Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri


This novel is written by Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of the short story collection "Interpreter of Maladies." Consequently, it shares many of the same cultural themes; it portrays the struggles of a Bengali couple who recently immigrated to the United States to begin a new life. The novel begins with a character named Ashima Ganguli who is a young bride about to give birth to her first child in a hospital in Massachusetts. Her husband, Ashoke, is an engineering student at MIT. Ashima is nervous not only because of the fact that she is on the verge of giving birth but also because she wishes that she could be delivering this baby in Calcutta, watching friends execute all of the proper Bengali ceremonies. As the two new parents are preparing to bring home their new son, they quickly realize that the hospital will not let them leave before they give their son a name. However, the traditional naming process amongst the Bengalis is to have an elder present the baby with a name. Ashima's grandmother was chosen to assume this role, yet unfortunately, the letter inscribed with the baby's name never reaches them. The grandmother soon dies, and Ashoke decides to name their son Gogol. Gogol is the name of his favorite Russian author and additionally, he had been reading a work of Gogol before he encountered a near death train accident. When Gogol reaches the age of about fourteen, he begins to hate his name. As a result, his parents attempt to give him a more "public" name, a Bengali tradition. They choose Nikhil, and he has his name legally changed to this before departing for college. Not only does Gogol change his name, but he also diverges from following in his father's footsteps, for he chooses to go to Yale instead of MIT. This causes tension amongst the family; it is becoming increasingly more and more clear that Gogol wishes to become American versus Bengali. He starts going home less frequently, dates a series of American girls, and becomes very enraged when people refer to him as Gogol. Later in the novel, when Nikhil goes home for the summer, his train stops abruptly due to a man that had jumped in front of the train in an attempt to commit suicide. Ashoke picks him up from the train station and once the two have arrived home in the driveway, Ashoke explains the meaning behind his decision to name him Gogol. It is during this moment that he starts to regret ever changing his name. Nikhil now lives in a small apartment in New York City where he works in an architectural office. One night at a party, he meets a girl named Maxine. He quickly becomes extremely involved amongst the activities within her family and has truly become a contributing member. Not long after Nikhil's parents meet Maxine, Ashoke dies of a sudden heart attack. Nikhil then decides to end his relationship with Maxine. After a little while, Ashima suggests that he call the daughter of one of her good friends, a daughter that he knows from his childhood. Her name is Moushumi, and she is Bengali. Rather reluctantly, Nikhil decides to meet with her. They become very much attracted to one another and eventually decide to marry. Unfortunately, Moushumi begins to regret this decision to marry, and when she comes across the name of a man from her high school days, she begins an affair with him. Nikhil and Moushumi divorce. The novel ends with Ashima selling their house in order to be able to live in India for a few months. Sonia, Nikhil's sister is planning to marry an American man, leaving Nikhil alone yet again. However, the novel closes with him feeling a sense of comfort from the collection of Russian stories that his father had left him many years ago; he has now truly accepted his name.

Discussion questions:

1). What, if any, are the significances of Gogol's many love interests? Do you think it has to do with his struggle for his identity?

2). Why do you think it is so difficult for people to assimilate within a new culture while upholding their original culture at the same time? What traditions do you value in your own family or culture, and why do you feel it is important to have them? Do you think that sometimes these traditions fade away? Why or why not?

18 comments:

Kelsey M. 11/12 said...

2) I think it is hard for people to assimilate because no one really likes change. We get comfortable with how we do things, and by having things in common with other people in our culture, it gives us a feeling of belonging. I love celebrating Christmas with my family every year. We always go together to get a real tree and decorate it together. Also, we go out to dinner on Christmas Eve and then look at Christmas lights together. This is a time when we can all take a break from our hectic lives and enjoy our time together. Although, my brother has moved away, our traditions still stay the same. They will only go away if you let them.

Kelsey M. 13-14 said...

1. I think that Gogol's many love interests have to do with his struggle to find his identity because when he feels like he wants to be American he dates and American and then his father sets him up with a Bengali women and he decides he might want to return to his roots.

Kristen R. 11-12 said...

Kelsey- I completely agree with you. I think that he dates American women to help Americanize himself, but when his mother suggests that he call her Bengali friend's daughter, he discovers that he quickly falls in love with her which demonstrates that no one can truly be someone one is not. He or she simply ends up reverting back to old roots as you said. I also feel that it is very important to uphold family traditions because they define who you are as a person, and additionally, they help to unify a family through something that is unique to its members. People always want to feel like they fit in with something, and I think a culture and its customs allows people to do this.

Laura B. 13-14 said...

