Gogol’s Namesake Essay
Immigrants moving to the United States are faced with the pressing question of whether or not to assimilate into American culture. Many of those involved in diasporic situations feel that adapting to the social norms of their new surroundings is an act of betraying their roots in which their heritage and all preexisting traditions will be lost. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake highlights this struggle through the eyes of the Ganguli family.
The novel ultimately shows us that one can simultaneously belong to two cultures, in this case Indian and American culture. Many scholars are hung up on the fact that protagonist Gogol must belong to one culture or the other. Heinze’s “Diasporic Overcoat?” suggests that Gogol puts on an “overcoat” through the switching of his name to represent the switching of his identity across various relationships and social situations.
In doing so, he says “by implication one is never totally free of an overcoat, there is no such thing as a pristine and authentic identity… (Heinze 197-198)” This quote demonstrates Heinze taking a stand and stating that there is no fixed identity. I suggest that Gogol does indeed obtain a national and cultural identity.
The characterization of Gogol’s identity can be viewed as a spectrum that is continuously changing. At one end of the spectrum is his Indian cultural identity and the other is his American. At different points in his life Gogol has different degrees of American and Indian cultures present within him. So rather than arguing Gogol has no set identity, instead his identity is classified by his movement along his hybrid cultural spectrum. Other scholars that write on the issues of cultural hybridity focus on the idea that the person involved in diasporic situations are caught some where between their two given cultures.
The author of an article applying concepts of cultural hybridity in music, particularly Arabian Jazz states that those with hybrid identities create a new “imagined community’ in which cultures may interact and influence each other in a state of co-existence and a “third space” is created.
He defines this third space as “the inter- the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in between space that carries the burden of the meaning of culture” (Al-Joulan 640). Rather than being part of one culture or the other he is saying that identity of ones culture is defined as being in this third space. For the sake of my argument Gogol’s third space is the area on between his Indian culture and American culture. Gogol’s position in his third space changes at different points in the novel.
Gogol’s birth not only marks the start of his life but it also marks the start of his movement away from the Indian side of his hybrid cultural spectrum. Although it is clear the presented naming process for the Ganguli baby is one that typically appeals to Bengali tradition, American pressures results in the vanishing of those traditions. “Ashima’s grandmother has mailed the letter herself, walking with her cane to the post office, her first trip out of the house in a decade. The letter contains one name for a girl, one for a boy.
Ashima’s grandmother has revealed them to no one.” (25) This quote indicates the importance of naming in Bengali tradition, particularly done by an elder in the family. The fact that the grandmother is leaving the house for the first time in ten years to personally see the letter off shows it is of great importance. However, when the letter does not arrive in time, his parents fail to name him according to Bengali tradition. “For they learn that in America, a baby cannot be released from the hospital without a birth certificate. And that a birth certificate needs a name.” (27)
The Ganguli’s must abide to American laws even if it means abandoning essential Bengali traditions and we see young Gogol’s position on the spectrum of two cultures sway away from his “Indian-ness.” Perhaps this is Lahiri’s way of communicating to her audience that sacrifices must be made in order to establish a hybrid cultural identity. During the infancy stage of Gogol’s life another series of events instills his divergence from the Indian side of his identity spectrum.
The Ganguli’s invite their Bengali friends over in celebration of Gogol’s first consumption of solid food. Gogol is also offered a number of items to represent what profession he will grow to attain. “Gogol frowns, and his lower lip trembles. Only then, forced at six months to confront his destiny, does he begin to cry.” (40) This quote demonstrates how Gogol’s refusal to participate in traditional Indian rituals, begins at an early age. He does not reach for any of the items symbolizing his rejection of Indian culture ultimately pushing him further towards American assimilation.
Throughout adolescence and early adulthood Gogol’s movement along the spectrum continues away from the Indian side. During this stage in his life the movement is represented through the rejection of his name to mimic his rejection of his Bengali heritage. Despite the fact that the pet name given to him at birth is in fact a Russian name, the concept of having a pet name and good name all together is the “Bengali way” and not typical for Americans. We see this in Gogol’s petition to his parents to change his name when he asks “Why do I have a pet name in the first place? I don’t get it”(Lahiri 99).
His mother responds simply with “It’s our way, Gogol. It’s what Bengali’s do”(Lahiri 99). When Gogol is asked by his new college suitemate whether Gogol is his first name or last name, he gives a new answer that is of great significance. “Normally that question agitates him.
