Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008

"Individual-Family Interface in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake" by Himadri Lahiri

Himadri Lahiri is Reader at the Department of English, University of Burdwan, Burdwan, West Bengal, India. Email: hlahiri@yahoo.co.uk

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment. I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.
Michel Foucault

The perspective of the ‘moment’ privileged in the above extract may indeed be very useful in the study of diasporic literature. The word ‘diaspora’ itself, coming, as it does, from Greek ‘dia’ (‘through’) and ‘speirein’ (‘to scatter’), etymologically means ‘dispersal,’ and involves, at least two countries, two cultures, which are embedded in the mind of the migrant, side-by-side. Although the past is invoked now and then, the focus is persistently on the ‘moment.’ The past is invoked to indicate a certain contrast, which must be incorporated, and controlled in the present life in order to negotiate the network of social relations in the immediate world. The past, thus, becomes a part of the present consciousness of the diasporic subject. Literary works, written particularly by second generation diasporic writers, concentrate more on synchronic dimension than on diachronic one. It is quite natural that they approach the narratives from comparative perspectives, both from the points of view of cultures and generations.

The lived experience of the children of first generation migrants to which Jhumpa Lahiri belongs is characterized by their participation in the American mainstream culture available in the larger social space, outside the limited, ‘sanctified’ family space. This their parents often disapprove. They, in their turn, disapprove of their parents’ proximity to the ancestral ‘home’ culture which the Indian American community tries to replicate in the new space. The family space and the community space, however, cannot remain pure as change of places inevitably brings in its train hybridization. The birth of children, which happens in the early part of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, initiates conflictual relationship in the family space. The largely homogenous culture in the family, as we observe in the novel, gives way to a heterogeneous one, leading to differences of opinion and a complex pattern of relationship.

This article explores the lived experience of diasporic subjects as represented in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003). It will demonstrate how an individual’s life gets inevitably mixed up – and messed up – with those of others in different spaces which lie in proximity to each other and contribute to his/her identity formation. The focus will mainly be on the relationship between the second generation Indian Americans and the family (and in extension to the community) space in which they find themselves. The word ‘space,’ as may be evident, is used here in a theoretical sense and is differentiated from the word ‘place.’ The latter is used to refer to a geographical location, a territorial entity, while the former suggests a vigorous interactive network of relations. A space is “what Lefebre would describe as l’espace ve’cu, actually lived and socially created spatiality, concrete and abstract at the same time, the habitus of social practices” (Soja 17-18). James Clifford, who borrows the phrase “spatial practice” from Michel de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) observes that the word ‘space,’ which is never ontologically given, is “discursively mapped and corporeally practiced. An urban neighbourhood, for example, may be laid out physically according to a street plan. But it is not a space until it is practiced by people’s active occupation, their movements through and around it” (Clifford 54).

In fact, the concept of space is now considered to be very important in fields of cultural anthropology and social sciences. It can equally be applied to literary analyses. Foucault asserts that space is fundamental in any form of communal life and in any exercise of power. The following observation underlines the importance of space in human life:

The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another. (Foucault 1967)

Lahiri’s novel demonstrates the truth of the above statement. This article will try to show how the major characters in the novel ‘live inside a set of relations’ and interact in a vigorous space.

The Namesake is a narrative of how Gogol Ganguli attains his identity and self-realization through his negotiation with different spaces. As he realizes, his own family space is very constricted – it in effect stifles his voice and destroys his freedom and agency. His anguish and antipathy grows out of this because it prevents his close and intimate interaction with the mainstream culture and tries to limit his cultural activities largely to Indian American community. As he understands, this is a sanctified space and his parents enforce its ‘sacred’ norms which relate them to the absent ‘home’ country and not to the present social space. And therefore these norms, for Gogol and his generation, are largely irrelevant. So long as the parents, Ashima and Ashoke, were the two members in the family the purity of the norms could be somehow preserved to a certain extent. The birth of Gogol, however, brings in the first portent of danger for the Ganguli family. The hospital space becomes the first evident site of resistance to the family and community practice followed by the Bengalis. Ashima and Ashoke wait for a letter from her grandmother that will carry the name of the new-born baby, thus attesting to the name the sanction of the family. This is often followed as a norm. “Names can wait. In India parents take their time. It wasn’t unusual for years to pass before the right name, the best possible name, was determined” (Lahiri 25). But since the letter containing the name does not arrive and the baby cannot be released from the hospital without a birth certificate which must have a name, the Gangulis are evidently in a dilemma. The attempt to reinscribe the old culture in the new social space is confronted with a crisis as the American social space intervenes in the Indian American family space. Gogol, which was originally intended as a daknam, had to be ultimately accepted as a bhalonam (both the Bengali words will be addressed in the next paragraph). The incomprehension of the Americans regarding this naming norm is reflected in the reaction of Mr. Wilcox, the compiler of hospital birth certificates, who tries to decipher the norm and to help out the family (27-28).

