Jhumpa Lahiri, Nlanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri, the author of The Namesake was born in London, her parents were Bengali Indian Emigrants from West Bengal. But she feels like she’s basically American, because she grew up in Rhode Island, where her father worked at The University of Rhode Island. Her story The Namesake explores ideas of ethnic identity and assimilation to another country.
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The character Gogol explores his identity and experiences of assimilation first hand, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about comes from her own life experiences but changes it to make a new experience for Gogol. She gives the story in the standpoint (Sprague 2005) of someone who has lived through it, she is an outside within (pp.41).
The story starts with Ashima Ganguli, she is pregnant and she starts to have contractions, she is about to give birth to Gogol. She is in the hospital thinking about whether or not she is the “only Indian in the hospital” (Lahiri 2003) (pp.3). This sets up the rest of the book, this sense of identity and wondering if there is anyone else within that ethnic identity. From here we learn more about her life and marrying Ashoke. We learn of their previous life in India, and how Ashima lives her life in America, being a stay at home wife while Ashoke is working at the nearby University. I personally felt like the beginning of the story was really slow, and I didn’t really like it yet it set up the main theme of the story. But I do understand the importance of this section, it gave an identity to Ashima and Ashoke, and gave us reasoning behind their actions later in the book.
In the next part of the book, Gogol is born, but they do not have a name for him yet. Ashima and Ashoke want to name him what the grandmother has sent in the mail, yet that letter gets “lost in the mail” (Lahiri 25). This part of the story is really significant to Gogol’s entire life. He seems to lose his Bengali identity, just as the letter is lost in the mail. As Gogol grows up we see him slowly losing his Bengali identity as he assimilates (Golash-Boza 2018), to American culture. First, he doesn’t follow in his parents’ footsteps by staying within the Bengali community. Then he makes American friends in school and acts as any other American teenager, smoking marijuana and partying. He even decides to change his name from Gogol to Nikhil during college. As you can see, He is battling between his ethnic identity and what he wants his identity to be. One one hand he has his old life being his family and high school friends knowing him as Gogol, while at his new life in college everyone knows him as Nikhol.
For Gogul’s fourteenth birthday, his father finally gives him a book “The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol” (Lahiri 2003). This is the first time Gogol has ever seen this book, and he is not impressed (pp.79). This leads to school, where his class starts to read about Nikolai Gogol the author. Gogol is embarrassed, and can’t understand why his father would name him this because it is a Russian name and Gogol is Bengali. This shows Gogol’s loss of identity, not understanding why he is named that he is Bengali, but he also assimilates to American culture. Gogol’s entire identity is very confusing to him, he doesn’t know how to identify himself, so he identifies himself as American. Another way this is shown is when Nikhol is on his way back home on the train, his father waiting at the train station to pick him up. He was worried because of what had happened to him when he was younger on the train. This prompts him to tell Nikhol what happened on the train all those years ago, and why he named Nikhol Gogol (Lahiri 2003 pp 126). This shocks Nikhol and it’s almost like he realizes that though Gogol is a Russian name, it was part of his identity. It’s the reason his father is alive. But Nikhol still doesn’t accept his Bengali identity yet, he seems to lose it again when he starts dating Maxine. As he starts to date, her family invites him in and they really enjoy him. But his family is different. They don’t really like Maxine (Lahiri 2003), they would rather Nikhol date a Bengali girl. This is Nikhol going against his family’s identity, they want him to follow in their footsteps, yet he found someone else that he loves (pp. 135).
The turning point of the story is when Nikhol’s father dies (Lahiri 2003), yet his father’s death seems like the pathway for Nikhol to find his identity. His father’s death ruins his relationship with Maxine (pp.193), but this leads Ashima to push Nikhol to meet with Moushumi, who recently had a failed marriage. Ashima feels that he should go, and after avoiding it multiple times he finally goes. Nikhol meets Moushumi at a bar (Lahiri 2003), she remembers him as Gogol (pp.197). This is the part of the story where Nikhol remembers his past identity as Gogol. This I feel is the resolution to the story, though Moushumi cheated on him, she helped him to find his old Bengali identity. He finally accepted his identity, and this is the first time he isn’t ashamed to be called Gogol. He accepted his ethnic identity, he spoke Bengali to a cab driver (Lahiri 2003) at one point, which he wouldn’t have done if he didn’t meet Moushumi.
The story that Gogol’s life starts off as being confused of his own identity, to losing it completely, and then to finding it again after tragic events in his life. Even though he had to learn his identity by tragic events, he found himself again, he finally reads the story his father gives him years ago (Lahiri 2003), this is him finally coming to understand his identity and accept his identity. This story addressed points of assimilation, ethnic identity, and personal identity. It shows that you will eventually find yourself, Gogol’s identity was lost from his birth with the letter being lost to changing his name to Nikhol, but when he finally starts to go by Gogol at the end. after losing his father, Maxine, and even losing Moushumi to an affair, he found himself. It took all of that to find himself.
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