From time to time during the next month I will be posting passages from The Namesake that illustrate what a wonderful book this is. In the fifth chapter, Gogol Ganguli, the thoroughly American son of the still very Bengali Ashima and Ashoke, is about to begin college. And for this new phase of his life he wants a new name. He's always hated being called "Gogol," and his father Ashoke has never fully explained the importance of the name. In addition to being his favorite writer, Ashoke credits Gogol with saving his life. Back in India long before Gogol's birth, Ashoke had been traveling to see his grandparents when his train derailed. The rescue team might never have found Ashoke, his pelvis and right leg broken, trapped inside the overturned car, unable to speak, had he not raised his hand just enough that they could see it holding a page of Gogol's story "The Overcoat," which he had been reading at the moment of the crash. Like a white flag of distress, the page caught the eye of the rescuers and they pulled him out.
Young Gogol knows nothing of this. He just knows he wants a name that's comparatively normal. Trying to explain to his parents why he wants a new name, he says, "Nobody takes me seriously." "Who does not take you seriously?" his father asks.
"People," he said, lying to his parents. For his father had a point; the only person who didn't take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished it were otherwise, was Gogol.
I love this passage because it illustrates not just the angst of being a teenager, but the irony of human self-consciousness. So many of us walk around troubled by something about ourselves, that we agonize over and wish we could change, not realizing that most people probably don't notice it. Gogol hates his name and is conflicted about being Bengali. But if he were just another WASP, he would simply find something else about himself to hate, to be conflicted about, because that's who teenagers are. That's who people are. Gogol's position on the border of two cultures simply magnifies the angst and self-consciousness we all feel at times.