Fashioning the Self & Home Abroad: Things and Material Practices in The Namesake
Payal Jain is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Cotton University, Guwahati, Assam, India.
Payal Jain is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Cotton University, Guwahati, Assam, India.
Studies on immigrant narratives have frequently focused on the themes of roots and routes, nostalgia and memory and the problems and possibilities of multiple levels of assimilation and/or resistance. Most of such studies have been carried out in relation to the larger concepts of identity and home. These have invariably focused on the experiences, emotions and feelings of individuals as subjects who go through various displacements in life and the interpersonal relationships which they either miss or forge in an alien space (Bacon; Baluja; Bhatia; Joshi; Kelley; Maxey; Mishra). This paper, conversely, seeks to explore a lesser discussed dimension of immigrant narratives, that is, the role played by things and material practices in fashioning the subject self and creating a sense of home, by closely analysing Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.
Jhumpa Lahiri, home, narrative, self, material practice
ON A STICKY AUGUST EVENING two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chilli pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is one thing she craves. Tasting from a cupped palm, she frowns; as usual, there is something missing. (Lahiri 1)
These opening lines of the novel The Namesake (2003) by the second generation Indian immigrant American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri encapsulate the complex matrices of migrant experience pertinently. Studies on immigrant narratives have frequently focused on the themes of roots and routes, nostalgia and memory and the problems and possibilities of multiple levels of assimilation and/or resistance. Most of such studies have been carried out in relation to the larger concepts of identity and home. These have invariably focused on the experiences, emotions and feelings of individuals as subjects who go through various displacements in life and the interpersonal relationships which they either miss or forge in an alien space (Bacon; Baluja; Bhatia; Joshi; Kelley; Maxey; Mishra). This paper, conversely, seeks to explore a lesser discussed dimension of immigrant narratives, that is, the role played by things and material practices in fashioning the subject self and creating a sense of home. Underscoring how being in a foreign land inspires the compulsive desire for the ‘mundane things’ that the home consisted of, the things which have to be recreated in order to feel at home and the things which can never be realised authentically or fully, the passage quoted above facilitates an apt entry-point in the context of reading The Namesake, a poignant tale of immigrant experience from a new materialist perspective. Drawing heavily upon the recent developments in the sphere of thing theory and new materialism, the paper explores how the unappreciated objects and material practices of everyday life from home such as cuisine, dressing, hairstyle, the script of mother tongue, etc. acquire an altogether different resonance while living in a foreign land. They develop an aura and can be said to invest human subjects with desired politics, associations and identities. In other words, this paper illustrates how humans and nonhumans, ideas and matters, subjects and objects interact with each other, get into unfamiliar equations and influence the identity of each other in a context that is not a familiar and habitual one.
New Materialisms and Thing Theory
We cannot know who we are, or become what we are, except by looking in a material mirror. (Miller 8)
Materiality has had an intriguing relationship with humans since the beginning. We are not only surrounded by materials in our everyday life, but even made up of matter. However, across cultures, materiality has been projected in contrast to the essence, the desirable, and to put in a nutshell, the goal of human life. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the dominant socio-cultural discourses have either demeaned or completely ignored “materiality” in relation to the “idealities” such as subjectivity, consciousness, agency, values and so on (Coole and Frost 2). The relatively new critical interest in materialities, however, has opened fresh possibilities to read and reread our lives, cultural texts and representation with things, matter and objects as focal points. Whereas the new materialist approaches are as diverse as anyone can imagine, this paper primarily borrows from a position developed by Bill Brown, the proponent of thing theory. Despite acknowledging that as social beings, we are perennially surrounded by objects, Brown observes that in our ordinary everyday conditions we look through objects, objects are taken for granted and hardly draw attention to themselves (4). In his opinion, Jean Baudrillard was right when he observed “we have always lived off the splendor of the subject and the poverty of the object.” Whereas the subject “makes history” and “totalizes the world,” the object “is shamed, obscene, passive.” The object has been intelligible only as the “alienated, accursed part of the subject” (quoted in Brown 8). Habituated to this kind of a system, we perpetually give central position to the human subject and inter-human relationships, while almost ignore the role objects play in shaping us and our identities. In his theoretical framework, Bill Brown further distinguished between objects and things. For Brown, there are two ways in which objects become things. First, “when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuit of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily” (4). Second, one could imagine things “as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects— their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols and totems” (5). Thus, the story of objects asserting themselves as things, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject (4).1
In other words, we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they emerge out of their, to use Miller’s terminology, “humility” (1987) and assert their presence with some kind of “excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference” (Coole and Frost 9). The editors of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, in addition, underline the dimensions of agency when they emphasise that we must recognize “that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces and [one need] to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency” (9). It may be added here that these theoretical propositions in things theory or new materialisms, by no means imply an abandonment of the human subject. For example, Brown is interested in how things (unlike objects, which are passive and docile) help to form and transform human beings. Thing theory for him is “a condition for thought,” enabling “new thoughts about how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relation to other subjects” (7). These theories basically initiate new ways of thinking about subject-object relations. The present paper uses these two premises and underlines how ordinary, everyday objects from homeland, no longer a part of the natural environment, emerge as ‘things’ in a foreign land in the chosen text and unsettle the binary subject/object power positions and thus, challenge the concept of conventional agency.
The Immigrant Experience: When Objects Become Things
Technically, an ‘Immigrant’ is someone who comes to live in a country from another country. This displacement, whether forced or voluntary generally leads to upheavals and anxieties in the life of the subject. While one part of the subject wants to get assimilated, the other one feels the need to reassert the link with the homeland, one’s own culture and traditions. Most of the narratives of immigrant experience depict this in-between-ness and dilemma. The first-generation immigrants suffer the pangs of nostalgia most as for them ‘home’ had always been in the previous country where they had spent most of their early lives and gained their socio-cultural identity. To adjust and survive in the new location is never easy and it involves the constant efforts to recreate home through various means such as holding on to the values of the homeland, keeping oneself constantly in touch with the friends and relatives from back home, visiting the home country regularly, and creating ghettos of one’s own cultural or linguistic community (Joshi, Mannur, Maxey). The challenge is not to forget the roots and be lost in the new cultural environment, which demands all kinds of adjustments and assimilations. In addition to the nostalgia related to family, friends and relatives from home, the sense of loss is also related to a familiar materiality. One must here note that in this case, home is not a place, but a space, which “is never ontologically given,” but is “discursively mapped and corporeally practiced” (Clifford 54). Whilst most of the everyday objects and material practices remain inconspicuous at home, silently playing their roles in shaping the social lives of individual, a new setting suddenly makes one not only aware of their physical absence and but also bestows these with metaphysical significance. Things get defamiliarised and their banal performance or consumption is no longer possible. A close reading of The Namesake reveals that holding on to the material practices of homeland becomes a part of the discourse of resistance to assimilation abroad, assertion of one’s cultural and national identity as well as a provisional substitute for the warmth of home. Thus, it may be claimed that rather than humans giving meaning to objects and materialities, in this context, material artefacts and practices associated with the home become significant means of self-fashioning and invest characters with an identity and a sense of meaning in a foreign land.
