The Namesake and the Hardships of Gogol

The Namesake is a fictional novel written by Jhumpa Lahiri. The novel itself focuses on Gogol and his Bengali parents and their struggle of assimilation and naturalization to a new country and the corresponding social traditions and cultures. The beginning talks about expecting parents Ashima and Ashoke.

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The reader gets a glimpse at a tragic moment for Ashoke when his train derails killing multiple passengers on board and how dropping the page from The Overcoat saved his life. Meanwhile, Ashima becomes homesick for the familiarity of her Bengali family and for people whom she culturally identifies with. For example, according to Bengali tradition, the naming of a newborn’s true document style name was given to an elder, however American custom required the child to be named before leaving the hospital making Ashima and Ashoke adjust to the new culture and society they lived in. The middle shows Gogol’s growth into teen and young adult years as a second generation Indian American. Gogol and his sister experience the struggles of growing up such as dealing with the different cultures and how their parents react to assimilation differently. Ashima is anti-assimilation as she continues to wear her saris and bato slippers, however Ashoke embraces western culture and changing from his clothes, to the watches, and the food that he eats. Another example of Gogol growing up with the two cultures conflicting was during his birthday. He has two separate birthdays one being held for his mother to appreciate the Bengali traditions with other Bengali families. The other is held for his American friends and classmates styled to the American culture. Gogol himself starts choosing to separate himself from his Bengali heritage by refraining to speak to his family in Bengali. The low turning point happens when Gogol and Sonia go to India for 8 months which during that time they look more at the negatives of living in India from the food, to the air, to poverty. Going further down the line Gogol the adult in college has gained a sense of hatred towards his name and decides to change it. However, he gets into a disagreement with his parents over the good name and the pet name. Even though it is the Bengali way, his name is not technically Bengali. He was the only person with a large disdain, but using the pretext of the lack of Bengali naming he changed his name to fit better. Once Nikhil Gogol begins going to college he starts fighting more with his family over their naturalization and adaption. He accidentally calls New Haven home and fights with his mother who after 20 years could never call New Haven or the United States her home. It isn’t until Nikhil Gogol’s senior year and a train suicide that opened up for his father to tell him the true origins of the Gogol name. Gogol becomes the second person in the United States to know of his father’s train accident, but it becomes a change of perspective for him. Gogol continues with his adult life with a new partner, Maxine, and assimilating himself to her family’s way of life. However, things are taken backwards for him with the sudden passing of his father. While mourning for his father’s death Gogol experiences a moment of realization, that everything that burdened him about his culture and heritage wasn’t as bad as he had previously thought it was.

The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is basing the hardships of Gogol off of herself and her own life. According to Encyclopedia Britannica Lahiri is a part of the second generation background. She was born in England to her parents who were from the Western Bengal State in India. Similarly to Gogol her own father worked under a University until the family moved from England to the United States. There were also references to how Lahiri’s parents wanted to keep their Indian culture and heritage instilled in her such as keeping her family pet name even in grade school. In chapter three we see a similar type of situation with Gogol. Gogol gets into a disagreement with his father over how his name should be addressed in school. Even though he was given an explanation from his dad that everyone who is Bengali in both America and India has a second name he still prefers his pet name. Gogol views it as, if he is addressed as Nikhil he would be someone he doesn’t know. This is a reflection of how Lahiri felt. That someone’s name is their whole identity and story. To change a name to something different or shorten it as a way to simplify it would be seen as becoming a new person and losing that part of yourself. However, as he grows older he becomes more displaced and separated from his heritage, while Lahiri embraces more of her racial identity. However, even after Gogol changes his name legally to Nikhil throughout the rest of the novel he is always referred in the narrator point of view simply as Gogol signifying that he never gave up on being Gogol.

The novel itself exhibits the difficulties of naturalization and how that relates to one’s racial identity. One point that Ph.D. student Anita Sharma from the Department of English at Kurukshetra University points out in her article on Identity Crisis of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Gogol himself is a second generation child. Both of his parents immigrated from India to the United States and he was born Indian American technically. From birth, there was a struggle formed around the Indian beliefs and what was necessary to function in the United States. Sharma picks up on this and insists, “He tries to cope up with the situation to gain a new identity which does not need a particular nationality and hence different from the old one.” (Sharma) In Ethnic Studies, under racial identity, this can also be perceived as the ideology or an identity construction based on the perception of a common heritage. However, I also believe that the Sociology term of ideology also fits in this case which is used to hide, conceal, or confuse social relations that organize how you do and or feel. Both definitions apply here. Naturalization is a type of power that can lead to the ideology that even though someone can be made into a citizen they will still be separated from that race and culture and will always feel out of place.

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