The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is an author who has emerged as a voice for many of those who suffer from “Foreign-born confused Desi” syndrome. Born in London and raised in US, she picks up a theme that is a reflection of her own life and experiences. Her debut collection of nine short stories “Interpreter of Maladies” (1999} had won the Pulitzer Prize 2000 for fiction, New Yorker Prize for Best First Book and the PEN/Hemingway Award. The stories set in India and U.S dealt with the dilemmas of people of South Asian Diaspora.

The debut novel “The Namesake” (2001) is a deeper insight into the agony of the immigrant families who try to inculcate in their children the cultural values of their “Desh” but the latter grow up with confused identities.

It covers a period from 1968-2000 and revolves around four members of the Ganguly family Ashoke, Ashima and their two children Gogol and Sonali. Gogol is the protagonist of the story. It begins with Ashima Ganguly expecting a baby in Cambridge. The author simultaneously introduces the readers to the background of the story in Calcutta. Traditional Bengali girl Ashima Bhaduri is married off to Ashoke Ganguly who he is pursuing Ph.D.from Boston. While Ashoke adapts to the new world by keeping himself busy with his studies, she longs for her homeland. Her pregnancy aggravates her loneliness. They eagerly wait for the letter sent by her grandmother to suggest a name for the baby, which unfortunately never reaches them. To add to their woes, the rule in America compels them to compromise with their custom and name the child before leaving the hospital. Ashoke names him “Gogol,” after a Russian author Nikolai Gogol. This name becomes the focal point of the life of the baby. He grows up and feels inferior because of his name. In school, he feels embarrassed when learns that Nikolai Gogol was a frustrated man. On his fourteenth birthday, his dad gifts him a book by Nikolai Gogol and says, “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat.” What’s that supposed to mean?” Gogol asks. “It will make sense to you one day,” his father replies.

Gogol lives life on his own terms. As a child, he refuses to change his official name to Nikhil in school because he feels no attachment for his new name. As he grows up, he himself gets it changed to Nikhil although his parents stop him. One day his father tells him that the Russian author saved his life one fateful night. Gogol asks him, “Do I remind you of that night?” “You remind me of everything that followed,” his father replies. However, problems do not end here. Gogol keeps on running away from his culture. He falls in love with a white girl named Maxine and enjoys the company of her parents but feels ashamed of his own parents because they do not fit into American culture.

Ashima and Ashoke are rooted in Bengali culture. Ashima is a typical Bengali woman who never addresses her husband by his name, prepares mixture of rice krispies, planter peanuts, and onions in a foreign land. She teaches her son poem by Tagore and the name of deities and hates when Gogol is taken on a school trip to a cemetery, which is against Indian culture. They take their children to the traditional festivities and get-together of Bengali community over there. Going to Calcutta is a joy for them but the two children have no attachment to either India or their relatives. Gogol and his sister love Christmas more than Durga Puja and find Bengali cultural lessons boring. Like Indian parents, Ashima does not like it when Gogol’s girlfriend Maxine addresses her by name and hides their relationship from her Bengali community. Gogol breaks up with Maxine and marries an American Bengali girl Maushumi Mazoomdar. However, marriage proves a disaster because she too has a Western lifestyle.
The story is moving. It is not just about the name but is a quest for an identity in a ‘foreign’ land. In his quest to know himself, he begins to understand the values and customs followed by his parents. He is a person who learns from his own experiences. At one place, he remembers how he laughed when his father had shaved off his head at the time of his grandfather’s demise. All the rituals make no sense to him as a child but he obediently performs all of them after his father Ashoke passes away. The novel ends with Ashima preparing to go back to Calcutta but she is not the same person who missed her “Desh” all the time. Now, she has many special memories related to this ‘foreign land’. “For thirty three years she missed her life in India. Now she will miss her job at the library,… She will miss the country in which she had grown to know and love her husband.”  In the last moment, Gogol finally opens The Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol and reads the story Overcoat that had given his father a new life.

The author uses very simple yet a very impressive language. The conflict of generations is shown in a sophisticated manner. One can feel the pain of the parents who make every effort to keep children intact with their roots. However, one can also understand the misery of children who have to deal with two different worlds. What is right in one culture is unacceptable in another. Jhumpa’s writing skills make the characters very real. The readers would also feel as if they have lived those years with the characters. She artfully tries to give insight into both the Bengali as well as foreign culture. In a way, she has given voice to several people who go abroad in search of better prospects. They do try to retain their cultural values. However, the second or third generation finds it hard to live up to their expectations. The novel has substance and is worth reading.

Nidhi Bisht

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