Cultural and Emotional Alienation in Jhumpa Lahiri’s the Namesake

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JhumpaLahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, was published in The story spans over thirty years in the life of the Ganguliy familyAshima and Ashoke, who emigrated as young adults from Calcutta to the United States and their children, Gogol and Sonia, who are born and who grow up in the United States, experiencing the constant generational and cultural gap with their parents. The Namesake takes reader behind the closed doors of people who have immigrated to the United States to find a better life and the challenges they unexpectedly discover in the process.

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The Ganguli family in The Namesake has a problem. The mother and father are traditional Bengalis from Calcutta and they are not particularly interested in assimilating into the United States, their adopted home. Gogol, their son, is born in the United States and he is somewhat embarrassed by his parents’ Bengali practices. Gogol is also uncomfortable with his name; it is neither a Bengali nor an American name. No one he knows has a name like this. In school, kids make fun of it as ‘giggle’ or ‘gargle’ his own sister Sonia calls him ‘Goggles’. But the conflict goes deeper than that

“Do yourself a favour. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about its first, pack a pillow and a blanket and sees as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late”(16).

Gogol’s father tries to explain why he gave that name to his first-born child, but Gogol couldn’t careless. In his attempts to get out of the traditional Bengali culture, Gogol even tries to completely disassociate himself from his family. But when his father dies, he started realising the value of his father and he feels like missing him. Slowly he turns back to his mother and sister. His new closeness Gogol’s American girl friend Maxine question why he is acting so differently. The strain breaks down their relationship Later when Gogol’s mother suggests that Gogol calls the Bengali daughter of the Gangulis’ family friends, the Mazoomdars, Gogol resists for a while. Then he gives somewhat curious about dating a Bengali woman. As Gogol slowly realizes the importance of his family and his culture, he falls in love with Moushumi. The story appears to have finalily come to a happy conclusion. Gogol and Moushumi are married But it is not a romantically happily-ever-after tale. Moushumi, who was a shy and quiet young teen, has tasted freedom in her twenties during her sojourn in Paris-a freedom from her parents and their strict Bengali ways. She turns away from him in the only way she knows, how; she has an affair.

The name is, for Gogol, a symbol of cultural alienation neither Indian nor American but Russian. Worse still, he learns in high school, the author, although a genius, was mentally disturbed and suicidal. The narrative spans the first thirty – two years of Gogol’s life, following him as a young him as a young child, then a school boy, continuing through his college years and his early an architect. While Gogol is the focus of the story, the narrator writing in the third person as a distant observer, departs from this position at times to explore the lives of other major characters who are on their own journeys, trying to make a sense of their lives.

Ashoke earns his degree in engineering and becomes a tenured professor at a small-town New England college and the family establishes home on Pemberton Road. A man of the working world, Ashoke successfully adapts to American ways in his public life. However, he and Ashima socialize only with their Bengali friends-immigrants who share their traditions. Ashoke and Gogol are outwardly respectful to each other, but Ashoke is puzzled and saddened by his son’s emotional distance. Ashima a homemaker in the old world tradition, is torn between the old ways and the new. She wears the sari throughout her life and cooks Indian food but adopts American customs for the sake of her children. Her Thanksgiving turkey is seasoned with garlic and cumin, and she decorates an artificial Christmas tree.

The scenes in Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel are fraught with tension between the two cultures. This causes conflict in the family life. Ashmia often accedes to her son’s wishes but sometimes stands her ground with indignation. When Gogol returns from a field trip with a grave rubbing from a Puritan cemetery which he intends to display on the refrigerator, Ashima is horrified. In Hindu tradition, the body is burned; she finds it barbaric that Americans display artifacts of the dead in the place where food is cooked and consumed.

Ashoke, in a poignant scene, presents his son with a hardcover volume of Gogol’s short stories, a special edition ordered from England and intended to commemorate the significance of his name. Gogol, a thoroughly Americanized teenager preoccupied with his favourite Beatles recording, is indifferent to his father’s gift. Ashoke quickly leaves the room, where he is not welcome. Although Gogol will eventually learn this story, the author conveys a powerful sense of loss for a moment of love that might have united father and son.

The Gangulis maintain close ties with their faunilies in India by telephone. The middle-of-the-night overseas calls invariably bring news of a death in the family, revealing Ashima’s sense of loss and separation from loved ones and her native traditions. Only on her return to India does she feel secure. However, Gogol and his younger sister, Sonia, are bored and annoyed by their noisy, intrusive Bengali relatives. They crave their hamburgers and pizza and hot showers. When they return to the United States, they purposely forget their Indian experience-it seems irrelevant to their lives

Although Gogol is enrolled in school under his formal name, Nikhil, it seems to him and he continues to call himself Gogol, much as he hates his name. His sister calls him by the unfortunate nick name of Goggles. When he is eighteen and a freshman at Yale University, he changes his name legally to Nikhil. His roommates and later his adult friends, know him as Nikhil, but occasionally a family member calls him Gogol and this requires an embarrassing explanation.

