In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahari explores the themes of identity, clash of culture, isolation, importance of names and family. Both of the Ganguli parents, especially Ashima, struggle with assimilating to this new culture that they are not accustomed to. Lahiri looks closely at the contrasting experiences of first generation and second generation immigrants, Lahiri looks at the cultural gap between the two and all the problem that they face. By reading Lahiri’s prose, we get an insight to Bengali culture through the customs, traditions and language that Ashima and Ashoke hold on to. Jhumpa Lahiri recalls that it was easiest for her father arriving in America. “In an office setting he was a part of another family structure, contributing to another purpose. My mother would go for days and days at home. The outside world was scarier to her for longer.”, which is similar to how she portrays Ashima and Ashoke’s experience. Through Ashima’s pain and struggle to build a new life in a different world, the theme of the immigrant experience and dislocation are made clear.
We are introduced to Ashima when she is “combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl”, and thus we find out that “Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks”. This first paragraph introduces us to the theme of clash of cultures, as Ashima is using Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts; which are two American products, to make an Indian snack. We also learn that “it is the one thing she craves.” which emphasises her home sickness, and also gives the impression that she craves for the familiar culture and atmosphere. Food plays an important role in the Namesake, it is used as a symbol for Bengali culture, and emphasises the dislocation and homesickness Ashima and Ashoke face. We see at the very beginning of the novel that Ashima is trying to hold on to her culture through Indian food and “her Murshidabad silk sarI”. “She is asked to remove her Murshidabad silk sari in favor of a flowered cotton gown that, to her mild embarrassment, only reaches her knees. ”, which introduces the theme of clash of cultures.
Lahiri continues to emphasis the theme of dislocation, the immigrant experience and clash of cultures through Ashima’s experiences; we also find out how much Ashima has had to give up for Ashoke and Gogol. “It is the first time in her life she has slept alone, surrounded by strangers; all her life she has slept either in a room with her parents, or with Ashoke at her side.”, this shows us how sheltered Ashima has been all her life, sand implies this experience is out of her comfort zone. We find out the extent to which she has been sheltered when she reveals “twenty-six members of her family had watched from the balcony at Dum Dum Airport, as she was drifting over parts of India she’d never set foot in, and then even farther, outside India itself,”. Not only was Ashima very sheltered, but she was also very close to her family, knowing this we realise she has left everything she knows and loves behind. We can predict that coming from such a sheltered background and having a lack of exposure to the outside world, Ashima would have a hard time understanding American culture, and so it would be a constant struggle for her to assimilate to the new culture. This is a complete change for Ashima, and a change that is too far from her comfort zone, Lahiri emphasises this when she associates physical pain with the “American seconds” as she tells us “American seconds tick on top of her pulse point, For half a minute, a band of pain wraps around her”. This foreshadows how painful the immigrant experience is going to be for Ashima. Lahiri also points out that Ashima feels “relief.” as “She calculates Indian time on her hands…And then, again, relief. She calculates the Indian time on her hands.”, which goes to show India is where she feels comfortable.
Now Ashima is in a hospital giving birth in this alien land where nothing seems familiar. “Nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all.”, everything is unfamiliar and there are no loved ones except Ashoke to give her the support she needs in this time. She is so used to being with her family on an everyday basis, that is feels strange or “miraculous” that she is giving birth without any of her family members around, other than Ashoke. “It’s not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land.”, so we know the pain doesn’t bother her, it’s raising Gogol in this unfamiliar Country, her fear is explained further as Lahiri writes “she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little…”, and this introduces the theme of clash of cultures. Ashima admits she knows very little about the American culture which Gogol will grow up immersed in and we get a hint that Gogol is going to have a disconnected relationship with his parents, because of the clash of cultures, and even Ashima worries that this might just be the case. She also fears raising Gogol alone without the help of her family. Knowing how scared and distressed Ashina is, creates empathy towards her in the readers. especially as we see her fear manifest itself into reality. Lahiri also hints that Ashima will remain homesick and find it difficult to settle, as she has nothing to do in this Country, and her life may start seeming “tentative and spare” to her. Ashima stays at home, cooks clean and takes care of Gogol and here traditional gender roles are also present.
We see both Ashoke and Ashima struggling to asimilate and also trying to hold on to their cultural identity. “Ashima looks up from a tattered copy of Desh magazine”, this magazine that she “still cannot bring herself to throw away.”. is a symbol of her culture and all that she has left behind which she is clutching on to through this magazine as well as other symbols. Other symbols that represent her culture include the people she associates with who are all Bengali, we notice that “Apart from his father, the baby has three visitors, all Bengali”. There are moments that show just how much pain and isolation Ashima feels, a powerful example is when “Patty smiles, a little too widely, and suddenly Ashima realizes her error, knows she should have said “fingers” and “toes.” This error pains her almost as much as her last contraction. ”. These little errors make her feel disconnected from this alien place and culture.
