Belonging in The Namesake #
The Namesake illustrates many issues of belonging by contrasting the relationships in the lives of the parents, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli (an anglicized pronouncing his real surname, Gangopadhyay.) with those of the generation of their children Nikhil and Sonia.
The parents, born in India, in their twenties, migrated to America, where they only partially begin to integrate and assimilate a new culture, while their children born in America more readily adopt the American values and lifestyle.
The power of the book stems from the ability of the composer to tell a credible compelling and poignant story highlighting the conflicts between the generations and cultures without becoming judgmental. Her objective portrayal of Indian culture is counterpointed with a realistic dispassionate depiction of sophisticated, affluent but hollow American lifestyles.
Dislocation, separation and assimilation
Their parents gradually separate from India by attrition and assimilate into American society by osmosis.
*As their lives in New England swell with fellow Bengali friends, the members of that other, former life, those who know Ashima and Ashoke not by their good names but as Monu and Mithu, slowly dwindle. More deaths come, more telephone calls startle them in the middle of the night, more letters arrive in the mailbox informing them of aunts and uncles no longer with them. The news of these deaths never gets lost in the mail as other letters do. Somehow, bad news, how ever ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed. Within a decade abroad, they are both orphaned; ……….In some senses Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost, those who survive and are consoled by memory alone. Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch. Voices on the phone, occasionally bearing news of births and weddings, send chills down their spines. How could it be, still alive, still talking? The sight of them when they visit Calcutta every few years feels stranger still, six or eight weeks passing like a dream. Once back on Pemberton Road, in the modest house that is suddenly mammoth, there is nothing to remind them; in spite of the hundred or so relatives they’ve just seen, they feel as if they are the only Gangulis in the world. *
Ashima finds the isolation of the American suburbs an experience more traumatising than moving countries:
*For Ashima, migrating to the suburbs feels more drastic, more distressing than the move from Calcutta to Cambridge had been. She wishes Ashoke had accepted the position at North eastern so that they could have stayed in the city. She is stunned that in this town there are no sidewalks to speak of, no streetlights, no public transportation, no stores for miles at a time. She has no interest in learning how to drive the new Toyota Corolla it is now necessary for them to own. *Page 49.
The narrative depicts Gogol’s fractured identity as he (Nikhil) tries to disassociate himself from both his family and his cultural heritage to forge his own self:
One day he attends a panel discussion about Indian novels written in English. … Gogol is bored by the panelists, who keep referring to something called “marginality” as if it were some sort of medical condition….. Gogol has never heard the term ABCD. He eventually gathers that it stands for “American-born confused/conflicted deshi.”
He has no ABCD friends at college. He avoids them, for they remind him too much of the way his parents choose to live, befriending people not so much because they like them, but because of a past they happen to share.(126)
*He is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own. * 138
The contrast of American values compared to India’s.
Relationships are casual, transitory, superficial:
On the surface the American life style appears more relaxed, free and less rigid, however Nikhil eventually sees through the facade and realises how false, hollow and indulgent it can be. It may be very seductive and comfortable, but their lives are pointless; they lack purpose, direction or usefulness. Using Chaucerian irony Lahiri appears to be celebrating American generosity, openness and tolerance but there is a hint of this being undercut by subtle satire.
*From the very beginning he feels effortlessly incorporated into their (*Maxine’s) lives. It is a different brand of hospitality from what he is used to; for though the Ratliffs are generous, they are people who do not go out of their way to accommodate others, assured, in his case correctly, that their life will appeal to him. Gerald and Lydia, busy with their own engagements, keep out of the way. Gogol and Maxine come and go as they please, from movies and dinners out. 136
*Maxine speaks of all her relationships without embarrassment or regret. She has the gift of accepting her life; as he comes to know her, he realizes that she has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way. This, in his opinion, is the biggest difference between them, a thing far more foreign to him than the big house she’d grown up in, her education at private schools. In addition, he is continually amazed by how much Maxine emulates her parents, how much she respects their tastes and their ways. At the dinner table she argues with them about books and paintings and people they know in common the way one might argue ‘with a friend. There is none’ of the exasperation he feels with his own parents. No sense of obligation. Unlike his parents they pressure her to do nothing, and yet she lives faithfully, *
To him the terms of his parents’ marriage are something at once unthinkable and unremarkable nearly all their friends and relatives had been married in the same way. But their lives bear no resemblance to that of Gerald and Lydia: expensive pieces of jewelry presented on Lydia birthday, flowers brought home for no reason at all, the two of them kissing openly, going for walks through the city, or to dinner, just as Gogol and Maxine do. Seeing the two of them curled up on the sofa in the evenings, Gerald’s head resting on Lydia’s shoulder, Gogol is reminded that in all his life he has never witnessed a single moment of physical affection between his parents. Whatever love exists between them is an utterly private, uncelebrated thing. “That so depressing,” Maxine says when he confesses this fact to her, and though it upset him to hear her rejection, he agrees.
