The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri explores the story of Nikhil/Gogol Ganguli. A son of two Bengali immigrants, he is shown to have a struggle with both his personal and cultural identity throughout his life. Most notable of the struggles is the one that continuously happens around his name. When looking at The Namesake in this essay, it will be in the context of Ethnic Studies. The two Ethnic Studies concepts that are going to be explored will be rhetorical strategies, and individual racism.
The reader is first introduced to a pregnant Ashima, and her life with her husband Ashoke Ganguli in the United States, a couple brought together by their families in India. Ashoke seems like just a regular Indian man, but his life was changed years ago when he got in a large incident on a train that paralyzed him for a while. He thanked the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, whose book he was reading up until the point he got in the accident for saving his life. Due to this, Ashoke would go on to name his first born son Gogol, who is also the first naturalized child of the family. Gogol’s name started off as an unofficial pet name for official documents that his parents thought would eventually be replaced with a name that would come from Ashima’s grandmother through a letter. With no letter, it would ultimately remain the name that Gogol himself chose to keep when he first started school, and that strategically made his parents decide to name his sister Sonali to avoid another incident like Gogol’s. As they continue to grow accustomed to their life, the Ganguli’s eventually become a part of an ever growing Bengalis community with the occasional trips back home to India, despite the eventual frustrations by Gogol and Sonali. As they live in America, they also begin to compromise and assimilate, including Christmas in their celebrations and American food like hot dogs alongside Bengali language and culture.
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As Gogol grows older, he begins to think more for himself. First he realizes more and more that his parents are at times discriminated against by the world around them through interactions with cashiers and salesmen who find humor in Ashima and Ashoke’s accents, or who instead talk to Gogol then his parents as though they don’t understand. He also starts not liking his name, despite receiving the special gift of Nikolai Gogol’s book from Ashoke, and is especially agonized when a lesson is taught on the life of Nikolai Gogol at school. As he advances through his education, he disobeys his parents more and more, and continues to actively reject his roots to India. Instead, he embraces things associated more with American culture, or just bucking traditional culture in general including partying, drinking, having premarital sex, and doing drugs. Gogol eventually even decides to change his name to Nikhil as he grew fed up with the name Gogol. Nikhil being the name that Gogol refused as a child, although it didn’t really bring him any solace, as he was split between a world that knew him as Gogol and another that knew him as Nikhil. However, eventually during one of his begrudging visits home, Nikhil eventually finds out the special meaning behind the name Gogol, and the future he represented to his dad Ashoke.
Nikhil out of school begins his career as an architect, and he happily lives alone until he meets a woman named Maxine at a party. Although he had a special, but tragic relationship with a girl named Ruth while he was in school, Maxine was different. Introducing him to the lifestyle of rich America and all its comforts, Nikhil pretty much severed his connection to his parents who he felt would never fit in to his new world, and who he continuously felt embarrassed by, only really visiting his parents once during this time before his dad had to go to Ohio. This is despite facing microagressions from the white people, including Maxine’s mother who questioned his nationality. It took the death of his dad, Ashoke for Nikhil to return home and be there for his family, leaving Maxine behind and eventually forever. Reconnecting with his family, he is eventually set up by his Mom with his childhood acquaintance Moushumui whose parents knew Nikhil’s. Although they found comfort in each other’s shared experiences and backgrounds, their eventual marriage would end in shambles as Moushumui always wanted more, eventually even cheating on Nikhil with another man. As his mother transitions to her next journey, Nikhil truly begins to appreciate the hardships his parents faced. In the end, he begins to reconnect with Nikolai Gogol, the man who he shares the name “Gogol” with as a man in his thirties.
Looking at The Namesake and its relevance to Ethnic Studies, one Ethnic Studies concept that is present in the novel is rhetorical strategies. As Race & Racisms puts it, rhetorical strategies are used by white people as, “ways of expressing ideas, to justify their own racial prejudices and discriminatory actions. These rhetorical strategies permit whites to reproduce racism without being labeled as racists” (Golash-Boza 46). In the novel, the reader sees this on Gogol’s 27th birthday at the Ratliff’s lake house. One of the guests invited by the name of Pamela has a conversation with Gogol and during this conversation, she tells Gogol that as an Indian, he must never get sick, remarking that, “I’d think the climate wouldn’t affect you, given your heritage” (Lahiri 157). Pamela doesn’t outright insult him or treat him physically different, so outright racism can’t be seen. However she is still assuming that Gogol is very much different from her, and won’t be affected by the things that affect her, in this case the weather because of the culture that he grew up with.
Another Ethnic Studies concept seen in the novel is individual racism. Race & Racisms talks about individual racism by describing it through examples, “Racially discriminatory actions by individuals such as not calling back an interviewee for a job because of his race or telling a person on the phone that the apartment is taken because he or she has a Spanish accent” (Golash-Boza 34). Ashima and Ashoke go through this at home, and a younger Gogol serves as an observer that grows more and more aware with each incident. Gogol, “is aware, in stores, of cashiers smirking at his parents’ accents, and of salesmen who prefer to direct their conversation to Gogol, as though his parents were either incompetent or deaf” (Lahiri 67-68). Basically Ashoke and Ashima were pretty much looked down upon. First, because they sounded different, when looking at the example of the time the Ganguli’s were at the store and talking to either each other or to the cashier with their accents. Although it is not explicitly stated, those times when the salesmen talked to Gogol instead of his parents, race definitely had a part in it. The salesmen already predetermined that because of how they looked skin deep, that it was better to interact with the child of the family who at least was in school in the US, than parents who in the eyes of all those sales people, were probably just immigrants who didn’t understand English.
The two Ethnic Studies concepts that were explored were rhetorical strategies, and individual racism. In the case of rhetorical strategy, Pamela automatically thinks that Gogol is completely resistant to the affects of the weather due to his Indian background. This is an assumption from Pamela that has serious underlying racism, although racial slurs were not used during this conversation. With individual racism, Ashoke and Ashima faced more direct racism. Due to how they sounded and looked, they were seen as jokes or deliberately ignored by people due to preconceived assumptions that communication was not possible. Really what can be concluded here is that the commonality that seems to be found in exploring both concepts is the preconceived assumptions of people, ultimately translating into very unhealthy actions.
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