Culture October 30, 2016
“The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri is a story of immigration, identity and love. The novels begins by introducing Ashima and Ashoke, a recently married couple from India who are on their way to their new lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ashoke, an engineer at the university, finds it easier to settle down in the United States, but his wife clings to the life she lived in India.
The novel may open with Ashima and Ashoke’s new life, but their son, Gogol, named after the Russian author, is the main protagonist. After Gogol’s birth, the reader sees the first grating of Indian and American cultures. The couple isn’t allowed to leave the hospital without naming their son, but in India, children have both a proper and a familiar name. Ashima and Ashoke don’t know what to choose. When they finally settle on Gogol, they don’t realize that they will be condemning their son to a lifetime of teasing and hardship.
As Gogol makes his way through school, he becomes aware of the differences between his parents and his friends’ parents. He pushes back against the traditional Indian values that his parents try to impress upon him, and he begins to live his life as an American, which his parents have a hard time accepting.
Gogol’s struggle isn’t so much that he was born to Indian parents, but rather that his name has no connection to either part of his identity. His name is neither Indian nor American; it’s Russian. His name reflects the nothingness he is prone to feeling, his fruitless search for identity. But when he changes his name to the more respectable Nikhil, he might just miss his childhood name.
Highlighting the problems associated with love and love matches, this is a good book to read on arranged marriages, since Ashima and Ashoke did not choose each other but learned to love each other throughout their time together. But growing up as an American, Gogol wants to experience love without his parent’s interference.
When Gogol marries his childhood family friend, Maushami Muzumdar, a Bengali woman with an independent streak, he thinks he has found the perfect bridge between the two cultures. But when their marriage falls apart, it serves as a reminder to Gogol that just because they have the same background doesn’t mean things are sure to work out.
What Lahiri captures so beautifully in this novel is the intergenerational divide in immigrant families. Ashima and Ashoke grew up in India and cling to their Bengali traditions even after they move to America. Even though they try to pass their culture onto their children, Gogol and his sister are Americans and push back against the lifestyle they could never understand, much to the dismay of their parents.
In several ways, the story reflects Lahiri’s own struggle to find her identity after her family moved to Rhode Island. Born Nilanjana Sudeshna, her teacher called her by her pet name “Jhumpa” because it was easier to pronounce. “I always felt so embarrassed by my name… You feel like you’re causing someone pain just by being who you are.”
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