that’s less Nair’s fault than a credit to Lahiri, whose work is so dense that a truly by-the-book cinematic version seems impossible. 

What is lost in the exchange is Lahiri’s broad consideration of how insidiously the effects of colonialism and marginality impact the entire Ganguli family. Onscreen, Nair focuses the struggle of aspirational assimilation primarily onto Gogol/Nikhil/Nick. When we meet him again in Nair’s film, his hair is fashionably cut, he wears stylish outfits reflecting his new cosmopolitan aesthetic, and he’s shopping at Tiffany & Co. for his white, blonde girlfriend Max. The world Max inhabits couldn’t be further away from the Gangulis, who Nick has kept parceled away from his adult life. Max’s parents, Gerald (Daniel Gerroll) and Lydia (Glenne Headly), are the epitome of New York City wealth, the kind of people who would say something like, “We don’t see color.” Which is to say, they don’t actually see Nick. They have accepted him, but they don’t really know him. 

There is a certain level of emotional distance that Nick has used to reinvent himself, which Nair makes clear through her distillation of adult Nick, and Penn communicates through his angsty-turned-standoffish performance. On the one hand, he’s not wrong to identify himself as a native New Yorker when one of Lydia’s friends asks him when he left India; it’s racist to assume that any brown person must be un-American. But on the other hand, the ways in which Nick flattens his identity—through, most obviously, his name—is a running away from something. It’s a retreat, rather than the win that Gogol, years ago at that kitchen table, thought he’d negotiated from Ashoke and Ashima.

What begins to change this consideration of self is when Ashoke shares the story of the train crash and his reason for naming him “Gogol”—the only personal admission we see Ashoke make to either of his children. When Nair flashes back to the train crash, we pick up where the film’s pre-credits sequence left off. A chaotic mélange of bent and battered train cars, splatters and pools of blood, disconnected limbs and crushed bodies—and amid all that destruction, a single hand, clutching a collection of pages, reaching up toward the light. 

Ashoke: I kept hearing Ghosh’s voice in my head: “Pack a pillow and blanket. See the world. You will never regret it.” That is how I came to America and you got your name. 

Gogol: Baba, is that what you think of when you think of me? Do I remind you of that night? 

Ashoke: Not at all. You remind me of everything that followed. Every day since then has been a gift, Gogol. 

The horror of this scene is reflected in Nick’s face, at his hushed concern that he has always been a memento of his father’s trauma, and Penn and Khan are perfect together here. The former exhibits the shock required at such a personal admission from a father he realizes he loves but doesn’t quite recognize in this moment, and the latter, with a sad, quiet smile, has finally made plain a piece of himself that he has carried, mostly alone, for so long. In that scene, so much of what is unsaid between Ashoke and Gogol doesn’t disappear but is secondary to the greater amount of honesty between them. For Ashoke, his son still unsettles him; for Gogol, his father telling this one story demonstrates how much more he hasn’t told him. 

But there is an emotional purity to this exchange, a gentle melancholy that is a result of being willing to love and be loved, that Nair excels at incorporating throughout The Namesake. When Ashima and Ashoke take a trip to India, it is clear how close the two have grown after 20 years together: She lightly teases Ashoke about wanting a romantic gesture from her with, “You want me to say ‘I love you,’ like the Americans?” Their marriage was arranged, but the affection they share now is genuine. Decades before, at that meeting set up by their parents, Ashima boldly stepped into and walked around in Ashoke’s brown leather oxfords—stamped with a MADE IN THE U.S.A. emblem—before even knowing his name. Now visitors in their homeland, Ashima loves and trusts Ashoke enough to tenderly mock him about needing to hear it. There is a certainty within Ashima and Ashoke as individuals that allows for their dedication to each other, and it is that sureness of self that Nick is searching for. 

