The Namesake Essay
Jhumpa Lahiri, a profound writer of generation today unfolds an immense panorama of complexities endured by immigrants in the foreign lands in her most enduring work of fiction, The Namesake. It’s all about younger generation of today, who are constantly finding themselves caught between the extremity of their cultural and traditional roots and the push of their own soul towards the outer world of American dreams.
It is a tale embossed in the intricacies of the Indian families who in the lure of green pastures land in alien lands. But there they always find themselves bound in their own religion, culture and family traditions and their children find themselves entangled between their own culture and the American culture of freedom and choice. As a foreigner, Ashima thinks, “is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.
” (49) And further she says, “It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what has once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. ” (49) Her son Gogol, around whom whole story revolves also feels like an outsider. As a youth, he is trying to alienate himself from his own culture and tradition but deep within, he is finding himself alienated and detached. In this review, I will focus on how Jhumpa Lahiri cultivates the emotions that carry Gogol along with him all through his life because of his name.
It is his name that gives him his identity and it is because of this name, he finds himself struggling in the foreign land-so its all for the Namesake that finally enables Gogol to create a balance between the two worlds. The whole book appears to arise from the name and that too from one name Gogol, which was taken from the Great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Gogol finds his life intrigued in the circle of his name. Firstly his father gave him name ‘Gogol’ as a substitute of the name that ought to have arrived from their traditional home town but that did not arrive.
The main reason behind the novel to be named as The Namesake, is owing to the name of the main character, Gogol, who was deeply obsessed with his name and like Jhumpa, Gogol never wanted to give up his traditional name when he was at the school going age but had to give up his name and adopt another name “Nikhil”. From very beginning of the story only, we are shown how the name and identity of persons is so important for the Indian families especially in the families of Bengalis.
In the traditional Bengali family, wife cannot take the name of her husband as it is against the culture and ethics of a typical and traditional Bengali wife. As Ashima herself said, “It’s not the type of thing Bengali wives do – a husband’s name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over” (2). This clearly shows how important are the traditions, private life and feelings for the Bengali family. He feels scared to go back to his family and culture where he is called Gogol.
At college it was very easy for Gogol to live like Nikhil, and he happily spends his life like this for many years to come. He developed passionate relationship with Ruth but then also he never disclosed his inner struggle between his two names with Ruth. He never introduced Ruth to his family and hid her from others too and when his relationship broke with Ruth, his heart broke and he finds himself hidden more behind his name Nikhil, which he thinks, is a product of American culture.
In his college life, he again tried to enter into the relationship with another girl named Maxine with whom he entered into the American family and therefore into the American way of life. He spends some moments of his life in a very carefree atmosphere into that American way of life but this was not everlasting. He wanted her to be part of his life but when time comes Maxine fails to understand Gogol’s feelings and commitments towards his family and this lack of understanding breaks them apart.
This incident finally makes him go back from where he came- again into the soul of his own roots by retaining his original name Gogol. Back into the family, he again is faced in a situation of dilemma and when Mexine told him, “Do you want to try to go up to New Hampshire? …It might do you good to get away from this. ” His immediate reply was no, “I don’t want to get away” (182). It was his final relationship with Moushumi that makes him to change the whole perception of life. He realized satisfaction does not come by running away from any culture but by blending of two cultures in daily lives.
He realized that he was born to embellish into his life both cultures and in this only, lay his happiness. Against the backdrop, the name of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol has the most important role to play in the whole story. It was the short stories of Nikolai Gogol that had saved the life of Ashoke in the 1961 wreck of the Howrah-Ranchi train. After that Ashoke married and went to America where they had a son and when they did not receive the name to be given to the child from his grand mother, the name that came out of Ashoke’s mouth was Gogol.
When high school teacher assigned him homework on The Overcoat, Gogol entered his class with “growing dread and a feeling of slight nausea” (89) because he discovered in the story that the name Gogol is depressive and he thought that his parents have betrayed him. And after that his whole life is spent on hating his name because he is finding his name very funny and unusual. And when he wants to change his name, he loathes that no one takes him seriously and complains to his father who answers his question with a tone of sympathetic yet ignoring touch by asking who does not take him seriously.