The Namesake: A Classic Tale of Immigrant Experience
Lahiri’s novel is one of the most well-known immigrant narratives from the Indian subcontinent. This densely detailed work explores the lives of two generations of an immigrant Bengali family, the Gangulis in US. The major focalizers are Ashima Ganguli and her son Gogol and the novel unceasingly underscores the differences of experiences and expectations between the first and the second-generation immigrants. Whereas for the first generation, Ashoke and Ashima, home always remains in Calcutta despite all they have given to and taken from the new country, for the second generation, Gogol and Sonia the US is the only home they have known. Yet, these positions of association and identity are not unproblematic, and Lahiri in a beautiful fashion explores the challenges and changes which mark the lives of her protagonists as they gradually head for a far more complex and accommodating kind of existence and worldview. As a typical immigrant fiction, the novel records at length the tensions and the traumas that the first displaced generation goes through in the process of maintaining a fine balance between settling down in a new place and not forgetting the roots at home. The present paper focuses on the life of Ashima and how for her, perhaps because of being a woman, this task is more daunting and urgent. As referred to in the earlier section, the shift from homeland entails various kinds of experiences, efforts and practices. The lives of Ashoke and Ashima testify these. Even as they settle in US, their lifelines are closely connected to India. Regular phone calls and letters from desh and visits to India keep them rooted and close to the family and relatives. Once they have their first child Gogol, the desire of having their own people around is so urgent that they create a circle of Bengalis, the Nandis, the Mitras, the Banerjees and others in and around Cambridge who function as substitutes for those “who really ought to be surrounding them” (24) at crucial moments of life. They all come from Kolkata and this is the reason they become friends. These family friends regularly drop by one another’s home on Sunday afternoons. The narrator adds:
They drink tea with sugar and evaporated milk and eat shrimp cutlets fried in saucepans. They sit in circles on the floor, singing songs of Nazrul and Tagore, passing a thick yellow clothbound book of lyrics among them as Dilip Nandi plays the harmonium. They argue riotously over the films of Ritwik Ghatak vs those of Satyajit Ray. The CPIM vs Congress party. North Calcutta vs South. (38)
This is what constitutes a major part of the lives of the Gangulis in America. They hold on the various cultural practices of the homeland as well throughout their lives. For example, Ashima never calls her husband Ashoke by his name as “it is not the type of thing Bengali wives do” (2). The marital relationship between Ashoke and Ashima never takes an informal colour which is the hallmark of American culture. It is in continuity with the practices of home that their newborn son is given the pet name Gogol and they are not at all disturbed about their son not having a ‘good name.’ This is so because a practice of Bengali nomenclature grants to every single person, two names. In Bengali, the world for pet name is daknam, meaning the name by which one is called by family, friends and other intimates, at home and in other private and unguarded moments.... every pet name is paired with a good name, a bhalonam for identification in the outside world. (25-26). Many such instances shape the lives of Ashoke and Ashima who never feel fully at home in America, and slip into “bolder and less complicated versions of themselves” only when they are back in India (81). In short, it is the Indian and basically Bengali cultural practices they continue to follow to remain rooted and real in an alien world. While connecting with Bengali families and continuing with cultural practices are major sources of camaraderie and strength in a foreign land, things and material practices from home not only provide the Gangulis with a sense of a distinct identity but also work as solace in the absence of a home that cannot be retrieved.
Bill Brown’s speculations on “why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies” (4) in fact give an apt entry point into looking at the role of things and material practices in the novel The Namesake. The rest of the paper deals with these concerns and takes its structural design from an episode related in the narrative itself. When Ashima is married off to Ashoke, and is about to leave India, relatives give her all kinds of advices about retaining the cultural roots in a foreign country, but, to quote from the text, “her grandmother had not admonished Ashima not to eat beef or wear skirts or cut off her hair or forget her family the moment she landed in Boston. Her grandmother had not been fearful of any such signs of betrayal; she was the only person to predict rightly, that Ashima would never change (37). This statement is pertinent as it not only underlines the general expectations from the woman of the family, but also highlights how material practices such as food, clothes and hair style matter in defining a social subject. In fact, these objects and material practices become metaphors and metonymies of belonging to home. The following sections of the paper essay how Bengali food, Indian hairstyle and sari, far from being a matter of pure consumption or simple ways of life come to be related to the larger issues of identity and rootedness. The last section of the paper, in addition, records the significance that gets attached to Bengali script and narratives as a metonymic extension of home. In a sense, these materialities can be seen to grow an agency that was otherwise perceptually not available with them.
