The first time I was pregnant and poring over name books, I quickly realized that naming a child is the one decision a couple makes that allows no room for compromise. If your favorite name happens to be the same as your partner’s 3rd grade playground nemesis, that’s it; you have to find another option. An old Saturday Night Live skit shows a couple arguing so fiercely about naming their baby — each of them turning the other’s suggestion into a playground taunt — that they wind up divorcing.
The second time around, we had to at least pretend to consider our son Ben’s suggestions, like “Telephone” and “Benna.” Eventually we agreed on two girl’s names and crossed our fingers that these would be enough. But I packed the name books in my hospital bag, just in case. In the pictures of us in the hospital after our second son’s birth, a whiteboard listing various possibilities is visible in the background: Daniel; Josiah; Leo; Elijah. We left the hospital with our red-haired beauty still unnamed, and the hospital staff distressed. “What’s really the problem with filing this paperwork later?” I asked. “Well,” someone finally admitted, “If the baby doesn’t have a name, it makes it harder for us to bill you.”
Well then, I thought, I’ll be rushing right back.
It took us three days to settle on Elijah, three days during which our friends and family — all of whom had seen that whiteboard — kindly kept their opinions to themselves.
This all came back to me when I went to see The Namesake (Mira Nair, 2006) with a friend who is expecting the birth of her second daughter any day. She and her husband haven’t yet settled on a name (although their four year old lobbies hard for her choice by making elaborate drawings of the letter C) and as we waited for the lights to dim I thought of how often lately she and I have sat through to the very end of a film, reading the credits carefully in search of potential names.
Although The Namesake is delicately transporting, I’m not sure the story — in which characters are alternately confined and compelled by their names — did anything to lighten my friend’s anxiety about naming her own baby. At least the film depicts the process of naming as an uncomplicated task: when Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, immigrants to New York after their arranged marriage in Calcutta, welcome their first child, they simply await a letter from her grandmother announcing the boy’s name. Ashima flusters the hospital staff with her bemused refusal to label him “Baby Boy Ganguli.” Instead, pressed, she lists a pet name on the birth certificate: Gogol, for the book that saved Ashoke’s life in a train crash. “We would not be here but for Gogol’s blessings,” she says. And so their son’s life between two cultures is established.
The film, like the exquisite novel on which it is based, focuses on the small details of daily life and on the big events that anchor a family as it depicts Gogol’s struggle to sort out his relationship to his heritage, a struggle exemplified by his dissatisfaction with his name. His classmates call him Gargle, and he comes to despise the name for its association with an odd, unhappy (“But talented!” as his father continually reminds him) writer. As a young man he reverts to the “good name” finally chosen for him, Nikhil. With its connotations of infinity, Nikhil (which his girlfriend and family shorten to the American Nick, rather than the Bengali Niku) lets him be anything while he sorts out how to be Gogol.
Ashima lets him have his way with his name, commenting ruefully that “in this country, the children decide.” Her transformation, from uncertain immigrant to confident mother, is as central as Gogol’s journey, though far more subtly portrayed by the acclaimed Bollywood actress, Tabu. Just before she first meets Ashoke, in Calcutta, Ashima notices the “Made in USA” label in the shoes he’s left outside the room; she slides her feet in and takes some tentatively bouncing steps, as if to try out both the husband and the new country he offers her. In New York City, like any new immigrant, she maintains habits of home, wearing a sari through an icy winter, or mixing up an approximation of a common Bengali snack using Rice Krispies, peanuts, and spices. But it’s one thing for her to live Calcutta in New York; quite another for her children, who are only ever wide-eyed tourists in India. So while the family uses both Bengali and English, it is telling that the parents nickname Gogol a Bengali-like “Gogoli,” while his assimilated sister calls him “Goggles.”
For Ashima, being the mother of American children is unexpected. She cries at the prospect of raising her children in this “lonely country,” but Ashoke, referencing her name’s intimations of boundlessness, reminds Ashima of the country’s limitless opportunity and freedom, of how much it could give their children. Still, she complains to a co-worker that America is pulling them away from her; she struggles against their adolescent disrespect (“Don’t call us guys!”) and expects her grown son to answer her frequent late night phone calls. (Although, of course, perhaps this is not specific to her cultural background!)
But in the end, she’s assured enough, this Indian mother of American children, to urge Gogol to reconcile with his very American ex-girlfriend, while simultaneously suggesting he call the Bengali daughter of friends. And when she is later widowed, she decides to split her time between Calcutta and New York. “I want to be free,” she says; her children well on their way in life, she can resume the music career she left behind in India.
The Namesake leaves its two main characters starting down new pathways. Gogol is coming to an accommodation with his heritage and his namesake: at the end, in an echo of the film’s opening view of his father, we see Gogol sitting on a train, finally reading The Overcoat. He is learning to live the many implications of his name. Ashima, meanwhile, is back where we first saw her, singing in her music class, the sounds pouring fluidly from her lips. At first it’s hard to tell that the scene is not a flashback to her youth; we cannot immediately discern the signs of time’s passage, but she seems to play more slowly, to pause and reflect between notes. She’s as free, now, as any mother ever is, her children not with her, but clearly still in her. She shows us new possibilities in the meaning of her name.