In this connection, Lahiri deals elaborately with the Bengali custom of giving two names to a child – bhalonam (literally, ‘good name;’ or formal name) and daknam (meaning ‘pet name’). The former is to be used in the public space: “Every pet name is paired with a good name, a bhalonam, for identification in the outside world. Consequently good names appear on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories, and in all other public places” (26). The latter is used in the family space and in the association of close friends and associates. “Pet names are persistent remnants of childhood […] these are the names by which they are known in their respective families, the names by which they are adored and scolded and missed and loved” (26). In the diasporic space the affection and love associated with the daknam is hankered after by the first generation Indian Americans because the larger family in the Indian sense is not available. Indian American families are scattered all over the nation and for all practical purpose this community can not be a substitute to the community in the ‘home’ country, the images of which are invoked in the story “Mrs. Sen’s” included in Interpreter of Maladies (1999).The community back home has a close network of intimate relationship which is often indicated by the large scale use of the daknam. In such a situation community relationship is privileged and individualism, which is celebrated in the West, is made subservient to the sentiment of the collectivity. In Ganguli family’s insistence on this subservience we find an attempt to reinscribe the Indian cultural ethos in the new space.

Generational differences are thus projected through juxtapositions of the two social spaces. For the first generation immigrants like Ashoke and Ashima the change of geographical location is the first shock. Ashima, for instance, encounters, after her arrival in the USA, the differences in the landscape – “heaps of broken snow” (Lahiri 30), “the frigid New England chill” (ibid.), “leafless trees with ice-covered branches” (ibid.), “not a soul on the street” (ibid.), but more than that she realizes the intensity of the loss of the family and community support. On the basis of her experience for the eighteen months in the country she knows that it will be difficult for her to bring up her child in “this lonely country.” Her pregnancy in the new space is important for more than one reason. It signals the entry of a member of the second generation who will represent a hybrid generation. He will resent his parents’ culture and rue his name Gogol that will sound unfamiliar to others in the public spaces like school and college. Nevertheless it will lead to the family formation – “suddenly a family” (Lahiri 32). It will be a family like that of Alan and Judy and their daughters whose house they rented. Secondly, travails of the birth metaphorically represent the travails she undergoes for process of the birth of a self that can cope with the new American space, absorbing the shocks in her journey for acculturation that will at one stage make her join a library as a part time job. The acculturation process is a long-drawn one, a process involving new knowledge formation against the overwhelming backdrop of memory of the recent past, of the old culture and families and community. This knowledge includes the trivial like “Americans eat their chicken in its skin” (5) to the vital like how to raise children in a lonely country without the help of family members. Thirdly, Ashima associates the pregnancy with her own condition of being a ‘foreigner’:

For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect. (49-50)

Despite some acculturation Ashima is in fact in the condition of an expatriate in the sense Bharati Mukherjee, one of the first leading Indian American writers, uses the term. In her Introduction to Darkness, a collection of short stories, she differentiates the ‘expatriates’ from the ‘immigrants.’ Immigration, according to her, has ‘exuberance.’ Immigrant experience is a series of reincarnations, deaths of earlier experiences followed by rebirths full of promise. She hails immigrant Indianness as “a set of fluid identities to be celebrated” (Mukherjee xv). Expatriation, on the other hand, is a sort of static state; it is a refusal to be amalgamated into the new society. An expatriate considers his or her stay in the new country as a temporary matter and looks back to the ‘home’ country for emotional sustenance. Both Ashoke and Ashima at the moment are therefore not in a position of ‘exuberance.’