Recreating Home through Culinary Practices
It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of immigrant Indian existence in the United States without at the same time thinking of Indian food. (Ganguly 123)
By now, for a diasporic community, it is a well-recognized fact that food plays a very important role in immigrant life and becomes a significant medium of reproducing home and homeliness. From being just a commodity, it starts serving as an important part of their identity, a key to bonding and binding in a foreign land (Ganguly; Mannur; Maxey; Ray; Williams). Lahiri’s The Namesake, can be read as an illustration of all these connotations associated with the thing named food. In fact, food and kitchen occupy such a central place in the novel that it can even be classed as a culinary fiction. Of the multiple levels at which food occupies space in this novel, only some of those instances which relate to the food from home abroad have been discussed below. At one point in the narrative, the narrator, for the benefit of the culturally different readers, states that “There is no baptism for Bengali babies, no ritualistic naming in the eyes of God.... Instead, the first formal ceremony of their lives centres around the consumption of solid food” (38). This statement underlines the importance of cuisine in the lives of the Bengalis. For the Gangulis, Indian, and specially, Bengali food is a means of recreating home, fighting nostalgia and thus sustaining the self in difficult times. Rather than being a mere object that passively lives in the peripheries, as ‘a thing’ it invites attention to itself, becomes a matter of conscious choice, a way of being, a means of asserting their roots and a mode of resisting total assimilation into the white culture.
To cite a few instances, when under pressure, Ashoke desires tea only, not the coffee dispensed by American machines (11) and one can perhaps never fully elaborate what ‘cha’ means to a stressed-out Bengali. Despite decades of stay in the States, when it comes to cuisine his favourite “things” still remain very ethnic in taste: “lamb curry with lots of potatoes, luchis, thick chana dal with swollen brown raisin, pineapple chutney, sandeshes moulded out of saffron tinted ricotta cheese” (72). While such a preference would have been quite normal in Calcutta, the location of Gangulis in Boston gives a different meaning to the phenomenon. As a couple, the senior Gangulis continue to throw Indian feasts regularly for all their Bengali friends, enjoy eating at the Indian restaurants and buy Indian grocery (65). The narrator particularly points out that, though they allow the kids some (American) choice in terms of food (127), the kitchen basically run by Ashima remains dominantly Indian in its flavour. Ashima is an efficient cook and can comfortably manage an elaborate meal for even forty Bengali guests. However, she does not particularly like cooking anything that in not Indian (113) and hence inviting just a handful of American kids for meal is quite taxing for her. These little pieces of information pertinently point out the way food matters in the everyday lives of Ashoke and Ashima. Being in a foreign land their preference for the preparation and consumption of Bengali food is a signifier of their different ethnic identity. In the case of Ashima, one must remember that, being dependent on her husband, she does not migrate to the US out of choice. It is her marriage with Ashoke that seals her fate in America. As a woman deeply attached to family and native culture, for Ashima, America can never be a home (108). She not only feels really distressed initially, later also, after getting acclimatized to her life in the States to some extent, she tries hard to remain as Bengali as possible. Throughout this narrative of her coping up with life abroad, food acquires multilayered resonance.
The novel begins with a scene in the kitchen where we are told that Ashima Ganguli is combining Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts, red onion, salt, lemon juice, and green chili pepper as a “humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks” (1). This concoction called Jhalmuri is basically a commonplace popular snack item to which one hardly pays any attention in India. However, for Ashima the same mundane jhalmuri means something grander, both for being pregnant and for being far away from home. After preparing as soon she tastes it, Ashima realizes that something is missing in this concoction and that the ‘commonplace’ jhalmuri of Calcutta can never be recreated authentically in the cold and alien weather of America. This, but, does not mean that the practice is not meaningful. For Ashima, it is an objective correlative, a substitute for Indian warmth, family, in short home. Besides, this American jhalmuri can also be read as not only a metaphoric extension of her life in USA (where she wants to remain an authentic Bengali, but cannot at the same time avoid some inevitable changes) but also a way of resisting assimilation and asserting her cultural affiliations. In brief, it is a good illustration of how inspired by nostalgia objects from homeland become things in a foreign space and can invest one a sense of home. The first few pages of the novel clearly establish Ashima’s alienated self in America and why she takes recourse to Bengali food as a matter of solace. In fact, on one occasion, she even cries inconsolably when she runs out of rice (34). This incident though may sound trivial, underlines how the comfortable and taken for granted relationships and equations between food, home and the self get defamiliarised in a foreign location.