That searching, Nair and Lahiri show us, is the first-generation burden, exacerbated by tragedy and undulled by joy. When Ashoke dies of a heart attack, Nick’s life seems to snap into focus: He shaves his head in a Hindu expression of mourning; he breaks up with Max; he begins going by Nikhil again, dropping the anglicized nickname; and he moves back home, living again with Sonia and Ashima under one roof. 

Ashima gently warns him against holding back from living his life, and so at her suggestion, he reaches out to the daughter of family friends, Moushumi Mazumdar (Zuleikha Robinson). As a teen visiting the Ganguli home with her parents, Moushumi was frizzy-haired and pretentious. But much like time changed Nikhil, it has changed Moushumi, too. Moushumi is sexualized in a way Max never was: Her fishnet stockings, mauve lipstick, exposed collarbone, and smoky eyeshadow are Westernized declarations of sensuality, and Nikhil notices them all. Their shared Bengali heritage pleases both Ashima and the Mazumdars, and quickly, Nikhil and Moushumi are married in a traditional ceremony much like Ashima and Ashoke’s decades before. 

On their wedding night, the two joke easily, nonchalantly, bonded by cultural recognition—they spiritedly mimic a Bollywood dance routine in a honeymoon suite decorated with rose petals; Nikhil puts on an exaggerated, Apu-like accent when they look over their stack of gifts. The first and only time Max met Ashoke and Ashima, she told him, “I’d never have guessed they’re your parents. You’re so different.” With Moushumi, there are no such expressions of implied cultural superiority. She knows who the Gangulis are, and she knows that where Nikhil came from will always be part of who he is.  

*

One of the most glaring shortcomings of the cinematic Namesake, compared with its source material, is its flatly villainous portrayal of Moushumi. Once she and Nikhil are married, Nair’s film continues to prioritize his perspective, eschewing the majority of Moushumi’s character development from Lahiri’s novel. In the text, we understand Moushumi to have experienced similar isolation to Nikhil as a youth, and to have thrown herself into her studies as a way to stand apart. While Nikhil’s reinvention occurred at Yale, Moushumi’s was in Paris, where she became increasingly known in the literary academic field—and prone to affairs with married men. Moushumi’s desires are more contextualized, her fear about being simply a Bengali housewife clearly articulated; her own first-generation struggle made plain. In the film, however, her backstory is relegated to one hazy flashback, with Moushumi in backseam stockings, flirting with a man on a train.

When we learn of Moushumi’s affair, her betrayal serves solely as another component of Nikhil’s story, and of his realization that embracing only his Bengali heritage is as inadequate a reflection of his identity as his wholehearted rejection of it earlier in life. “That’s not why I love you,” Nikhil insists to Moushumi, but the moment rings false. More real is how Nikhil explains the separation to Ashima later, “We’re different people. We wanted different things.” Nikhil’s admission is a step forward, and an acknowledgment that it is time to stand alone. No longer Gogol. No longer Nick. Now just Nikhil Ganguli—the name he chose, the name that encapsulates everything he was, the name that he must be. 

In those final scenes of The Namesake, so many of the components Nair sprinkled throughout the film come together in the portrait of a family accepting their own dualities, finding their own paths forward, navigating toward a future that reflects all aspects of their past. For the entirety of the film’s run time, Nair unexpectedly alternated between New York City and Calcutta, the East River and the Ganges, using transitional scenes to compare the places the Gangulis call home. When Ashima announces that she will spend six months each year in the United States and six months in India, we think of those vignettes, those glimpses of life here and life there, and of how each place lives in Ashima’s heart, alongside the memory of Ashoke. 

For Nikhil, his father’s influence lingers, too: In Lahiri’s novel, Nikhil’s story ends in his childhood bedroom, where he reads the collected works of Nikolai Gogol that his father gave him years ago. Ashoke once told him, “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat. It will make sense to you one day,” and Nikhil aims to learn why. There is a sadness to Lahiri’s ending that Nair’s film removes, however, opting instead for something slightly more Hollywood. With Ashoke’s advice to go see the world guiding him, Nikhil literally follows in his father’s footsteps. He boards a train, Gogol’s works in hand, and settles down to read. “You will never regret it, Gogol,” we hear Ashoke say, and the film ends as it began: a Ganguli on a train, crossing into the unknown. 

