The Namesake, A Mirror to Jhumpa Lahiri's Life

Since more than the past half of century, many Asian people have been migrating to the European, American, and Australian countries. There are many reasons for it; war, famine, persecution, and choice of life. The three first reasons are triggered by something immediate forcing them to drive out of their home country and leaving them with not so many choices. However, the last reason, choice of life, is a self-decision triggered by the hunger of new adventure, new experience, and new life. People who take this decision are eager to have a better quality of life and to further their education. This issue is apparently brought by Jhumpa Lahiri in her novel The Namesake that was published in 2003.

The Namesake is a novel about an American-born Indian named Gogol and the struggle of his family to fit in the western culture. Gogol’s parents, Ashoke and Ashima, moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, America after they got married. Ashoke was intended to finish his master study in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then fortunately he found a teaching job at the campus. Both Ashoke and Ashima found it hard to adapt themselves to the American culture. Moreover at that time around 1960’s, India sounded alienated in America, not so many people acknowledged the country. Ashima was the one who found it the hardest. Although she lived in a Western country, she did the everyday tasks based on Indian tradition. She ate rice with hands and wore sari. She also missed her family a lot, all the time. In August 1968, she gave birth to Gogol without the companion of her family, which she found very depressing. 

Right after the birth of their first child, Ashima and Ashoke faced another culture-distraction circumstance. They had to name the baby immediately as a requirement to fill in the birth certificate. They could not draw out of the hospital without completing this requirement, meanwhile they were still waiting for a letter from Ashima’s grandmother containing the baby name, which apparently never arrived. Ashoke had to decide the name fast. Finally he decided to name the baby with Gogol that is actually the Russian author’s name of the book that once saved his life in a train accident. According to the Indian tradition, an Indian child should have two names, a good name used in school and acquaintance field, and a pet name used only at home. Ashoke and Ashima decided that the name Gogol is only a pet name, and the good name is Nikhil. However, the headmaster of the elementary school that Gogol entered found it confusing. She did not understand why a child should have two names. Without a full consideration with the parents, then, she decides to use the name Gogol for the school application. Since then, Gogol’s name was officially Gogol

Gogol grew up by living with two cultures at once; American culture and Indian culture. At home, he is accustomed by Indian culture, meanwhile outside, he is befriended with American culture. Surely he is used to it. However, when he grew older, he started to dislike his inherited customs and traditions. He likes the tradition outside of the house more. Not only that, he even also starts disliking his own name. Gogol sounds really funny to him, therefore, since entering University, he starts introducing himself as Nikhil. This dislike of Indian culture makes him draw a farther line between himself and his family. He does not spend much time to hang out with his family anymore. Meeting Maxine, and Anglo-American who became his girlfriend, at work helps create the kind of world that Gogol wanted, a world of modern culture, custom, and tradition. He becomes closer to Maxine’s family more than to his own family. At this point, he is totally lost with his at-house-identity. Things come to its end when his father passed away while he was enjoying his time with his girlfriend and her family. He realized that he should come back, then he broke up with Maxine, and hung around with his family a lot more.A light at the end of the tunnel starts rising after the father’s death (well, for a while). Gogol met his old friend named Moushumi. They had a lot of things in common, which made them closer. After a while, they started dating and got married a year after. However, it turns out that Moushumi betrays Gogol in their marriage. Moushumi had an affair with his ex-boyfriend, Dimitri, and left Gogol. They got divorced afterwards. 

Gogol, now single, hangs around with his family a lot more. On Christmas Eve in 2000, he was helping her mother prepare the Christmas Ever Party when he found a book written by the Russian author of whom the name inspired his father to name him. His father gave the book years ago, and only now he started reading it. 

This book The Namesake is clearly the story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s life. Jhumpa puts herself as Gogol here, the child of Indian immigrants who witness and experience identity struggle. It is not she tries to become narsisstic about herself by putting her story in a book, but it is that she tries to share to the world about a story all immigrants must have experienced. There are several issues reflected in the story that really occurred to Jhumpa’s life. 

First thing first is the migration of Asian people to developed countries for education and work purposes. In this case, the destination is in America. Ashoke and Ashima, in the story, migrate from India to America, meanwhile Jhumpa’s parents, Tapati and Amar, in real life migrate from India to England (and then America). Both cases share the same similarities. They moved out not because of war, famine, or persecution, but because of choice of life triggered by the hunger for new adventure; new job and new life.

 Second is self-discovery in the process of adapting oneself to a new environment. Jhumpa’s father, Amar, worked in a library when their family moved to England. The job was not so fancy at that time. It was just a librarian, however, the experiences that he gained from the environment gave him a lot of payment (not in a form of money). Then, after Jhumpa was born, Amar found a job in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in America. He became a professor librarian there. Amar’s job is similar to Ashoke’s job in the story who works as a lecturer in MIT. They are good with gaining job opportunities because they succeed in adapting themselves with the new environment. Also, in the process adapting, they finally find their self-identity that strengthens their skills in career. 

Third is autoplastic and alloplastic adaptation. This issue reflected in the book probably is not Jhumpa’s own life, but the life that she had been witnessing: her mother’s. It must be difficult for her mother, Tapati, to adapt herself to the western environment. She must have struggled a lot, just like Ashima as reflected in the book. Then, the fourth issue is the Indian’s naming tradition. Jhumpa Lahiri and Gogol share the same story regarding their names. The name Jhumpa is actually a pet name that her family gave to her. It was kind of tradition for an Indian family to have a pet name for each of their children. Her actual name is Nilanjana Sudheshna Lahiri. However, her teachers in school found the name Jhumpa easier to remember and pronounce. This also happens to Gogol, whose real name is Nikhil, who spends his whole life being familiarly called Gogol after his teachers in school decide to call him so. 

The Namesake is like a mirror to Jhumpa Lahiri’s life. In the story, she is Gogol and her parents are Ashoke and Ashima. It feels like she creates characters that really exist in her real life. Furthermore, the issues reflected in the story are the occurrences happening in her life and the results of her observation and witnessing toward the struggle of cultural identity around her.