El buen nombre: crisis diaspórica de una identidad dual


What's in The Name(sake): tropes of dual identity and belonging.

Jhumpa Lahiri. 2003. The Namesake. Publicado en HMH Books. 

Regarded as a writer of considerable repute in the Indian diasporic canon, Jhumpa Lahiri documents the identity crisis of an Indian immigrant family in her novel The Namesake. While first-generation immigrants struggle to adjust to the host culture, the second generation fights to forget the culture of their origin, and this characterises the tension in the narrative. Ashoke and Ashima represent the first generation of immigrants, whereas their children Gogol and Sonia, as well as Moushumi (whom Gogol eventually commits to in an intimate relationship), represent the second generation. Ashima and Ashoke are immigrants who are in a dilemma, trying to assimilate themselves into a hostile land while preserving the roots and traditions of their homeland, as analysed by Chitra Thrivikraman Nair. This essay aims to discuss and question the quest for roots in the lives of characters in The Namesake, especially its main character Gogol Ganguli, and the Bengali diaspora.


Fresh from their arranged marriage in Calcutta, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli arrive in Massachusetts at the end of the 1960s. In Bengali, the pet name mostly used by friends and family is ‘daknam’. Every pet name is paired with a ‘good name’, a ‘bhalonam’, for identification in the outside world. Being aware that his new-born son is an American, Ashoke waits for the ‘good name’ to come from the oldest member of their family in India, following the Bengali tradition. The letter never arrives. The hospital bureaucracy insists on a name, and Ashoke decides to temporarily name the boy Gogol, after his favourite writer. Although meant to be a temporary name, Gogol is the name that ends up on the birth certificate. Gogol, thus, enters the world with a name which is neither Indian nor American. His parents, unquestionably, were not aware of the terrible experience Gogol would have to undergo later for his hybridised name. Ashoke and Ashima are not familiar with such regulations, and having to name their baby just to get released from the hospital only leads to a feeling of negation and discontent. They react to the typed name of Gogol: ‘it doesn’t look right; pet names aren’t meant to be made public in this way’. It is a new dimension of tension added to their life which expresses their disapproval of the present.


For a long time, the boy knows nothing of these circumstances. He even lets his parents know that he would like to be called Gogol in school. However, as years pass by, Gogol is affected the most by his hybrid identity within the Ganguli family. Named after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he finds his identity not fitting into either of the dominant cultures: Indian or American. He cannot imagine his connection with the last name of a Russian writer. This ‘singularity’ of his first name frightens and displaces him particularly after he learns about the absurdity of the Russian writer at school as a mentally troubled genius. ‘He is old enough to know that he will be burned, not buried, that his body will occupy no plot of earth, that no stone in this country will bear his name beyond life’, Lahiri writes in the novel.


For Gogol, his hybridised name is always a matter of tension, a catalyst in discovering his own acculturated identity, in shuffling and reshuffling his views concerning his dual identities in America. He resembles Edward Said (1935-2001), who though an Arab, was named after the Prince of Wales. Said reflects in his essay, ‘Between Worlds’:


‘Besides, with an unexceptionally Arab family name like Said connected to an improbably British first name (my mother very much admired the Prince of Wales in 1935, the year of my birth), I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport and no certain identity at all.’


Gogol, obviously, does not have the intensity of Said’s affliction concerning his identity crisis. But, in acculturating himself to American society and going about his everyday activities, he is severely tormented because of his name. Gogol decides to change his name to Nikhil (the name given by his parents which he refused when he was young) before he leaves for Yale University, and announces to his parents that Gogol is a strange name, not even a Bengali one, and that Nikolai Gogol was a flawed, miserable person for a namesake.


However, by the end of the novel, following Ashoke’s death and Gogol’s separation from his wife, both Ashima and Gogol are able to translate their scattered thoughts concerning their ultimate future course. Ashima spends ‘six months of her life in India, six months in the states’. This is, as Lahiri justly says, ‘true to the meaning to her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere’. Even Gogol, pondering upon his life and relationships, is different. He feels guilty about his own way of life through the years. Family is vital for him now. Gogol feels that ‘the accident of being named Gogol, defined and distressed him for many years… and yet, all the things for which it was impossible to prepare, have formed him and determined who he is’. Despite all the description of Gogol’s troubles with his true identity and displacement during his life, there is a hidden desire for freedom in him. His self suffers from its cultural captivity which is caused by his parents’ roots, and not finding solace in his American side is related to his instinctual desire for freedom and emancipation from the captivity of his identity. The last lines of the story illustrate Gogol’s preoccupation with his future. Like his decision regarding his new job, he seems to be ready to be an architect of his own life, self and identity.

Debarati Choudhury

Debarati is pursuing her research in public policy and social conflict. Her domain of study is situated at the intersection of caste, class and gender, and associated vulnerabilities in the unique context of India. She is currently working on internal and international migration, migrant labourers and precarity, Indian diaspora and allied fields.

She is available at cdebarati98@gmail.com | debaratichoudhury@casprindia.org | Facebook | Linkedin

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