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“Our culture, our traditions, our language are the foundations upon which we build our identity.” One’s cultural values and beliefs affect their attitude and influence their approach to living. When two cultures clash, it becomes difficult for a person to choose their value and belief system, which can have a major impact on their personality. Through the psychological lens, Jhumpa Lahiri’s purpose is to show that when one’s cultural identity is isolated, they can feel displaced and believe that they do not fit in their culture or the dominant culture. This is shown through the characters of Ashima Ganguli and Ashoke Ganguli and their son Gogol Ganguli, the conflict between identity and culture, and the technique of symbolism that binds the novel together.

To begin with, Ashima Ganguli, Ashoke Ganguli, and Gogol Ganguli feel that they do not belong in the culture of Bangladesh or the culture of the United States of America. In August of 1968, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where their first child, Gogol Ganguli, was born. Ashima decides to raise Gogol in the Bengali way, thus “to put him to sleep, she sings him the Bengali songs her mother had sung to her” (Lahiri 35). Ashima thinks that her cultural identity is being isolated and is feeling displaced in the American culture, therefore wants to go back to Calcutta to preserve her culture. Usually in the American culture to put a baby to sleep, the mother or a guardian sings their child lullabies for them to sleep, but in this case, Ashima is singing Bengali songs to put Gogol to sleep. To avoid feeling displaced, she sticks to her cultural values and beliefs by teaching Gogol the Bengali language through singing. Newborns prefer to hear their mother’s voice, thus the more Ashima sings to Gogol in Bengali, the more he would enjoy it. This would result in him valuing and viewing his cultural identity as an important aspect of life, allowing him to feel a part of the Bengali culture. Therefore, Ashima is trying to make Gogol respect his culture in a foreign country so he does not forget his cultural background and heritage, by training him at a young age. On the other hand, as Gogol grows older, he begins to hate his name because it is neither Bengali nor American, but Russian. Before he leaves for college, Gogol legally changes his name to Nikhil. However, after the name change, there is a complication, “he doesn’t feel like Nikhil. Not yet. Part of the problem is that the people who now know him as Nikhil have no idea that he used to be Gogol” (105). It takes time for Gogol to adjust to his new name because it also represents a new identity. Gogol, his pet name, is an intimate name that loved ones only know. Nikhil turns into his good name giving him the ability to feel independent and his need to shape his identity. Due to him not fitting into either culture because of his pet name, Gogol is trying to alienate himself from the Bengali culture so that he can fit into the American culture. Moreover, Ashoke can adapt to America and the culture far less warily than his wife, Ashima. Ashish Sangwan, an assistant professor at Bansilal Government College, thinks that Ashoke can adjust more quickly than Ashima because she “resists all things American and pines for her family… After the birth of her son Gogol, she wants to go back to Calcutta and raise her child there in the company of the caring and loving ones but decides to stay back for Ashoke’s sake” (Sangwan 1-2). This novel shows how immigrants face cultural issues. Immigrants like Ashima and Ashoke feel culturally and emotionally dislocated when settling in their home in a foreign land. This move from Calcutta to America has Ashima feeling very disturbed and isolated from her comfortable home in India, full of so many caring and loving relatives and friends. This has an impact on Ashima’s psychological health as she remains lost in her memories of her home country and as she spends time re-reading Bengali stories and magazines. Thus, Ashima misses India and not experience the American culture, she feels lost and trapped, thinking she does not belong in this foreign land.