*He is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own. * 138
Birthdays are important milestones in young people’s lives and Gogol’s fourteenth birthday with his family is highlighted and later unfavourably compared to an empty one in his twenties with his friends where he feels a lack of connection.
*Champagne is poured with the cake. “To Nikhil,” Gerald announces, raising his glass. Everybody sings “Happy Birth day,” this group who has known him for only one evening. Who will forget him the next day. It is in the midst of the laughter of these drunken adults, and the cries of their children running barefoot, chasing fireflies on the lawn, that he remembers that his father left for Cleveland a week ago, that by now he is there, in a new apartment, alone. That his mother is alone on Pemberton Road. He knows he should call to make sure his father has arrived safely, and to find out how his mother is faring on her own. *158
Solitude, privacy, aloneness, independence:
While we have a need to belong, it is counterpointed by a need for independence, individuality, self reliance and a private identity. At times in our lives we need solitude – alone time to sort out issues, ponder difficult choices or reflect on past crises. Privacy predominates during the pressures of study, illness, grief, or when we contravene society’s restrictions, we tend to be surreptitious or furtive and desire anonymity and seclusion.
*Moushumi’s been given an eight A.M. section, something that had annoyed her at first. But now that she’s up, showered, dressed, walking down the street, a latte from the deli on their block in one hand, she’s invigorated; being out at this hour alone. *253
She told him she was at her carrel in the library when really she’d met Astrid and her baby, Esme, in SoHo, or gone for a walk by herself. Sometimes she would sit at a restaurant alone, at the bar, ordering sushi or a sandwich and a glass of wine, simply to remind herself that she was still capable of being on her own. This assurance is important to her; along with the Sanskrit vows she’d repeated at her wedding, she’d privately vowed that she’d never grow fully dependent on her husband, as her mother has.
There are no Bengali fruit sellers to greet her (Moushumi) on the walk from Dimitri’s subway stop, no neighbours to recognize her once she turns onto Dimitri’s block. It reminds her of living in Paris— for a few hours at Dimitri’s she is inaccessible, anonymous.
This is what upsets her most to admit: that the affair causes her to feel strangely at peace the complication of it calming her, structuring her day.
**Ashima ** also learns to survive on her own.
*For a few final hours she is alone in the house. Sonia has gone with Ben to pick up Gogol at the train station. It occurs to Ashima that the next time she will be by herself, she will be travelling, sitting on the plane. For the first time since her flight to meet her husband in Cambridge, in the winter of 1967, she will make the journey entirely on her own. The prospect no longer terrifies her. She has learned to do things on her own, *
*But for the first time in her life, Ashima has no desire to escape to Calcutta, not now. She refuses to be so far from the place where her husband made his life, the country in which he died. “Now I know why he went to Cleveland,” she tells people, refusing, even in death, to utter her husband’s name. “He was teaching me how to live alone.” * 183
Nikhil: It feels a little strange to be so uninvolved in his own wedding and he is reminded of the many other celebrations in his life, all the birthdays and graduation parties his parents had thrown when he was growing up, in his honour, attended by his parents’ friends, occasions from which he had always felt at a slight remove.
*That here at Maxine’s side, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free P.*158
Belonging to family, friends and community are no longer determined by geography, rather by common interests, cultural heritage or shared values.
*Christmas was supposed to be spent with just family. But their parents had replied that in America, Bengali friends were the closest thing they had to family, * P. 200
Gogol has nothing to say to these people. He doesn’t care about their dissertation topics, or their dietary restrictions, or the colour of their walls. In the beginning these occasions hadn’t been quite so excruciating. When Moushumi had first introduced him to her crowd he and she would sit with their arms around each other, their fellow guests a footnote to their own ongoing conversation. Once, at a party at Sally and Oliver’s, they’d wandered off to make quick, giddy love in Sally’s walk- in closet, piles of her sweaters looming over them. He knows that that sort of insular passion can’t be sustained.
Moushumi and Nikhil:
After years of clandestine relationships, it felt refreshing to court in a fish- bowl, to have the support of her parents from the very start, the inevitability of an unquestioned future, of marriage, drawing them along. And yet the familiarity that had once drawn her to him has begun to keep her at bay. Though she knows it’s not his fault, she can’t help but associate him, at times, with a sense of resignation, with the very life she had resisted, had struggled so mightily to leave behind. He was not who she saw herself ending up with, he had never been that person. Perhaps for those very reasons, in those early months, being with him, falling in love with him, doing precisely what had been expected of her for her entire life, had felt forbidden, wildly breach of her own instinctive will. –
**Parochialism **– a narrowness or myopia as people live lives compartmentalised or disconnected from others.
Dimitri is not terribly curious about Nikhil, does not ask her his name. He expresses no jealousy. When she told him in the Italian restaurant that she was married, his expression had not changed.
She (Maxine) is surprised to hear certain things about his life that all his parents’ friends are Bengali, that they had had an arranged marriage, that his mother cooks Indian food every day, that she wears saris and a bindi. “Really?” she says, not fully believing him. “But you’re so different. I would never have thought that.” He doesn’t feel insulted, but he is aware that a line has been drawn all the same.