Between 1968 and 2000, Ashoke and Ashima make some progress regarding their relation with the U.S. but they mainly have not been able to move beyond the Indian frame of mind. While at Cambridge they (particularly Ashima) were neophytes, unable to settle down mentally. When they moved to the small university town outside Boston Ashoke was particularly aggregating to the academic space and through it to the national space. He got a new office “with his name etched onto a strip of black plastic by the door” (Lahiri 48) and his name was printed under “Faculty” in the university directory. These are in a way official affirmation of one who in a certain way belongs. One way of finding connectedness is to purchase a house which becomes a symbol of belonging. Gangulis too purchased a house at the Pemberton Road in a white neighborhood with residents like the Johnsons, the Mertons, the Aspris, and the Hills which is indication enough of their acceptance in the secular civil space:

In the end they decide on a shingled two-story colonial in a recently built development, a house previously occupied by no one, erected on a quarter acre of land. This is a small patch of America to which they lay claim. (51)

In the meantime, their ties with the ancestral land begin to weaken: “[A]s their lives in New England swell with fellow Bengali friends, the numbers of that other, former life, those who know Ashima and Ashoke not by their good names but as Monu and Mithu, slowly dwindle” (63). They are therefore forced by the circumstances of their lives to distance themselves from the endearing, filiational family and community back ‘home.’ They slowly but surely allow themselves to move towards a hybrid cultural location:

They learn to roast turkeys, albeit rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne, at Thanksgiving, to nail a wreath to their door in December, to wrap woolen scarves around snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and hide them around the house. For the sake of Gogol and Sania they celebrate, with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati. (64)

Towards the end of the novel Ashima’s change has been summarized in the following way:

She has learned to do things on her own, and though she still wears saris, still puts her long hair in a bun, she is not the same Ashima who had once lived in Calcutta. She will return to India with an American passport. In her wallet will remain her Massachusetts driver’s license, her social security card. (276).

It is, therefore, a long journey for people like Ashima who encounter difficulties in different spaces and undergo transformation of identities. With such progress in attitude the stranglehold on the children is slackened and Gogol and Sania as individuals in the family space feel much more integrated to the family unit.

In the early years after the immigration, it has been stated earlier, the stranglehold on the young members is usually very strong. The children are acutely aware of their parents’ expectations but are usually rebellious. Some like Moushumi internalize, with some element of violence, the duality between the expectations and their unwillingness to give in to the cultural demands. The resultant schizophrenia sometimes disintegrates them psychically. Gogol reacts against the parental influence but he seems to be more balanced than Moushumi whose desperation is evident in her own sexual involvements with a great number of partners in Paris. It was as if she was taking revenge upon herself. “In retrospect she saw that her sudden lack of inhibition had intoxicated her more than any of the men had” (215). She was drugged with a sense of ‘emancipation’ from all constrictive forces but in the process she also acted, self-consciously, in a way that almost verged on prostitution:

With no hesitation, she had allowed men to seduce her in cafes, in parks, while she gazed at paintings in museums. She gave herself openly, completely, not caring about the consequences. […] She allowed the men to buy her drinks, dinners, later to take her in taxis to their apartments, in neighborhoods she had not yet discovered on her own. […] There were days she slept with one man after lunch, another after dinner. (215)

This may be considered as the disintegration of a personality. Previously her rebellion was mainly academic in nature. In Brown she majored in Chemistry which was in pursuit of her parents’ insistence but she also double majored in French which was unknown to her parents. She approached French as a way of escape into a neutral third space:

Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture had been her refuge – she approached French unlike things American or Indian without guilt or misgiving or expectation of any kind. It was easier to turn her back on the two countries that could claim her in favor of one that had no claim whatsoever. Her four years of secret study had prepared her at the end of college, to escape as far as possible. (214; emphasis added)

Paris provides her the desired distance – a refuge. “Here Moushumi had reinvented herself, without misgivings, without guilt” (233). She does not want to be mistaken for a tourist in Paris because she feels that she belongs there. Robin E. Field considers her as an example of a “global citizen” (175) of an increasingly borderless world. He points out,

Moushumi’s decision to control her own cultural identity may well prove to be the normative behavior for the later generations of immigrant families in the United States. As their direct connection to certain roots diminishes and other cultural options are presented, these Americans will create their own personal bricolage of various cultural materials in order to form their identities. (Field 176)