In effect, Indian food becomes an extension of Ashima’s self-perception and identity in America. For instance, she is the one to whom the “homesick and bewildered wives” of fresh Bengali immigrants turn for recipes and advice. She from her experience can tell them about the carp that is sold in Chinatown and how it’s possible to make halwa from cream of wheat (38). After a few years of her stay in the States, our narrator tells us, “Once a week she makes thirty samosas to sell at the international coffeehouse, for twenty-five cents, next to the linzer squares baked by Mrs Etzold and baklava by Mrs Cassolis” (50). Sitting next to these (most probably immigrant) women selling German and Middle East food items, Ashima’s Samosas give her a distinct Indian identity and a sense of satisfaction. In the parties she throws regularly for her Bengali friends and their families, though, the cuisine becomes hybrid in time, she is still known for her mincemeat balls croquettes which are a version of aluchops eaten as a snack popularly sold by roadside vendors in Calcutta (274). These are her specialities and any party is incomplete without this item in the Ganguli household. The other Bengali ritual which Ashima’s children have grown up with is the payesh, a warm rice pudding she prepares for their birthdays, even alongside a slice of bakery cake (39). This is one of the ways in which Ashima retains her home connection. Ashima’s estranged self and the succour provided by native food is beautifully captured in the passage which reads “Though no longer pregnant, she continues at times to mix Rice crispies and peanuts and onions in a bowl. For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy__ a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continued feeling of out of sorts. (49-50). All these instances together underline how culinary practices of homeland in multiple ways shape and mark the lives and identities of human subjects trying to fashion the self and home abroad.
The relationship of the second-generation immigrants with ethnic food is quite different from that of the first generation. Whereas Ganguli children always preferred American food to the Indian one as kids, as adults, they also once in a while crave for the Indian food. For them, Indian food is not simply a variation in taste, but a thing associated with their childhood memories, their parents and the innumerable trips to India. Thus, Gogol and his Bengali wife Moushumi we are told, mostly don’t eat Indian:
But, sometimes on a Sunday, both craving the food they’d grown up eating, they ride the train out to Queens and have brunch at Jackson Diner, piling their plates with tandoori chicken and pakoras and kabobs, and shop afterwards for basmati rice and the spices that need replenishment. Or they go to one of the hole-in-the-wall tea shops and drink tea in paper cups with heavy cream, asking the waitress in Bengali to bring them bowls of sweet yogurt and haleem. (229)
This occasional connect with Bengali food, while mostly emulating the white culture underlines the fissures that mark the lives of second generation immigrants. For them, US is the place where they see their present and future, but the Indian past is imprinted so fast in their lives that it can never be fully erased and would continue to surface from time to time. After the death of Ashoke when Ashima decides to divide her time between Indian and America, one of the things that she had to do was teaching Sonia “to cook the food Sonia had complained of eating as a child” (279). In the absence of Ashima and home, these recipes would serve as emotional anchor in Sonia’s life as once these did in Ashima’s displaced existence in America.
Feeling at Home with Sari and a Bun
Just as holding on to the culinary practices of home give a sense of rootedness to the immigrant subject, the choice of clothes and hair style also become conscious acts and in a sense a political statement underlining one’s assimilation or otherwise in a foreign country. Unlike culinary practices which are mostly associated with the private sphere, clothing and hair styling being both a personal choice and a publicly visible aspect of one’s person can be easily seen as capable of investing human subjects with desired ideological associations. In The Namesake, these everyday material aspects of life gain an excess and manage to rupture the conventional subject/object equation. Ashima, despite her stay in the United States for more than three decades never changes her sartorial self. She continues to wear sari both inside and outside the house. Though the weather and culture of America make it a difficult choice, for Ashima sari alone is comfortable attire. Thus, even in the labour room when she has to change from her Murshidabad silk sari to a cotton gown which reaches only her knees, she feels uncomfortable (2). Whereas one naturally would feel that at an advanced stage of pregnancy loose fitting cotton clothes should feel more comfortable, this instance proves that the concept of comfort is a relative one. One feels comfortable at home, and for Ashima, wearing sari is a part of feeling at home. Sari has been a part of Ashima’s upbringing as a Bengali girl and just as she could never come to all her husband by his name, wearing western clothes is also equally unimaginable for her. Though the narrator does not clearly state it, Ashima’s saris are visible symbols of her resistance to assimilate and become American. Robyn Gibson in the introduction to The Memory of Clothes (2015) writes that apart from their utility and aesthetic values, clothes have the ability to evoke issues of identity, of relation of the self to the world. In the context of this immigrant narrative, Ashima’s saris become an icon of her Bengali ethnicity, a vehicle for marking boundaries.
