Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, has been appreciated by desis (Indians) and non-desis alike, to the extent that it has been made into a film in India and appreciated worldwide. The book deals with the cultural situation of first generation and second generation Indians in foreign countries, in this case America. I am in a bit of a strange situation when it comes to cultural categories, as I am neither a first nor a second generation Indian… I am somewhere in between, having been born in India and having grown up in the west (something like a 1.5 generation migrant). Stranger still is the fact that, after living in England, making friends there, graduating from college there, getting married there and having a home there, I have revisited my motherland after all these years. My partner and I are currently working in India for a couple of years… My husband is in the second generation migrant category, and we speak to each other in English (with British accents), he watches the football, we eat a mixture of western and Indian food at home, we don’t practise the Hindu rituals our parents practise and we wear mostly western clothes. So, that’s my situation as I begin reading The Namesake…
The book begins with an account of a Bengali couple’s journey to the USA, the wife’s (Ashima’s) sense of alienation as she learns to accept her distance from her family, the lack of authentic Indian food, the cold climate and the sense of being different from those around her. The couple have two children, Gogol and Sonia. The story centres around Gogol’s experience. He hates his name, which was given to him as a pet name but which stuck as his ‘outside’ name. He does not initially know that his father gave him this name because he had been reading a book by Nikolai Gogol when he experienced a serious train accident; waving the book from below the wreckage was the act that allowed him to be seen and rescued. Gogol later changes his name to Nikhil, a name his father had wanted him to adopt for school, but which he had not liked as an infant. The act of naming becomes integral to the book’s exploration of cultural identity. Unlike his mother, Gogol embraces Amercian culture effortlessly, to the extent that he dismisses and discards his Indian identity. He has premarital relationships, goes out with friends and only engages with the rituals of his childhood – of speaking Bengali, attending ‘pujos’ and eating mostly Indian food – when he visits his parents. He visits his parents less and less as he grows independent, preferring his separation from them. This is until his father dies suddenly, when his perspective begins to change. As if in retaliation to his ‘foreignness’ from his parents and from his white American friends, he marries an American-Bengali like himself. But the marriage fails because the couple cannot maintain a sense of connection with each other; Gogol’s wife begins an affair with a man who has the same intellectual interests as her, and Gogol eventually finds out.
The book ends at the point Ashima, Gogol’s mother, is about to return to India to enjoy her retirement. She plans to divide her remaining time between India and America. Sonia is about to get married to an American man who Ashima knows will make her daughter happy. The story is simple but deeply moving, showing the struggle of those who start a life in a foreign country whilst being unable to fully let go of their own cultures and customs. It also shows the more subtle pain of the second generation immigrant, who feels divided between two identities.
What struck me most about the book was that things I thought were specific to my own experience of growing up are actually typical migrant experiences. Such as the loud Indian get-togethers Gogol’s parents have, and his mother’s fussing. It seems to me that the book is ultimately trying to say that however important culture may be in shaping our experiences, it is not the thing which makes us who we are inside. Gogol and his Indian wife have the same cultural experience, but their personalities do not complement. Ashima builds her life around her Bengali community, but when she grows older she realises that America has also become her home, and she cares about her American friends at the library where she works.
The saddest thing about the book is that it is a reminder of cultural fragmentation. People living far from their families and friends in pursuit of new opportunities. But in such a global situation, it becomes even more important to stay connected with loved ones and to be open to unlikely friendships.