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Moreover, in the Bengali culture, every single person has a pet name and a legal name. It is very difficult to name Gogol because the name is going to be Ashima’s grandmother’s selection, but the letter from Calcutta has not arrived. The doctor, Mr. Wilcox, suggests naming Gogol from an ancestor “but this isn’t possible, Ashima and Ashoke think to themselves. This tradition doesn’t exist for Bengalis… This sign of respect in America and Europe, this symbol of heritage and lineage, would be ridiculed in India” (28). The Bengali culture suggests having names that are inviolable and not inherited or shared. As Ashoke and Ashima live in America, they do not forget their culture, but find ways to take pride in it, though it makes them believe that they do not fit in with the dominant culture. Ashima and Ashoke think to themselves, rather than saying it to the doctor because they might get judged as well as get a feeling of unacceptance in society due to their ethnicity. As said before, this novel shows how the Bengali couple faces cultural dilemmas in the foreign system. Furthermore, Gogol does not think of India as his “desh”, in other words, country. When Gogol and his family travel to India, his parents refer to India as their country, “but Gogol never thinks of India as desh. He thinks of it as Americans do, as India” (118). Gogol is brought up between two cultures, Indian and American. He belongs to Indian Bengali parents, but outside the house thinks of himself only as an American. Gogol mainly focuses on thinking that India is a foreign country, both physically and psychologically. Gogol is struggling to reconcile his cultures together. Moreover, when there is a conflict between culture and identity, it becomes difficult for a person to recognize who he or she is. Hariom Sharma, a Ph.D. Scholar states, “The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially so for those who are culturally displaced, as immigrants are, or those who grow up in two worlds” (Sharma 78). This relates to when Gogol does not feel a part of the Bengali culture and the American culture due to his name. Jhumpa Lahiri challenges the character’s identity creation from the perspective of a “first-immigrant” and a “second-generation immigrant.” She starts from the details of life in Calcutta to the struggle for identity in America. When Ashima and Ashoke settle in America they feel culturally displaced, but when they visit India, they automatically start feeling belonging to the culture and the people. Whereas, when Gogol visits India, he feels stuck and displaced, but in America, he feels free. Therefore, when two cultures clash it can have a major impact on one’s values and beliefs. The book that saved him was written by a famous Russian author, Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke loves the author and can connect to him well because Nikolai Gogol, without knowingly, saved Ashoke’s life from the train accident creating a new life again. Due to this incident, reflected upon Gogol heavily because it became a part of an identity he did not strive for. Likewise, another incident that takes place on the train is when the Ganguli family visits India and is heading to the airport to return to America, and another passenger gets murdered. The family does not feel safe in India, “A businessman in another compartment is stabbed in his sleep and robbed… No one is more horrified than Ashoke” (86). This horrific event backs up the fact that the Ganguli family is not as safe in India as they are in America. Once coming back from India, they feel culturally displaced because of horrific events like these occurring. In America, the Ganguli family does not undergo such a terrific crime as they do during their trip to India. A train in literature symbolizes the journey of life. A train symbolizes the pathway of life, it suggests that a person is on the right track in life when going in the right direction. This connects back to the part when they are returning to America and are on the train because they are making the right choice to come back to a safe country. On the other hand, a scholarly journal article from Nacada, a global community for academic writing believes that trains have a great impact on the change of Gogol’s life and identity. The writer believes, “On the train rides back home, Gogol can feel himself transforming back into the boy his family expects him to be rather than the individual he has matured into while away at school” (Nacada). Gogol is being raised in a stereotypical Bengali household where the son is expected to pursue a career that the parents want, for example, a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. Gogol does not want to be in the “traditionally expected fields”, he wants to major in architecture. Gogol feels culturally isolated because he is not being the ideal son that his parents want him to be. Through the psychological lens, Gogol has two identities, one for his parents, and one for the American culture. This affects him psychologically because he can develop multiple personality disorder, which has symptoms of depression and mood swings. Gogol experiments with these symptoms because of his identity. He struggles when being with his parents because he is not able to be himself and tell them what he wants to be. Therefore, this is how trains interfere in different phases and transitions in the Ganguli household affecting their identity and culture.

In conclusion, in the novel The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, it is shown that when one’s culture and identity are ignored, one may start to feel alienated and think that they do not belong in their own culture or the dominant culture. This is shown through: The characters of Ashima, Ashoke, and Gogol Ganguli, the conflict between the culture and identity, and through trains being used as a symbol for form. Thus, this novel shows that it is important to value all ethnicity so that it does not result in feeling displaced or unwanted.

Works Cited

    1. Ashish Sangwan. “Cultural Disruption in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Novel ‘The Namesake.’” International Journal of English Research, Ashish Sangwan, www.englishjournals.com/download/122/2-6-43-264.pdf.
    2. Commerce. “Fluidity of Identity in The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.” Academia.edu – Share Research, www.academia.edu/27265779/Fluidity_of_Identity_in_The_Namesake_by_Jhumpa_Lahiri.
    3. “Book Reviews and Notes.” NACADA Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, 1985, pp. 85–91., doi:10.12930/0271-9517-5.2.85.

 

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