2) I think it is hard for people to assimilate into a new country and uphold their original morals because in order to "fit in", most people will want to have the exact same ideals as the people surrounding them. One of the traditions my family upholds is we have a Christmas Eve dinner together every year. To me, it is a time to come together and to appreciate each other. I think that traditions tend to stick around because they provide people with stability and familiarity.

Erika B 13-14 said...

2. Since many cultural traditions so greatly vary, it's hard to try following a tradition from a new culture without accidentally dropping ties with the original culture you once had. Many people become so entranced with a new culture. Doing something different than the norm is fun, whereas staying with you original culture for long periods of time is nice, but it gets repetitive and boring after some time. When the new comes in, the old tends to be pushed aside.

Kara K. 5/6 said...

It is very diffucult for people to assimilate to a new culture, yet keep their own too. Usually oter cultures have conflicting beliefs with your own culture. I value many traditions in my family. We celebrate all the holidays which are important because they help bring our family back together. Some traditions my family had faded away after my parents had their divorce. It did not have a large affect on our family though.

Kara K. 5/6 said...
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Leah A 5-6 said...

2. I think it is hard for people to assimilate to a new culture because they feel comfortable with their own culture. I believe that some people don't like to change the way they live. However it is hard because society of the new culture tells them they shouldn't act "different" but they don't want to change. I feel that it is important to have your own traditions to give yourself a sense of who you are. I don't believe these traditions fade away. My family is from Iran and they still continue to celebrate their holidays and speak Iranian.

Kristen R. 11-12 said...

Leah- I completely agree with you as well. I think that a lot of people do not like to drastically change the way they live unless they are intentionally looking to create a new image for themselves. I also agree with what you said about society and how it forces the customs and traditions onto its people, regardless of whether or not they have the desire to know them. However, I do think it's important that when people live in a new area, by choice or by force, that they should try to familiarize themselves with the new culture in order to be successful and happy and to avoid feeling depressed and alone.

Megan D. 11-12 said...

One thing that makes it hard to assimilate while keeping ones own culture is that often times cultures conflict and provide very different views on life or behavior styles. This can be seen by liking at the Eastern and Western Worlds; the western cultures tends to value consumption and the physical, most eastern cultures focus more on the spiritual and the impermanent. Those are major differences. Also, I feel like often times we hold onto something because its what we are familiar with. Its like the toy we find from when we were little that we cannot get rid of it because we feel we would lose part of ourselves by discarding it. I feel like people in between cultures feel like they would not be being true to themselves or that they would lose something by assimilating.

LibbyS5/6 said...

I believe that it's hard to assimilate to a new culture and uphold your own, because the two cultures are probably very different. It's not easy to carry on the customs you once followed while trying to conform to the standards of a new society. My family doesn't really have traditions though. My mom likes to kind of mix things up. But I do think that traditions can fade away if you're not careful.

Kristen T. 11-12 said...

2. I think this is so difficult because of the contrast between different cultures. Our culture in America seems to incorporate a little bit of everything, but at the same time it is so different and seems so much more modern than many other cultures in the world today. The way of life here is so different yet very specific, and it is very difficult to be accepted when one cannot follow our way of life. It seems that newcomers are torn in two directions. They want to change their ways so that they can be accepted into our society, yet they feel bad about abandoning the ways of their culture. It is a struggle that every newcomer needs to overcome.

Brad S 11-12 said...

2. I think that upholding traditions that you know known your whole life and being around others that upheld the same traditions, and then moving somewhere where no one does what you're used to can be tough. Children learn by watching others, and being thrown into a dramatic change like that could be very difficult for anyone to keep their old habits. Confusion might erupt and then a struggle for identity might occur as well.

tyler k 13-14 said...

Answering question one,I believe his many love interests do in fact reflect his struggle for his identity. He has yet to find his true "calling" if you will, while he tries to live a life much different then what was chosen for him through his family's traditions.

Allie H 11-12 said...

Answering question number 2, I think it is very difficult for people to assimilate within a new culture while upholding their original culture at the same time because it is hard to represent your old culture within a new one. In a new culture, you are surrounded with what makes them special. But your own culture may be hard to express when you are drowned in other cultural identities. In my culture, I value the tradition of Christmas. It is not only a religious holiday, but also an important factor in my life because it represents togetherness within my family.

SeanK56 said...

The majority of the time the new culture is completely different. Being surrounded by things that are nothing like you know makes you adopt those new things and push aside the old. Many traditions fade away because they just do not apply to the society.

KatherineS13-14 said...

2) I think it is difficult for people to assimilate while retaining their original culture because many areas of different cultures conflict with one another, such as meal times. You have to choose to eat at the meal time of your original culture or your new one, you cannot do both. My family always gets together for the holidays. Grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins, everyone. This tradition is fading because we are getting older and some family members get busy and are unable to come to these gatherings.

Mrs. Sherwood said...

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