In the novel The Namesake written by Jhumpa Lahiri, we explore the life of Gogul and his parents as they assimilate into the world of the United States after his parents immigration from India. Throughout the novel we are introduced to various topics including immigration, assimilation and even prejudice. Lahiri laces these intricate topics into her story about a young Indian man’s journey to balance both his Bengali and American lifestyles while also facing the obstacles of maturation and adulthood.
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We are able to dissect the hardships of a naturalized Bengali-American individual and his various encounters with societal pressures centralized around ethnicity and race.
The beginning of the novel depicts the lives of Gogol’s mother and father, Ashima and Ashoke, as they first met in India and from there marry and move to the United States in order for Ashoke to pursue his educational studies and eventually teaching career. The behaviors they encounter are vastly different from their lives in Calcutta, constituting an enormous cultural and lifestyle change specifically regarding familial adaptations. From the moment Gogol is born his life consists of both American and Indian customs and traditions both of which he does not understand how to identify himself and his family life. This identity confusion stemming from the Bengali traditional “pet name” being established as his “good name” and consequently causing him an internal battle between his cultural beliefs. Although he does respect the culture his parents grew up with, he himself yearns for a more “normalized” upbringing similar to the way his American peers are experiencing which causes a generation cultural rift between himself and his immigrant parents. Once he turns eighteen he begins to create a life for himself, beginning with the legal change of his name from Gogol to Nikhil despite his parents disapproval. This initial identity declaration lead Nikhil on a journey of self discovery, beginning with college at Yale and eventually graduate school at Columbia to pursue a degree in architecture. His time in school and living on his own in New York is something of incredible importance to his character and allowed him to discover what parts of Bengali and American culture he decides to embrace. During his journey of self discovery Nikhil has created distance between his past life with his family in Massachusetts until the day he learns his father passed away unexpectedly while on research opportunity at a university in Cleveland. His father’s death allowed Nikhil to reunite and support his familial ties back at home, in turn embracing his old life and cultural upbringing. Through his adult years Nikhil also indulges in relationships multiple women, the first two being caucasian American with vastly different upbringings than his own and the third woman being Bengali to which their upbringings intersected. The third woman, Moushumi being someone who he eventually marries due to their compatibility in regards to cultural lifestyles but in the end there wasn’t enough to keep their marriage afloat. Towards the end of the novel after Nikhils divorce from Moushumi and his mothers decision to sell the family home and move back to Calcutta periodically, we get to see Nikhils character development and acceptance towards his culture and familial lifestyles.
One of the more prevalent themes within the novel is the idea of assimilation and its effect on immigrants to the United States. One integral example to this concept is the process of naming children in American compared to India. Ashima and Ashoke being from Calcutta India were accustomed to “pet names” post birth until a suitable name is eventually decided by the family to be given to the child. Once Gogol was born they were hastily required to decide a name for their son to be written on his birth certificate identifications, despite their customary procedure in their home country being entirely different. Ashima and Ashoke noting how, “This tradition doesn’t exist for Bengalis, naming a son after father or grandfather, a daughter after mother or grandmother. This sign of respect in America and Europe, this symbol of heritage and lineage, would be ridiculed in India,” (28). Throughout the beginning of the novel we see how Gogol struggles with his name being illegitimate as a Bengali pet name of Russian descent leading him to legally change it to Nikhil, unaware of the significance the name Gogol meant to his father until his later passing. This impersonable decision Ashima and Ashoke had to make shows their forced assimilation into American culture and the stifling of their minority cultural practices. There was a lack of consideration for their traditional customs due to the fact that America enforced an entirely different procedure regarding naming a child, compelling the Bengali-American family to conform. Forcing minority groups to incorporate into the majority, in this case Westernized culture, prevents awareness of differing traditions and in turn can lead to prejudice beliefs.
Through assimilation of minority groups and the prevention of a culturally aware society, prejudices can occur and persist. Within the novel Gogol experiences prejudices and mild racism during his various encounters with uncultured Westernized individuals. When talking to Pamela during his birthday dinner in New Hampshire she insists, “‘But you’re Indian,’ Pamela says, frowning. ‘I’d think the climate wouldn’t affect you, given your heritage,'” (157). Her accusation is not only an assumption based off his ethnicity but it depicts her ingrained prejudice and lack of cultural awareness towards the Indian culture. She is stating a racially biased belief about Nikhils physical capabilities, as though his heritage provides him with certain advantages/disadvantages that she herself does not exhibit. Although he was born in America, Pamela was unaware of his naturalization status and made a biased assumption about his capabilities solely because he is Indian.
Overall, the novel provides insight into the lives of multicultural immigrants within the United States and the various hindrances minority groups may experience. Although the novel does end around the year 2000, 18 years later our society is consistently marginalizing immigrants and people of minority groups within the country regardless of their citizenship status. The lack of cultural awareness due to assimilation causes a rift within society between individuals of differing cultural backgrounds and people accustomed to Western culture. Nikhil, despite being a first generation American citizen, still had to undergo stigma surrounding his culture in turn affecting his own mindset regarding his background. A lack of understanding paves the way for stereotyping as well as prejudice to flourish within modern society and impact the lives of those minority groups for generations.
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