Gogol’s headlong affair with Maxine Ratliff in New York City where he works as an architect, illuminates the clash between the two cultures that is at the heart of this story. Maxine is an editor of art books; she and her parents are upscale Americans whose lifestyle would make a good feature story in a trend Maxine’s mother is a textile curator at the Metropolitan Museum and her father a lawyer. The Ratliffs are as different from Ganguli’s as it is possible to imagine. What Gogol’s parents refuse to acknowledge that he might have a sex life, the Ratliffs are at ease with Maxine and Gogol’s affair, conducted casually in their home. The Ratlifis have frequent dinner parties, featuring small portions of elegantly prepared food. They are wine connoisseurs and often appear to be mildly intoxicated. The Gangulis are teetotallers and Gogol has never seen them display physical affection. They entertain their Bengali friends in large, noisy gatherings with an overabundance of food, which they chew their mouths open.

Seduced by their contrasting lifestyle and infatuated with Maxine, Gogol moves into the Ratliffs’ tastefully decorated Manhattan town house. In one scene, Gogol and Maxine stop briefly at the home on Pemberton Road on their way to a vacation in New Hampshire. Ashima is hurt that they will spend the holiday with Maxine’s family but responds with polite hospitality. Gopal sees that his mother is overdressed and has cooked too much food. Ashima is deeply offended when the young woman calls her by her first name but suffers the insult without comment

The death of Ashoke is a wrenching experience for Gopal and a turning point in his life. During a visiting professorship at an Ohio university, Ashoke is felled by a fatal heart attack. Ashima, who has remained in the family home, is notified telephone from the hospital; she finally reaches Gogol at the Ratliff home. Gogol must identify his father’s body in the morgue clear out the apartment where his father had lived temporarily. The precisely detailed description of Ashoke’s body, the hospital rooms and the bare furnishings of the apartment are a stark reminder to Gogol of his loss, his discovery that he has never truly known his father. The scenes recall an earlier event when young Gogol and his father had walked on the sands of Cape Cod to the lighthouse, as far as they could go. Ashoke said, ‘Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.’

After Ashoke’s death, Maxine and Gogol gradually drift apart. Gogol’s reaction seems remote and puzzling: ‘His time with her seems like a permanent part of him that no longer has any relevance, or currency. As if that time were a name he’d ceased to use. After the period of mourning for Ashoke, Gogol agrees, at his mother’s request to meet Moushumi, the daughter of Bengali friends whom he has known since childhood. The two are attracted to each other, begin an affair and marry in a traditional Indian ceremony. Moushumi, however, has had previous affairs and a troubled history of mental breakdowns. She inexplicably sabotages her marriage through an affair with an older, less attractive man.

The conclusion reaches for a symmetry that resolves the conflicts in the narrative. Ashima sells the family home and will spend half the year in Calcutta with her friends and relatives, the other half with her children in the United States. Sonia is engaged to Ben, a man of mixed Jewish and Chinese ancestry and this promises to be a successful union. Gogol, as he helps to dismantle the home on Pemberton Road, rediscovers the volume of short stories, his father’s birthday gift and begins to read.

As a portrait of immigration and a personal quest for identity, the novel raises interesting questions. Given the genuine pain that Ashima and Ashoke suffer in attempting to reconcile their cultural heritage with the American dream, it is worth considering whether Gopal’s angst over the oddity of his name should evoke the reader’s sympathy. Ashoke’s commonsense interpretation of Gogol’s complaints when he announces he will change his name is instructive: ‘The only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of this name….was Gopal.” As Gopal takes up his father’s gift and begins to read, there is hope that he has reached a mature resting place between the two cultures that are his heritage.

As the novel progresses, the characters begin to feel more and more nostalgic about the earlier times in their lives. Gogol feels nostalgic when his mother and Sonia come to the train station to see him off. He remembers that the whole family would see him off every time he returned to Yale as a college student; ‘his father would always stand on the platform until the train was out of sight.”

Ashima feels alienated and alone after showering before the party. She “ feels lonely, suddenly, horribly, permanently alone and briefly turned away from the mirror,” she sobs for her husband. She feels both “impatience and indifference for all the days she must live”. She does not feel motivated to be in Calcutta with the family she left over thirty years before, nor does she feel excited about being in the United States with her children and potential grand children. She just feels exhausted and overwhelmed without her husband.

The relationship between parents and children is prominent as a theme in the last chapter. Gogol considers what it took for his parents to live in the United States, so far from their own parents and how he always remained close to home; they bore it “with a stamina he fears he does not possess himself.” He does not think he can bear being so far away from his mother so long.

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