By contrast, Gogol’s journey is less disintegrating and at the end we find him moving towards his family. He realizes that his own identity is intricately linked up with the history of his family. Right from his early days he too has been rebellious. In ‘legal rites of passage’ he changes his name from Gogol to Nikhil which is in fact a manifestation of his protest. In the New Haven campus he is happy that nobody calls him Gogol. With the new name becoming familiar, “it’s easier to ignore his parents, to tune out their concerns and pleas” (Lahiri 105). In acts of defiance, he loses his virginity at a party. He has a short affair with a white girl called Ruth. His life at the dormitory at New Haven is one of throwing her cultural norms to the wind. This dormitory may be called, following Foucault again, ‘crisis hetertopia’ (usually prevalent in so-called primitive society), which is described as “privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, menstruating women, the elderly etc.” (Foucault 1967). He says that boarding school in its nineteenth century form is one of the remnants of these fast disappearing heterotopias. This is the site of first manifestations of sexual virility which were supposed to take place ‘elsewhere’ rather than at ‘home.’ The first manifestations of Gogol’s agency were found in a similar place because he was away from home. He could live in the dorm in any way he liked. This is a site from which he can operate safely even in matters sexual without any interference from his family. Later he has a more durable affair with Maxine, another well-to-do white girl, but somehow he has been drawn towards his origin, somehow “he is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own” (Lahiri 141). Later he agrees to date Moushumi at his family’s insistence and also marries her. This is another matter that influences their quite short marriage.

Two specific events make his feeling for the family apparent. One is the revelation of the secret of his father’s accident in India with which his name is intimately linked up, while the other is the father’s death. He learns that there is an episode behind his own naming. A book by Gogol saved his life in a train accident in India. The rescuers noticed the book falling from Ashoke’s hand. This revelation which was only known to his mother “in this country” (i.e. the U.S.) brought about a change in the son’s attitude to his father:

Gogol listens, stunned, his eyes fixed on his father’s profile. Though there are inches between them, for an instant his father is a stranger, a man who has kept a secret, has survived a tragedy, a man whose past he does not fully know. […] Against instinct he tries to imagine life without his father, a world in which his father does not exist. (123)

His father’s death is a shock to him and he wants to remember his father in hours of privacy, in the sanctity of his memory. Although Maxine offers to accompany her after he receives the news, he does not accept her offer. “He doesn’t want to be with someone who barely knew his father, who’s met him only once” (170). They go through the Hindu rites in the household and they silently feel “they are alone, isolated, as a family” (181). After some days Maxine proposes that a visit to New Hampshire together; “to get away from all this” will do him good. Gogol turns down the offer, asserting that he does not want to get away (182). Gogol thus begins to understand his father better. His father’s sudden death affects him profoundly as he learns to connect with him and his past. Monika Sharma rightly points out:

In the death of his father, he finds a beginning, and awareness and understanding of community and of the place of the individual within family in society. The hour of personal grief unites him to his family and makes him accept their ways. The ambivalence of his in-between state ceases to vex him any more. Responding to the binary opposition as complementary rather than oppositional, he eventually discovers and resuscitates his Indian roots and familial ties. (Sharma 56)

For Gogol this is a long journey. He has to encounter the larger social space in the U.S., and so he initially feels that the norms of the family space are a stumbling block. Later he also realizes that he cannot, after all, resist the pull of the family. Despite his hate for his name and despite his adoption of a new name, he fails to “reinvent himself fully, to break from that mismatched name” (Lahiri 287). That is why he finds himself opening the pages of a book authored by Gogol, a book that his father had once gifted him and that remained unread so long.

In the following, I will like to discuss Lahiri’s descriptions of two spaces which seem to have connections with Gogol’s development of identity. First, we need to take note of how Lahiri presents the small university town near Boston, which juxtaposes both the past and the present. Secondly, Gogol’s visit to a cemetery needs to be discussed because this is intricately related to the first step in his identity development.

The university town outside Boston has a historic district, “a brief strip of colonial architecture” (48). There is “a white steepled Congregational church, a stone courthouse with an adjoining jail, a cupolaed public library, a wooden well from which Paul Revere is rumored to have drunk” (48). This historic district flanks the campus on one edge. It is interesting to note that this New England landscape which is the site of early history of immigration is presented here to invoke the past which is made to look like the present and is relevant. This is done to highlight the fact the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, that the flow of immigration still continues and that the latest immigrants are more various and unconventional than the old ones. The Puritan overtone that was dominant in the past is no more there and the nation has opened up to a more globalised immigration policy, particularly after the Immigration Act of 1965 came into effect. In fact, the narrative of the novel opens immediately after 1965 – in 1968 to be more precise.

