Being different is always difficult. And there’s no better proof than The Namesake, a 2003 immigrant-themed novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. At a time when many people abandon their countries—either to escape war and persecution or to seek a better life—this book is something very much relevant. Putting aside the political aspect, it is always worthwhile to see what life of those newcomers is like and how they survive in the foreign land. Will they mingle well? Or will they distance themselves from others? Will they stay true to their motherland’s culture? Or will they blend all ideals together just so they can live a smooth life?
It all starts—despite the novel’s opening chapter—with Ashoke’s desire to travel the world upon the tragic accident that befalls him in his hometown in India, before which he meets and chats with a businessman suggesting him to go abroad at least once in a lifetime. Just before his leaving for the United States to do research and study further, his family arrange a marriage for him with Ashima, a young educated woman who, fortunately, is not disinclined to live abroad with him. But that cannot change the fact that living alone, just the two of them, in a foreign land is a difficult experience. Everything is alien to them, as they are to the nation they’re now part of. Everything is different from their inherited culture, from what they are used to, especially when it comes to naming their baby.
And here’s the unfortunate event where our main character gets his name, Gogol Ganguli. It has been a Bengali tradition that the grandmother of the mother will give her baby a name—a good, official name, to be precise—but alas! The letter containing this supposed name is lost between India and the US—it’s in the late 1960s so you can imagine the difficulties—and so when the hospital, as per usual in the country, asks Ashoke and Ashima to give their baby a name to fill the birth certificate, so they can take him home, they are forced to put a “pet name” on it instead, unwilling to breach the tradition by giving their baby a good name themselves. From then on, their son is Gogol, a name quickly picked up by Ashoke from his favorite author, the one who always inspires him and reminds him of the near-death tragedy in his early life.
But Gogol is not happy with his name. It’s neither Bengali nor American, and its original owner had a tragic life Gogol cannot bear to know. He’s already a foreigner in a foreign land, and having a strange name is another burden to him. More than that, he hates his cultural background, his burdensome family tradition, his ties with his homeland. He spends almost his entire life defying all of that, including changing his name and make it a “good, official” one and dating Caucasian girls though he very well knows that his parents must want him to marry any Indian girl of their choice. However, he then meets, and falls in love with, Moushumi, a childhood Bengali friend of his. Their wedding later is quite predictable, though it’s not for the blessing their parents give them, but rather for their shared fate and will to escape their inherited identity and traditions. Unfortunately, this proves a mistake, because Moushumi’s character, and her sense of rebellion, make her realize that Gogol is not someone she wants to be with in her life.
It is easy to see how all main characters in The Namesake suffer from a sense of alienation. But while Ashoke and Ashima try so hard to hold on still to their culture and embrace that of Americans’ at the same time, Gogol wants none of that. He doesn’t like being who he is (a stranger with a strange name) and all he wants is to be assimilated totally and successfully into the American society. He only wants to be a “normal” person in the land he was born into, and to have a “normal” name which doesn’t make anyone around him stop and question him. At the same time, Moushumi, who is in the same generation as Gogol himself, shows the same strong will and determination. She even once pledged to not marry an Indian/Bengali man just so she can break her parents’ hopes and expectations as Bengali people living in America—a pledge which she accidentally breaks and brings her to her demise.
All this shows that assimilation is a tremendous feat that can be very much personal. There is no way Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t know it perfectly, and she succeeds in narrating the whole process. Her narrative is open and clear, her language is simple and direct. She doesn’t take on lavish, pretentious writing style to tell her tale so readers can really see through all the characters: what they think and feel, and their development toward the end of the story. What’s a little bit disturbing (I wouldn’t say disappointing) here is that some parts are pretty boring to follow, and some are even too much predictable. You can almost foresee what is going to happen even before opening the next page. It may be because you already know it, or perhaps it is just the way it should be. Putting all that aside, the plot development is still as good as that of the characters, and the atmosphere created by Lahiri’s diction can truly drag the reader down with subtle yet stormy emotions.
All things said, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a very satisfying book in many aspects, if not all. It might not provide readers with what immigration or assimilation is actually about, or with all the struggles immigrants have to go through in the foreign land. But it surely gives the reader some insights into how immigrants could or should blend in with their new society, and how “being different” is also a part/process of creating a melting pot.