*

The Namesake (2006) | Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve had the same nightmare for years now, and in it, I’m always drowning. Sometimes I feel the sand on my face and the waves pounding on my back, driving me deeper into the silt. The helplessness is a constant. I can’t breathe; I’m choking on my own spit. I’m kicking so hard that I wake myself up. Every time, the same fear: that I’ll be lost. That my father won’t find me and pull me out of the riptide. That his hand won’t grasp my flailing arm and haul me out of the water. That we won’t share this moment together—this moment that I, for some reason, associate with near death. That my brain can’t process and reconfigure as near life

I nearly drowned when I was in middle school, but my father saved me. I didn’t go into the ocean again for nearly two decades. The nightmare resurged often in the years when my parents and I were estranged, after I came clean about being in love with that boy from my class, after I moved out, after my parents and I said things to each other that I’m not sure any of us will ever forget. During that time, I would barely fall asleep before kicking myself awake. Sometimes I woke up after falling from the bed to the floor. I worried that maybe the nightmares were actually my epilepsy getting worse, and that worrying in turn actually did make my epilepsy worse. 

I couldn’t bring myself to watch The Namesake again, to see a family I identified with so strongly only come together after the death of their patriarch, the mannerisms of whom so closely aligned with my own father’s. Not when the gulf between us felt insurmountable. Not when I left voicemails that they didn’t return. Not when an unexpected meeting between myself and my father ended in shouting and tears and threats. Not when at the same time as I was trying to learn more about Iranian culture—reading more poetry, learning more history, watching more films from Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi and Forough Farrokhzad and Asghar Farhadi—I was becoming increasingly convinced that my parents’ expectations and my desires seemed fundamentally incompatible. 

But time has a way of warping you. So does remorse. Put together, they might make something like acceptance. My mother called me one night. I picked up the phone. Incrementally, my parents and I have made our way back to each other. I am reminded, regularly and acutely, that there are many ways we will never see eye to eye. I might never be Iranian enough. I might always be too American. I want more from my parents than they are willing to give, and they want more from me in the same way, and the compromise is that neither of us is entirely happy, but we’re happier than we were. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. It’s love. 

I still have the drowning nightmare. I don’t think that fear will ever fully leave me. But what I think about sometimes after waking up is the scene in The Namesake when the Gangulis, in the winter cold, take a trip to the ocean. In the book, the location is Cape Cod. Although the movie leaves the location unidentified, Nair presents the flashback in desaturated greys and blues, overcast and blustery. While Ashima, the only riot of color in a red coat and a green scarf, cradles a swaddled baby Sonia and waits by the car, Ashoke and a young Gogol make their way across a rocky outcropping, picking their steps carefully from boulder to boulder. Together, hand in hand, they reach the end of the formation, the ocean stretching before them, the waves crashing around them—and the camera left in the car far behind.

Ashoke: All this way [and] no picture!…We just have to remember it then, huh? Will you remember this day, Gogol? 

Gogol: How long do I have to remember it? 

Ashoke: Ah, remember it always. Remember that you and I made the journey and went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go. 

My father saving me from drowning—a journey we made together. My parents coming to America individually, and then finding each other and falling in love—a journey they made together. My reunion with them, when I thought the schism between us too great—a journey we are still on, together. 

  1. “Calcutta” was officially renamed Kolkata in 2001, but both The Namesake novel and film use the former.
  2. When one of my colleagues ran into Irrfan Khan at the Sundance Film Festival and asked him to call me, I heard his voice and burst into tears. I’ve treasured that memory since, especially in the days since Khan’s recent death.