Ashima is not comfortable with raising Gogol in an apparently alien land, especially because she feels he will be distanced from his extended family, and she wants him to have a good relationship with his family like she does. Ashima “…can’t help but pity him. She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived.”, unlike Ashoke she feels sorry for Gogol, because he will not have that extended family bond, that he could have had if he was raised in India. This concerns Ashima so much so that she tells Ashoke “… I don’t want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It’s not right. I want to go back”, and although Ashoke feels guilty for bringing her to this alien environment, they both decide to stay for Gogol’s sake. Ashima wants to remain close and connected to her family, and so she asks her grandmother to name Gogol, however the letter gets lost which leaves Ashima disappointed and feeling disconnected from her past. Ashima tries to hold on to her cultural identity by only associating with Bengali acquaintances and we find out “They all become friends only for the reason that they all come from Calcutta.” Robert Cohen comments that “distinct diaspora communities are constructed out of the, . . . conference of narratives of the old country to the new which create the sense of shared history. Thus a member’s adherence to a diasporic community is demonstrated by an acceptance of an inescapable link with their past migration history”.
Lahiri also emphasis the importance of name through Ashima, as we are told the meaning of her name and we see how accurate the meaning is for Ashima. “Ashima means “she who is limitless, without borders.”, and as Ashima grows she becomes even more true to her name, because by the end Ashima no longer can call either India nor America home. Throughout the play although Ashima makes continuous effort to preserve her Bengali culture within the four walls of the Ganguli household, she does make changes for the children in the form of American holidays, food e.t.c. However, Ashima does make sure that her children are well informed about their roots, while not forcing them to choose their roots over the culture their surrounded by. She exposes her children to the Bengali customs, beliefs, food, habits e.t.c, Ashima teaches Gogol To memorize four-line children’s poem by Tagore, and the names of the deities adorning the ten-headed Durga during Puja…”, however “Every afternoon Ashima sleeps, but before nodding off, she switches the television to channel 2, and tells Gogol to watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company, in order to keep up with the English he uses at nursery school”. Gogol later recalls that “. . . it was for him, for Sonia, that his parents had gone to the trouble of learning these customs”.
Although the family members “progressively” celebrate American holidays and start accepting some parts of American culture, Lahiri shows us that for Ashima assimilation still remains a struggle. Unlike Ashoke who seems to be settled with his job, Ashima still feels uncomfortable with this new culture, and she holds on to her past through several symbols or means such as clothing, food, traditional celebrations. Now that Gogol invites American children to his birthdays, Ashima finds preparing food a large number of Bengali dishes for above forty Bengali guests “less stressful than the task of feeding a handful of American children…”. Ashima also “…continues to wear nothing but saris and sandals from Bata, Ashoke, accustomed to only wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready made.”, and so we learn that although Ashoke changes his apparel in accordance to the American culture, Ashima still wears traditional clothing which might be because she s not comfortable letting of any part of her Bengali culture. Soon Ashima realises “…being a foreigner, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. “, which sums up Ashima’s state of mind and emphasis the painful immigrant experience due to clash of cultures and isolation. Lahiri brings forward the theme of isolation from their past and Bengali culture when she writes; “… Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extreme aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost… Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch.”. This creates sympathy for the two characters, whose struggle and isolation from their loved ones and familiar culture is being made more clear. Their isolation from their culture is further explained when we are told that in their trip to India “…Ashima and Ashoke speak in broken Hindi…”, showing us the disconnect from their culture through language. This also reinforces the meaning of Ashima’s name, as it creates the effect of not feeling the sense of belonging to even their home Country which are “…quickly shed, quickly forgotten… irrelevant to their lives”
Towards the end of the novel we see just how much this journey has changed Ashima, and how much she has grown because of it. In the end, there is a shift from Gogol’s perspective back to Ashima’s, which makes us realise it was her journey all along. Ashima is packing up and going back to India, “and She feels overwhelmed by the thought of the move she is about to make, to the city that was once home and is now in its own way foreign.”, this also brings us back to her name and how “true to the meaning of her name she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”. Ashima has learned to do things herself, and she is not the same Ashima she once was, “For thirty-three years, she missed her life in India. Now she will miss her job at the library, the women with whom she’s worked.… She will miss the country in which she had grown to know and love her husband.”. and at this point Ashima is “true to the meaning of her name she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”, emphasising the theme of importance of names.
Ashima’s struggle to adapt to her host Country’s culture is the first thing we learn about when reading The Namesake. The perspective changes from Ashima to Gogol at the beginning of the book and later changes back to Ashima, creating the effect that this story has been about Ashima’s journey in this alien land. Ashima is attached to the Indian culture and life in India which she has had to leave behind, and so we constantly see her trying to preserve the tradition and values of the Bengali culture, which creates a sense of isolation from the host Country. In the end we see that Ashima learns to overcome, to a great degree, the isolation that she faces and she comes to terms with the American culture without fully assimilating to all aspects of the culture and it’s values. We see Ashima become independent and true to her name, because in the end she cannot pick one home.
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