Identity in the Namesake essay

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Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake chronicles the life of Indian immigrants, the Ganguli family, in the United States of America starting from 1968, their quest for a new identity as well as their personal pursuits of happiness. After the head of the family Ashoke Ganguli graduates from college in Calcutta, India, he applies for and is granted fellowship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and his wife Ashima arrive in the USA, and eighteen months later Ashima gives birth to their first child. The child is given a quaint name of Gogol, in honor of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, whom Ashoke’s father admired and the book by whom accidentally saved Ashoke’s life in a train catastrophe. As a child, Gogol is happy with his name, but as he grows older he starts to hate it. As he is finishing high school, Gogol officially changes his name to a more common Nikhil and uses it henceforward. At the same time, he strives to break free from the traditional ties of his Indian family and fully embrace American values. Through his years at Yale and later at Columbia studying architecture, he is popular with ladies, goes to parties and smokes marijuana. Nikhil-Gogol remains perpetually unhappy in his relationships with people due to the lack of ethnic identification. While working for an architectural firm in New York City, Nikhil-Gogol meets attractive and educated Maxine, the daughter of a rich family of Anglo-Saxon liberals with an easygoing lifestyle, who welcome him to their home. The young man’s own family, however, are not too happy with his romantic choice. After meeting Maxine, Gogol’s mother Ashima hopes he will soon realize that the attractive worldly girl is but a temporary attachment. Soon Gogol’s father dies of a heart attack and Gogol is crestfallen. He distances himself from Maxine, who doesn’t seem to understand his grief, and eventually breaks up with her. He returns into the family spending more time with his mother Ashima and his sister Sonia. After some time Ashima arranges Gogol’s meeting with his childhood acquaintance, a Bengali woman Moushumi, whom he hasn’t seen for a long time. Although at first Gogol is pessimistic about dating Moushumi, they eventually fall in love with each other and get married. Their marriage, however, is not destined to last and comes to an end when Gogol finds out that Moushumi is unfaithful to him.

At the close of the novel Ashima sells her house in the USA in order to go and stay in India with her brothers and sisters. At her farewell party, where many Bengali guests are present, Gogol withdraws into his old room and finds the collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol, which his father presented to him. Fascinated, he begins reading the book, which promises to help him embark on a new road of discovery. Issues of ethnic identity dominate this insightful and lyrical novel as its characters face the conflict of cultures in which they perpetually have to redefine themselves.

Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli represent the East Indian ethnic group of immigrants to the USA. It should be noted that the East Indian immigration to the United States started in 1820 and between that year and 1976 as many as 130, 000 East Indians arrived in the United States (Thernstrom, 1980, p. 296). At present, according to Lapsansky-Werner (2008), Asian Americans constitute the second-largest source of the new immigrants:

In 2000, they were nearly 23 percent of the total immigrant population, with the largest numbers coming from China, the Philippines, and India… As a group, Asian immigrants have had widely varying backgrounds, but overall they have the highest level of education. Some came to America with college degrees and marketable skills and found professional jobs. Others came from war-torn countries, with very little education (p. 792).

It is in search of a better life for themselves and their children that the East Indians, like the fictional Ashoke and Ashima, have been driven to leave their country and settle in the USA. According to academic and historian Ronald Takaki (1989), who researched ethnic identity issues, “in America Asian immigrants encountered long hours of labor and racial discrimination, but they did not permit exterior demands to determine wholly the direction and quality of their lives. Energies, pent up in the old countries, were unleashed, and they found themselves pursuing urges and doing things they had thought beyond their capabilities” (p. 18).

In spite of the difficulties of life in the new land, Ashoke and Ashima do their best to uphold the Bengali traditions. They invite their numerous Bengali friends to parties at their home, where national food is served, Bengali music is played, and Bengali language is spoken. Here’s a description of one such party, Gogol’s annaprasan, the rice-feeding ceremony at the age of six months: “Gogol is dressed as an infant Bengali groom, in a pale yellow pajama-punjabi from his grandmother in Calcutta. The fragrance of cumin seeds, sent in the package along with the pajamas lingers in the weave. A headpiece that Ashima cut out of paper, decorated with pieces of aluminum foil, is tied around Gogol’s head with string. He wears a thin fourteen-karat gold-chain around his neck” (Lahiri, 2004, p. 39).

However, while doing their best to maintain their Indian identity, the Gangulis learn to integrate into the American culture:

They learn to roast turkeys, albeit rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne, at Thanksgiving, to nail a wreath at their door in December, to wrap woolen scarves around snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and hide them around the house. For the sake of Gogol and Sonia they celebrate, with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati (Lahiri, 2004, p. 64).

It is worth noting that although the novel’s protagonist Gogol Ganguli is able to understand and speak the language of his parents, he never learns to write it and, as he grows up, he is rather more interested in American comics than in the characters of the Indian myths that his mother recounts him. The culture of his family and the majority White culture clash within him when Gogol falls in love with a non-Indian girl Maxine Ratliff, whose well-educated family builds its life around the ‘live-and-let-live’ principle. After Gogol’s father dies, Maxine is sympathetic, but doesn’t understand his personal need and the Indian tradition to internalize the experience. Although in the beginning Gogol and Maxine were deeply in love with each other, their relationship does not survive. Theoretically speaking, they fail at “the third phase of competence” in developingintercultural relationships as defined by identity researchers William R. Cupach and Tadasu Todd Imahori. According to them, the first phase involves a tentative search for identities on which communicators share certain sameness. The second phase involves enmeshment of the identities of the communicators into “a mutually acceptable and convergent relational identity, in spite of the fact that their cultural identities are still divergent” (as cited in Gudykunst, 2003, p. 176). However, ethnic and cultural differences are not the only challenge to personal happiness, the novel seemingly implies, when the reader learns about the subsequent events n Gogol’s life. He falls in love and marries a woman of his own ethnicity, Moushumi Mazoomdar, but ends up being unhappy again when he finds out about her betrayal. At the end of the novel Gogol Ganguli finally opens the book by his namesake, Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, which his father presented to him. The story that he reads is called The Overcoat, and it tells of the plight of a pathetic and self-effacing clerk in the nineteenth-century St Petersburg, Akaky Akakiyevich, whose life is illuminated by the single fact of having a new overcoat. His joy is short-lived, however – as he goes out of a colleague’s house one evening, Akaky Akakiyevich is mugged, and his prize possession is stolen. Unable to recover from his grief, he dies: 

A being disappeared, who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, and who never even attracted to himself the attention of those students of human nature who omit no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly and examining it under the microscope. A being who bore meekly the jibes of the department, and went to his grave without having done one unusual deed, but to whom, nevertheless, at the close of his life, appeared a bright visitant in the form of a cloak, which momentarily cheered his poor life, and upon him, thereafter, an intolerable misfortune descended, just as it descends upon the heads of the mighty of this world!  (Gogol, 2004).

By having her protagonist Gogol Ganguli read the story of Akaky Akakiyevich at the end of her novel, Lahiri seems to emphasize that happiness is impossible unless one first defines and achieves one’s identity in cultural, ethnic, and any other terms terms while also enjoying the advantage of having your feet in two worlds.         

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