He is not able to realize that he is himself only who does not take life seriously and just like his name, he begins to detest himself and is not able to bring out his potentials and in the quest to know himself develops an inferiority complex. When Gogol is told by his father that we had all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’, Gogol does not understand the meaning of the word and because of his name, he is not at all interested in Russians. But when in the end he is told the true reason about his getting the name and from the tragedy, his father came back alive, he gets more confused.
Though at that time he could visualize the tragedy, but not the miracle about the rescue of his father due to Overcoat. For him, Overcoat is still the tragedy but at the end of the day when he eventually reads the book of short stories by Nikolai Gogol and reads ‘The Overcoat’, Gogol again like his father is now ready to come out of the ‘Overcoat’, in other words he finally is able to emerge out of all the struggles that he was finding himself within him.
The “Namesake” can also be called as a story of feeling of guilt and freedom- freedom from the clutches of traditions of family and on the other hand struggle of protagonist within himself. After Ashoke landed in America, they still followed their own Indian style and patterns in their home. They have all, “Their garage, like every other, contains shovels and pruning shears and a sled,”(64) and they have also purchased a barbecue for tandoori on the porch in summer.
Each and every household item in their house had been bought by the consultation of their Bengali friends. For example they would ask about the difference between a plastic rake and a metal one and would ask which one would be preferable, a real Christmas tree or an artificial tree. They would celebrate Thanksgiving but learn to roast turkeys, albeit rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne, and even to put a nail to their door, to wrap woolen scarves around snow men, the way to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and how to hide them around the house.
Their newly made Bengali friends would often throng their house and the family would prepare a approximate favorite Calcutta snack by mixing Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts and onions. Ashima would keep all the address books, which contain the names of all his Bengali friends known to them all these years. All in all, despite of being in the foreign land, they were still Indian and typical Bengali from their heart and when Gogol born and brought up in this family naturally has in his blood, these traditional values.
But when he faced the American society, he made himself totally absorbed in American society, enjoying life with girl friends and doing everything that an American young guy does. But what the problem is still their appearance is different, their way of talking is different and their family life is different and the way they incorporate themselves in the American sphere and culture is a matter to give them credit but is a matter of shameful existence for their family. And if they go back to their home, they still find themselves alienated there.
They are unable to adjust their own Indian way of life, huge family, and over and above hindrances in their freedom. Their house at Pemberton Road is quite similar to other houses and children takes bologna and roast beef sandwiches to school yet the whole family has never felt at home in America. With her enthralling narrative displays, Lahiri inserts the two characters in one soul, one character of Gogol and another of Nikhil, one purely Indian and one purely American and from it emerges Nikolai Gogol, who finally emerged out of this dilemma.
Again themes of motherhood and domestic life that is so interwoven and became a part of Gogol’s intricate struggles is really a work of women, who understands all the problems. She while citing all the pros and consequencies of landing in the foreign land away from home and hearth, Lahiri also raised the importance of adopting both cultures. Namesake is a story of Jhumpa herself. Jhumpa who herself went into the alien land and herself felt the same experience as experienced by Gogol Nikhil.
She says for children it is very difficult to adujst to the new land and find themselves always struggling between the traditions that their family members expect them to adopt. But they have to spend maximum amount of time outside to study, and actualize their dreams and they find themselves dejected there if remain stuck to their own traditional ways therefore they have to adopt their ways and eventually loose one’s own identity.
But when maturity comes, they realize that it is only to their roots they owe their lives too and it is to the roots they have their identity and self respect. The need of the hour is to make both the cultures part of your lives. There is no doubt about the fact that Jhumpa pierces inside the Bengali family and throws light on the power of the names and expectations which are part of our lives bestowed to us by our parents, and also slowly and painfully we are able to actually define ourselves our own identity.
This is what Gogol did in the end and this what all immigrants in the American land do and ought to do to create an essence of unity between the two cultures, as co-joined twins and not as parallel roads, and eventually they would be able to come out of Gogol’s overcoat.
REFERENCE LIST Lahiri, Jhumpa. “The Namesake”. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 1 December 2016
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