But today he has a new answer. ‘Actually, that’s my middle name,’ Gogol says by way of explanation, sitting with them in the common room to their suite. ‘Nikhil is my first name. It got left out for some reason’”(Lahiri 103). We know this statement is false due to the fact that in a previous passage of the novel Gogol’s mother explains to his principle that he does not have a middle name at all, he has a good name and a pet name.
In Judith Caesar’s article about Gogol’s namesake she says, “Although Nikhil is an Indian name, it enables him to try on a sophisticated identity he thinks he wants, sexy, cool, ‘normal’”(Caesar 110). I believe what Caesar is referring to as “normal” is in fact “more American”.
Making the claim that Gogol is his middle name marks his attempt at appearing like a typical American kid with a first, middle, and last name. In essence he is rejecting his pet name to represent the rejection of his Indian heritage. Conversely the acceptance of this so-called “middle name” represents his acceptance of American culture continuing his movement away from the Indian side of the spectrum.
It is not until the adulthood stage in Gogol’s life that he comes full circle and begins his movement in the other direction, back towards the Indian side of his hybrid cultural identity spectrum. The first way in which he does this is through the development of his relationship with Moushumi. Moushumi, being a childhood family friend also of Bengali heritage, first met Gogol as Gogol rather than Nikhil. It is “the first time he’s been out with a women who’s once known him by that other name”(Lahiri 193).
The fact that Gogol goes through with meeting a girl who already knew his pet name, a Bengali custom, represents a step towards accepting his name and a willingness to begin his movement in the other direction towards his “Indian-ness.” Ironically the very thing they bond over is their identical hybrid identity situation. “They talk about how they are both routinely assumed to be Greek, Egyptian, Mexican – even in this misrendering they are joined” (Lahiri 212).
Neither Gogol nor Moushumi ever thought they would date another Bengali due to the fact that it is what their parents had continuously drilled into their heads as their wishes. They know that their blossoming relationship will please both their parents, and they each find some comfort in this surprising thought. The reason the two met up after not seeing each other since childhood was a result of a request by Gogol’s mother. She is the one who suggest he call Moushumi. Gogol proceeding with the call and arranging to meet Moushumi marks the start to his movement and reconnection to his Indian culture.
The second way Gogol begins his journey of moving back towards the Indian side, is through his exploration and acceptance of what his pet name meant to his father. In the final chapter of the novel we see adult Gogol returning to his family home in which he goes into his old bedroom, discovering the book by author Nikolai Gogol that his father had given to him years ago.
He opens the book to find what his father had written in it “For Gogol Ganguli… the man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name”(Lahiri 288). It is only out of respect for his father that he takes the time to explore what the name meant to him. Had Gogol’s father not have passed away, he may have again snubbed the book and its significance to his father as he did when he first gifted it to him.
This may be Lahiri’s way of conveying to readers that although it is too little to late in the aspect of reestablishing a relationship with his father, it is not yet too late to reconnect with his Bengali heritage. The moment Gogol begins to read “The Overcoat” marks just the beginning of his exploration and acceptance of his Bengali heritage and finding its role in the grand scheme of his double-sided identity spectrum.
In conclusion we see different degrees of Indian and American culture present within Gogol representing his continuous changing position across his hybrid culture identity or “third space”. In the early stages of his life we see his divergence from “Indian-ness” through his parents failure to name him according to Bengali tradition, his own rejection of important Bengali ceremonial traditions and the rejection of his pet name.
Finally in adulthood he begins his journey in the other direction, his journey at exploring at reconnecting with this Indian roots marking the start of his movement back towards “Indian-ness.”
This movement is achieved through his developing relationship with Moushumi, another Bengali-American character, as well as his acceptance to explore the meaning of his name given to him by his father.
Al-joulan, Nayef. “Diana Abu-Jaber’s Arabian Jazz: An Orphic Vision of Hybrid Cultural Identity.” Neophilologus 94.4 (2010): 637-52. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Heinze, Ruediger. “A Diasporic Overcoat? Naming and Affection in Jhumpa Lahiri’s the Namesake.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 43.2
(2007): 191-202. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Caesar, Judith. “Gogol’s Namesake: Identity and Relationships in Jhumpa Lahiri’s the Namesake.” Atenea 27.1 (2007): 103-19. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.