Book Review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society (Watts, 1973).” The structure of our language, institution, and culture, he argues, limits our opportunity to reach out and find out who we really are, and instead gives an illusion that we know who we are and where we belong. The Namesake shows how the illusion affects ordinary people by portraying distinctively separate patterns of two cultures and people living in between, what it takes to start a new life in a foreign country and start a life as the second generation children without knowing with clarity what home is for them.

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society,” Alan Watts (1973) wrote in The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are (p. 53). The structure of our language, institution, and culture, he argues, limits our opportunity to reach out and find out who we really are, and instead gives an illusion that we know who we are and where we belong. The Namesake shows how the illusion affects ordinary people by portraying distinctively separate patterns of two cultures and people living in between, what it takes to start a new life in a foreign country and start a life as the second generation children without knowing with clarity what home is for them.

Jhumpa Lahiri tells us the story through several characters, mainly Gogol, a boy who was born to Bengali immigrant parents, whose name is neither Bengali nor American. The name was not on his parents’ plan, however. The naming process, which the parents were trying to follow from their own tradition, was interrupted by diverse nature of circumstances such as the physical distance between India and America, the American hospital policy, and the school’s deliberate involvement. As Gogol grows old enough, he decides to change his name to Nikhil which more resembles American names while convincing himself that he is not betraying his parents, since Nikhil is the name his parents initially gave him before it was interfered by the school. In doing so, he attempts to move his sense of “I” from Gogol to Nikhil, from an ambivalent place that is neither India nor America to simply America. The ambivalence presented in the book is not at all blurred, however. In Gogol’s reflection, the boundaries of the two cultures are demarcated indicating where one ends and the other begins. Yet, when he crosses the boundaries back and forth, he faces bridging wall characterised as guilt, responsibility, betrayal, and not-American-enough-ness. The clarity of the cultural difference, instead of giving him a way-out from the ambivalent in-between state, breeds more confusion and conflict between his given identities, trapping him with guilt and awkwardness. What he goes through, however, is not a mere confusion but what Kleinman describes as suffering from everyday violence. He writes, “through violence in social experience, as mediated by cultural representations, social formations are not just replicated, but the ordinary lives of individuals are also shaped, and all-too-often twisted, bent, even broken.” (2000, p. 238) How individuality is shaped by the reflection of the society is well illustrated by how Gogol and his wife Moushumi, who is also the second generation immigrant born to Bengali parents, think, behave, and wish to become in their lives.

Throughout the story, the symbolic role of names is vividly imbued in individual identity and relationships. Gogol’s humiliation when school teacher talked about Nikolai Gogol’s miserable life in class despite the fact that he has nothing linked to the Russian writer but the name, Gogol’s irritation when his parents called him Gogol by accident instead of Nikhil in the presence of his college friends, Moushumi’s daily ordeal of having to explain how to spell and pronounce her name for other people, and the way she felt when Dmitri, her crush, “claimed” her by renaming, symbolically showing how names interact between individuals and within selves.

He asked her what her name was and when she told him he had leaned toward her, cupping his ear, even though she knew he had heard it perfectly well. “How in the world do you spell that?” he’d asked, and when she told him, he mispronounced it, as most people did. . . . “I’ll just call you Mouse.” The nickname had irritated and pleased her at the same time. It made her feel foolish, but she was aware that in renaming her he had claimed her somehow, already made her his own. (Lahiri, 2003, p. 258)

All these are perhaps the signs of being not American enough. What does being American mean? At which point the Americanness boundary begins and ends? And what is it like to be excluded without force but with subtle otherness in a daily life? The book portrays how characters live through and around those experiences that are easily muted and indistinct in our society.

The hardships which Ashima first faced in America as a newcomer, her obsession with keeping addresses of all Bengali families she knows in her book, her feeling of helplessness when her parents died far away from where she lives, the frustration Gogol feels when faced with his background which contrasts to his worldview, and Moushumi’s desire to belong to the third country where she does not have to juggle with senses of guilt and responsibility, all are far from the bloodshed war scene in which the presence of violence is discernible. Gogol’s ordinary life is far from it. However, his job, desire, and choice are the ramification of his suffering shaped by everyday violence.

The Namesake offers a way of understanding human experience by describing ordinary lives of the protagonists narrated in a subtle but humanly detailed manner. From it, we witness that the process of moving to America that Ashoke and Ashima started from Calcutta, has ended neither at their ends nor at their children’s. The search for identity and home as well is an on-going process. What does it take for one to feel at home? Ashima, ready to return to India at her age 53, feels for the first time that India is not her home anymore. Her house, she thinks, filled with her family and other Bengali families, is indeed her home. Can a house filled with Bengali people and the smell of Bengali food on Christmas be American enough? It is the house Gogol tried to escape from as he believed himself that it is not American enough. However, through his journey in search of his American identity, the book shows that finding self is not about living in a different house or having a different name. It is, perhaps, having and feeling at home.

 

Reference

Kleinman, A. (2000). The Violences of Everyday Life. In V. Das, A. Kleinman, M. Ramphele, & P. Reynolds (Eds.), Violence and Subjectivity (pp. 226-241), University of California Press.

Watts, A. (1973). The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. Retrieved from https://terebess.hu/english/AlanWatts-On%20The%20Taboo%20Against%20Knowing%20Who%20You%20Are.pdf

Originally submitted for Issues in global and intercultural education, KU Leuven.
 

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