More Than Just A Name: The Issue of Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” begins with a snapshot of the lives and times of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, an immigrant Indian couple who are trying to make it in 1968 America. A child is born to the couple and, due to rather comical circumstances, they name him Gogol, after a Russian writer. The novel then expounds on the lives of the Ganguli family as each tries to become acquainted with and adapt to their new environment and cultural clime.
Above anything else, The Namesake is a treatise on the issue of identity, and present the nature of problems with regard to it on different levels. This paper aims to discuss some of these problems as they are presented in the novel.
There is, first and foremost, the issue of race and nationality. The Ganguli family, for one, originally hails from Calcutta, India, and to say that their ethnicity plays a small role in compounding their new life in America is an understatement.
The character of Ashoke, for one, is an embodiment of the spirit of the stereotypical Asian – a person that, though gifted with talent, finds the prospect of a future in his homeland bleak and is enticed by greener pastures in the Western world. Ashoke’s disenchantment with his homeland stems from an unlikely reason: a tragic train accident that almost killed him when he was younger left him limping in his right leg for the rest of his days and scarred him not only physically but also emotionally. This incident fuels his desire to leave America and take up a doctorate in an American university so that he may be better able to provide for his family.
Closer scrutiny of Ashoke’s character gives us the following insights into his nature: Ashoke is, first and foremost, a character after the stereotypical image of a man. The damage he sustained from the train accident bruised his ego and left him with an incomplete self-image. This incomplete self-image pressures him, in turn, to do and achieve more in life so that he may be able to compensate for his inadequacy. This also spurs him on to a form of escapism – he flees his country not only to pursue the promise of a better future in America, but also because he does not want to associate further with a past which haunts him perpetually, and he gives his child a foreign name as opposed to a traditional Indian one to further dissociate himself and his family from it.
Ashima, on the other hand, is a different case. Whereas Ashoke is eager to adapt to American culture and forget his Indian heritage, Ashima clings to the said legacy tenaciously. Of the two, Ashima seems more culture-bound, as evidenced by her desire to give birth in India that she may share the joy of childbirth with her kin and friends in the start of the novel. Ashima brings this characteristic to America and lives it out in her supposedly “American” life. She makes friends only with fellow immigrants who speak the Indian language and practice and perform Indian customs and rituals. She refuses to commingle with Americans and take on skills that are foreign to her like driving.
Upon closer inspection, we see in the character of Ashima the stereotype of a person bound by tradition. Her very character is interesting, for it showcases the conflicts such ironclad beliefs can bring. Ashima, for one, is portrayed as a typical Indian wife: a woman who is inferior and subject to the will of her husband. Her culture relegates her to a supporting role in their marriage, and she complies willingly. Ashima’s husband wished to go to America to fulfill his dreams for himself and his family, and as his wife and ancilla Ashima accompanies him. Ashima finds alienation in her new environment, however: without the framework of Indian culture on which Ashima has built her identity as a good woman and good wife on, she faces an identity crisis. In order to resolve this, she sets out to recreate her native culture in an alien land. She does this in a two-fold manner: first, she acquires a set of friends who think and act like her, and second, she refuses to imbibe and learn new skills from her host culture, presumably because these are foreign to her and constitute a threat to the purity of her beliefs and traditions. She is, paradoxically, a slave in the land of the free – someone who refuses liberty and walks with shackles even though the keys to release them are in her very own hands.
Ashoke and Ashima represent the extremes of alienation: each one feels “different”, but the reasons they feel this way vary. Whereas Ashoke feels “different” from his countrymen by virtue of his past and his limping appendage, Ashima feels “different” from her present and her host country. Whereas the former hopes for a future and shuns the past, the latter is fearful of the future and clings to her past in what she sees is the uncertain present.
Nevertheless, the two are able to reconcile their pasts with their present, and are able to find peace and regain their identities in the new life they have pursued, despite its being initially marked with the nuances of clashing cultures and conflicts of assimilation.
The novel’s protagonist, Gogol, has his own fair share of identity crises. Whereas his parents sought to come to terms with their Indian past while living in America, Gogol fought and rebelled that he may, to put it bluntly, erase it altogether. This is shown in his reluctance to give up the comforts of American living whenever they had to go to India for family visits in his youth, and also in his express disobedience of his father’s intent that he go to his father’s alma mater to take up a study of the sciences, opting instead to go to Yale to take up architecture. He disdains his name greatly, not only because he does not find the Russian author after which his father named him particularly worth idolizing or being named after, but also because his name makes socializing with his peers difficult and socially awkward. Predictably, he goes on to change his name to Nikhil, a name symbolic of his emancipation from the past so glorified by his parents which he finds so foreign and alienating.
This type of anomie, it seems, is typical of children born to immigrant parents: seeing that they possess physical traits, languages, and cultural nuances that differ from the natives of their host country (and possibly being ostracized and discriminated against because of these), they seek out to eradicate all ties that link them to their foreign heritage and instead do everything they can in order to fit in and belong. For Gogol, this translates to an outward disenchantment with and disdain for his name throughout his life, a rebellious streak against his parents, and a desire to pursue a course that is not associated with immigrants. Simply put, he wants to be emancipated from the rituals and traditions of a past and a land that he can no longer relate to.
As an immigrant myself, I, too, can understand and relate to the feelings of Gogol. There have been times when I felt that I, too, was different and alienated from my new environment. There have been times when I have been the object of ridicule because of my accent or because of my inability to express myself fluently in spoken English, and in those instances, I have to confess that, like Ashima, I have wished to go back to the place I sued to call home; the place where I am not different or made fun of.
The Namesake concludes without much clarity or resolution; rather, the reader is left to imagine how things might have ended up for Gogol and his family and loved ones for his own. I think that this is a fitting end for a story such as this, because life in a world compounded by the haunting of a past one would rather distance oneself from and the conundrum of a complicated present is surely indefinite. What the novel leaves us, in turn, is the lesson that our past is part of who we are and is integral to weaving the fabric of our identity – a moral that we may find useful as we forge our own conclusions to the story that is all at once foreign and at the same time all our own.