Jhumpa Lahiri’s the Namesake Speech
Claude Levi-Strauss once said ‘being human signifies, for each of us, belonging to a class, a society, a country, a continent and a civilization. ’ Belonging is a human desire of being accepted with people or places. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, The Namesake, the story follows the Ganguli family from their traditional Indian life in Calcutta through their uneasy transformation into America. This family is strewn with opposing fidelities and the underlying concept of the difficulties of cultural belonging, for being tradition bound immigrants.
The common use of the food motif and repetitive contrasts between the cultures of India and America throughout The Namesake create cultural jarring, which demonstrate cultural transitions. The novel opens with Ashima, a newly arrived Indian immigrant in America, making an Indian snack as best she can using American-branded ingredients. Ashima focalizes, “as usual there’s something missing”, reinforcing the challenge of her own transition to adopting a new culture alternatives.
Whilst the iconical American brands of “Rice Krispies and Planter’s Peanuts” are familiar to western readers, for Ashima it emphasizes her difference, establishing a cultural jarring within her experience of immigration. Another instance where the food motif is evident is at Gogol’s ‘Rice Ceremony’. The traditional Bengali ritual, lays a pen, a handful of earth and some money in front of the baby to determine their future career. The objects are layed in front of Gogol and he turns away.
An ‘uncle’ then proclaims that, “most children will grab at one of them…but Gogol touches nothing’. The inability of the baby Gogol to choose anything forshadows uncertainty plaguing him throughout his life. This contrast between Gogol and ‘most children’ makes him become different, which emphasis Gogol’s struggle to belong in both American and Indian civilization. In order to belong to a society, effort must be made to immerse yourself into the patterns and behaviors of the people surrounding yourself.
Gogol acts as a mediator between American and Bengali customs, for his parents. This further places him in the middle of the two society’s, not fitting in solely in either. A key means through which Ashima connects with foreign American people is by taking Gogol with her as she goes about her daily life. As she runs about her errands, “strangers, all Americans, suddenly take notice of her, congratulating her for what she’s done. ” The frequent pauses in this line, show Ashima’s sudden shock of her newly found link to America.
For Ashima, Gogol is the only way she can connect to the American society, yet it is significant to notice that Gogol resists this mediating role. By rejecting his Bengali origins in preference for an Americanised identity, Gogol projects an internalized racism against his family’s cultural roots. Although he is exposed to both Bengali and American society he makes the conscious effort to be immersed in solely the American culture, thus segregating himself from his heritage which causes him to feel inadequate.
Gogol is invited to many Bengali gatherings to encourage him to adopt both cultures but, “he has no ABCD friends at college. He avoids them, for they remind him too much of the way his parents choose to live”, that is showing a dual-identity. This omnisciently narrated line suggests he makes no effort to associate himself into the Bengali society, which will in the end limit his enrichment in either society. Becoming culturally connected ensures a stronger sense of individual belonging.
In The Namesake Maxine attempts to become involved in the Ganguli’s traditional culture, her outlook on relationships becomes too different for Gogol’s parent’s as they, “avert their eyes when Maxine accidentally leans over to run her hand through his hair. ” This act of American relationship publicity, stuns Ashoke and Ashima, as it is forbidden in Bengali culture to display affection in this manner. This restrains Maxine from connecting to Gogol and his family, because she is unaware of multiple customs, which would segregate her from being accepted into their culture.
Gogol decides that to belong into the American culture he should change his name, thus changing his identity. He came across the idea of a name change when reading an article which said, “it was a right belonging to every American citizen” to rename themselves if they feel it doesn’t coincide with their life. Though Gogol changed his name to Nikhil, this statement becomes slightly ironic as he never feels “all American”. To belong to a culture, adapting or changing oneself to fit into the desired position cannot come from a want; it should be a natural transition.
Everyone has a desire to belong anywhere that they may be. However by avoiding or choosing too much against what is natural, then they will often struggle to belong. Fitting into a culture, society or civilization depends on a person’s character and how they choose to interact with the people surrounding them. For Gogol to belong in any of these classes acceptance of himself including his own Bengali background should be part of his journey.