In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, identity and change play important roles throughout the story and shapes the characters to who they eventually become by the end of the novel. As the story begins, it takes place in 1968 with Ashima Ganguli and her husband Ashoke as they await for the birth of their newborn child. The lovely couple met in Calcutta, where their marriage was originally set up and arranged by their parents.
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Moving across the world was a difficult decision but was made to satisfy family wishes. Ashoke who almost lost his life in a tragic train accident is now a graduate student in electrical engineering at MIT.
In Cambridge, the baby was born and it turned out to be a boy named Gogol, inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Originally Ashima’s grandmother had the privilege to name the newborn but suffered a stroke delaying the letter that was to be sent to the Gangulis. The three settle and move into a Boston suburb where Ashoke finds a job teaching his profession; electrical engineering. Here as well, Gogol starts school and after talking with his teacher, is known around as ‘Gogol’. Years pass, and Ashima is once again pregnant with a soon to be baby girl named Sonia. When Gogol reaches high school, he tends to dislike his name thinking it is strange. Before attending Yale University in the later years, Gogol officially changes his name to Nikhil. In college, Nikhil meets Ruth, and they fall in love for about a year until he meets Maxine, someone who he dates seriously and introduces her to his parents.
Ashoke takes a professorship just outside of Cleveland, Ohio and ends up living out there for a year. Soon enough Ashoke passes away due to a heart attack leaving the family stunned. After the mourning of Ashoke, because of neglection, Maxine and Nikhil break up. Gogol relocates to New York, where he marries a family friend by the name of Moushumi. Things go bad between the two leading to a divorce. Gogol returns back home to Pemberton Road to visit his family where he finds the copy of stories his father gave him and begins to read. He will continue to work as an architect in New York.
The Namesake is a novel of identities and truly finding who you are. Gogol grows up to dislike his name until after college where he legally changes it to Nikhil. He then realizes that changing your name and becoming a different person are two completely different things. Gogol goes through different identities throughout his life: when he first dates Ruth and enters college, with Maxine, ending with his marriage to Moushumi. Prior to college, Gogol was his name and as ‘Gogol’, he was confused and angry, and really didn’t like a lot about himself. Gogol represented his connection with his foundation and his family. When college comes, he changes his name to Nikhil, where his character takes action and comes to life.
Like Gogol or Nikhil, when immigrants relocate to the U.S. from foreign countries, they usually have an ‘American’ name. As seen in school and even in public, you can tell the transition to the mainland is a huge culture shock. Throughout the novel, Gogol especially struggles to find his pure and true identity. Is he Indian or American? Or a hybrid of both? Gogol
Searches for his identity throughout the book whether it is through relocation, relationships, and actions.
Aside from identity, The Namesake revolves around the main idea of family. It is evident throughout the story that family plays a huge role for every single character in the novel. The concept of family is inherited from their background in India, where everyone lives in the same home and is deeply invested in eachothers lives. Also, rituals and traditions keep the family close and intimate reinforcing their connection with one another. When the Ganguli family relocates to America, they transition from India to the suburbs, cutting off relatives back home, living independently.
Throughout the story, the two kids basically grow up in America, neglecting the traditions of their Indian culture. But it was not until Ashoke’s passing where they reunite, returning to the traditions of their past. In Hawaii, King Kamehameha Day is celebrated on December 22, the day where all Hawaiian Islands were united in 1832. Also, Admissions Day held on August 21, the day Hawaii became the 50th state is celebrated. But in California, these days are not celebrated and nearly irrelevant. Customs and traditions vary depending on location.
Those immigrants who move to the U.S. tend to adapt to the the different culture, following American ways sometimes neglecting their life teachings from back home. “White washed” is a commonly used phrase meaning someone who is looked at as leaving behind or neglecting their culture and assimilating to a white, western culture. This usually happens after living in the U.S. for quite awhile acting similar to those who surround you.
The novel The Namesake revolves around the concept of identity and family mostly shaped around Gogol. Although Ashoke and Ashima go through the transition from India to the U.S., Gogol and his little sister Sonia go through the lifestyle of growing up as an American, sometimes forgetting and neglecting the teachings of old traditions and customs. Throughout his life, Gogol puts on different faces figuratively living different lives, depending on who is involved in it. Like in reality, depending on your environment and the people who you surround yourself with, shape who you are and how you act regardless of where you originally come from. The theme of family is shown differently for some characters throughout the novel. For Ashoke and Ashima, family was always the number one priority and they were always surrounded by relatives who they shared their Bengali traditions. For Gogol and Sonia, not growing up in India allowed them to not be as close to their families but soon realize the true importance of family after the death of their father Ashoke.
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