Namesake: The ‘Gita’ of the Immigrants

The Namesake By Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake By Jhumpa Lahiri

The much popular novel, which later turned into an award-winning film by one of the most talented directors Mira Nair, ‘The Namesake’ written by Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It is also a winner of hearts and continues to do so, even after more than a decade of its release. Jhumpa Lahiri has weaved the story in an extremely intricate manner, with tiny details. Through the novel, we get to be the part of the world of Ganguli Family. The novel is pretty simplistic in nature. It revolves around the lives of the family, which are pretty much similar to any family. What differentiates the family, as well as the novel, is the struggle to ‘fit in’, and the diasporic differences and dilemmas. This is due to the permanent label- ‘Immigrant’.

Ashima, a young girl, who is a fan of English Literature, marries Ashoke, who lives in the States. As per the social convention in India, they do “arranged marriage.” They met very briefly and had not even looked at each other properly. This remains status-quo until the time they married to each other. This is extremely common in the culture, and soon, Ashoke went off to States, with Ashima following him shortly afterward. The experience was quite surreal for Ashima, who had never been on an airplane before. She had only come across the names of the cities only in books. As she mentions in the story, her stay in America feels like this long, dreary pregnancy. This allows the reader to peep inside the mind of Ashima, and how ‘uneasy’ she feels.

Soon, they have a wonderful baby boy. The couple decides to wait for Ashima’s grandmother’s letter, in which she has written the names for the baby. Eventually, the letter gets lost on its way, and grandmother, who is old and frail, dies, unfortunately. The name remains a mystery. Since the identity is associated with the name, for the majority of the lives, the identity of the child is also lost- never to have been there, never to be found. Ashima and Ashoke find themselves unprepared in the middle of this crisis. Ashoke decides to name the baby boy ‘Gogol’, and Ashima agrees. They had named him after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, famous for his absurd stories, especially ‘The Overcoat’, which had saved Ashoke from dying, in a tragic train accident, back in Kolkatta. Ashima is aware of this, and hence, she understands the sentiment too.

A few years later, Gogol starts going to school. Ashoke clarifies the concept of the ‘Daak Naam’ and ‘Bhalo Naam’ to the principal Mrs. Lazarus. He also requests her to fill up the forms with the name ‘Nikhil Ganguly’. Gogol, even though he is a child, rejects the name, and the identity. He goes back to being called Gogol, which is supposed to be the name for the close family and friends- an intimate affair. Gogol does not know the story behind his name, and the importance of it, in the life of his father. He frowns upon the absurdity, and feels ‘out of place’. The toddler, who once had rejected the name ‘Nikhil’, goes back to it, and changes it legally. He does that before going to the Yale University, for his further studies.

To Gogol, it is as if Nikhil and Gogol are two different people and two different identities. It seems like they belong to completely different worlds and cultures. Nikhil falls in love with Ruth, but they are unable to handle the long-distance relationship. He meets Maxine and falls in love. Nikhil loves Maxine’s parents, who are very intellectual, well-read, and well-informed. It seems that they possess all the traits which Nikhil wanted his parents to have since he was a teenager. It is as if ‘Gogol’ takes a backseat. He completely ignores his family and lets Nikhil do what he wants to do. Nikhil stays detached from his parents, his roots, and his culture. Nikhil is at peace, with wherever he is, and Gogol becomes a lost identity.

Ashoke leaves for Cleveland, to teach at the University. With Sonia also gone to pursue her career in Law, Ashima is bugged by loneliness. She manages to live alone and learns to be self-reliant. It is almost as if fate was conspiring in all the possible ways for her- to prepare her for the worst which was to come. Ashoke calls and informs Ashima that he has checked into the ER since he was bugged by the dull stomach-ache. Ashima, all by herself, keeps pondering, and believes that Ashoke is fit enough, and would be back in some time. A few hours pass and Ashima calls the ER, only to be met by the news that Ashoke has ‘expired’.

Nikhil returns from the vacation with the Ratliffs, and goes directly to Cleveland, and does the needful. He strangely feels closer to his father, with whom he had always had a distance and a troubled relationship of sorts. The novel moves a year forward then. Gogol has broken up with Maxine. He has returned to New York, and Sonia now stays at Pemberton Road with Ashima and commutes every day.  Enter Moushumi Mazoomdar, a childhood acquaintance of Gogol. Their families want Gogol and Moushumi to meet each other and see if there is a future to it. They meet, and to their surprise- they decide to marry each other.

The perspective of narration keeps changing swiftly through the rest of the novel, and a lot of ‘drama’ unfolds- as Moushumi begins to have an affair, and Gogol comes to know about it. They part ways. Ashima decides to divide her time between India and America equally, but she feels too lonely. She gathers herself up, for the last Christmas at the Pemberton Road House, while Gogol comes across his birthday gift from Ashoke- ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol. He sits and starts reading it, finally embracing his identity.

The author has spun a rather ordinary story in such a beautiful manner, that it leaves an ever-lasting impact on its readers. The novel is a classic embodiment of the lives, struggles, and most importantly, the identity crises that immigrants face, once they move abroad. It contains all that we second-generation immigrants know, and experience, being an outsider in our homeland, and the country where we chose to live. The rootlessness, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel, strikes a chord with the readers, especially the immigrants. Just like the Gita, it contains everything that an immigrant knows, yet, one wants to come back to this again and again, perhaps, looking for a ‘happy ending’ of sorts, which would end it all, at least in the book.

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