Secondly, Lahiri introduces the image of the cemetery or graveyard as a Foucauldian heterotopia. In 1971, when Gogol was in the sixth form of his school his school arranged a trip to a cemetery as part of field trip. There the teachers announced a ‘project’ for the students – to rub the gravestones with newsprints and then to relate the names with those of their own – to claim “a grave they are related to” (69). It is interesting to remember that, while discussing the second principle of heterotopia, Foucault observes that cemetery is a space which is “connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village etc. since each family has relatives in the cemetery” (Foucault 1967). Some of the students are triumphant to find the names they are related to but Gogol is acutely aware of his own ‘difference:’ “Gogol is old enough to know that there is no Ganguli here. He is old enough to know that he himself will be burned, not buried, that “no stone in this cemetery will bear his name beyond life” (Lahiri 69). The cemetery is thus employed as a metaphor, suggesting Gogol’s lack of roots in the country. He does not have any ancestral history in the land that would connect him to any tradition in the national space; he is so different that his social and religious rite will be incompatible with those of the new country. This discovery may not be much of a shock to the members of the first generation Indian Americans, but it is certainly a source of anxiety for their children who passionately seek acculturation and integration.

Gogol discovers some names like ‘ABIJAH CRAVEN, 1701-45,’ ‘ANGUISH MATHER, A CHILD,’ ‘PEREGRENE WOTTON, D.1699,’ and ‘EZEKIELAND URIAH LOCKWOOD, BROTHERS, R.I.P.’ The oddness of the names strikes him but he is informed that:

“[N]ow these are some names you don’t see very often these days,” one of the chaperones, passing by and looking at his rubbings, remarks, “Sort of like yours.” Until now it has not occurred to Gogol that names die over time, and they perish just as people do. On the ride back to school the rubbings made by the other children are torn up, crumpled, tossed at one another’s heads, abandoned below the dark green seats. But Gogol is silent, his rubbings rolled up carefully like parchment in his lap. (70)

Gogol is attached to “these ancient Puritan spirits, these very first immigrants to America, these bearers of unthinkable, obsolete names have spoken to him” (71). Digging up the past, he invents the relevance of his own name in the American present. He must negotiate the present bravely, although he has a name that bears unbearable strangeness. There is another significant reference to a graveyard. When Gogol grew up, he visited the ancestral village of his girlfriend, Maxine Ratliff. He finds “a small private graveyard where members of the Ratliff family lie buried” (153). He also knows that Maxine would be buried here one day. The privacy of the space contains the memory of the ancestors, thus binding the members of the Ratliff family in one space. The members of the present generation will also be part of the graveyard one day. The small ancestral place with the lake, hills and graveyards, and of course the small community is an ‘essential part’ of Maxine’s existence, the memory of her growing up intimately connected with the place and space. Gogol realizes that

[…] this is a place that will always be here for her. It makes it easy to imagine her past, and her future, to picture her growing old. He sees her with streaks of gray in her hair, her face still beautiful, her long body slightly widened and slack, sitting on a beach chair with a floppy hat on her head. He sees her returning here grieving, to bury her parents, teaching her children to swim in the lake, leading them with two hands into the water, showing them how to dive cleanly off the edge of the dock. (156).

Lahiri’s novel, through the suggestive use of two graveyards, creates the implication of belonging of (or lack of) the social space and the familial space. It takes time to enroot oneself in a new soil through generations. Gogol does not have any scope of availability of these spaces in the new land in the sense in which they are employed. But second generation Indian Americans, like Gogol and Moushumi, are caught up in a critical cultural juncture at a particular moment in the history of Indian American immigration. By not privileging any particular cultural positions – either of Gogol or of Moushumi – Lahiri, in fact, indicates the many possibilities of Indian American existence in the new (im)migrant space.

Works Cited

  • Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1997.
  • Field, Robin E. “Writing the Second Generation: Negotiating Cultural Borderlands in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.” South Asian Review XXV.2 (2004): 165-77.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces. Heterotopia” (1967) (trans. Jay Miskowiec). Available: http://www.foucault.info./documents/heteroTopia. Access: October 30, 2007.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1999.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2004.
  • Mukherjee, Bharati. “Introduction.” Darkness. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985.xiii-xvi.
  • Sharma, Monika. “Rootless Gogol – Quest for Identity in The Namesake.” Mapping Migrations: Perspectives on Diasporic Fiction. Ed.Charu Sharma. New Delhi: Books Plus, 2006. 47 – 63.
  • Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Re-assertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1989.