Ashoke and Ashima’s settling down in America involves equally significant acts of assimilation in and resistance to the western culture. Within a few years of their stay in the States, to a casual observer, in fact, the Gangulis appear no different from their American neighbours.
Their garage, like every other, contains shovels and pruning shears and a sled. They purchase a barbeque for tandoori on the porch in summer.... they learn to roast turkeys ... at Thanksgiving... to wrap a woollen scarves around snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and hide them around the house. (64)
They even gradually shift from observing elaborate pujos to celebrating Christmas with progressively increasing fanfare. At the demand of the children, Ashima has to cook American food frequently. We are told that “there are many other ways Ashoke and Ashima give in.” Ashoke gives up his wristwatch, his fountain pen and even Bic razors. “Though he is now a tenured full professor, he stops wearing jackets and ties to the university.” Not only this, “Ashoke accustomed to wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready-made” (65). Amidst all these, however, Ashima sustains her distinct appearance. Unlike Ashoke, she “continues to wear nothing but saris and sandals from Bata” (65). Be it grand parties (39), casual outing to the beaches (53) or her job in the library (162), Ashima is always clad in a sari, her Indian attire. For her family, friends and acquaintances Ashima and her Indian appearance are inseparable. It becomes an extension of her individual self rather than remaining just a piece of clothing. Her relationship with sari reminds one of a very popular example of sandeh alankar, a figure of speech related to incertitude in Hindi that reads as: “Sari bich nari hai, ki nari bich sari hai? Sari hi ki nari hai ki, nari hi ki sari hai?” This roughly would translate as “Is it the woman around the sari, or the sari around the woman? Does the woman belong to the sari or it is the sari that belongs to the woman?” Just as this example refers to the uncertainly between the positions of subject and object, Ashima and her sartorial extension defy easy categorization in terms of identity of the wearer and the wear.
Just like clothing, hairstyles can serve as important cultural artefacts because they are simultaneously public (visible to everyone), personal (biologically linked to the body), and highly malleable to suit cultural and personal preferences (Weitz 667-686). Along with her sari, Ashima’s her hairs make an emphatic statement about her identity in a foreign land. She does not adopt a hair style of the new country she settles down in. She never cuts her hairs short as her grandmother had predicted. She continues to wear her long hairs in a bun and this practice once again becomes a comfort practice for her. She is not only bothered about her own hairs, but also of her daughters as she relates it to identity and home connection. She does not appreciate that Sonia’s formerly shoulder length hair has been chopped asymmetrically by one of her friends and lives under the constant fear that Sonia will color a streak of it blond, as she had has threatened on more than one occasion to do (107). This material phenomenon is so very significant for Ashima that she and Sonia “argue violently about such things, Ashima crying and Sonia slamming doors” (107). In Ashima’s perception, coloring hair blond is not simply a matter of personal choice, but implies a complete submission to American culture, and thus an act of betrayal towards the homeland and its culture.
Deshi Bhasha in Bidesh: Lettering Home Abroad
Ashoke’s grandfather had once told Ashoke that books can let one “to travel without moving an inch” (16). If not for Ashoke, this proves to be true for Ashima during her early years in the States. While initially also she does not much enjoy being away from Calcutta, after the birth of their first child, Gogol, the feeling of nostalgia becomes more acute. Many things do not strike her right, and she does not want to raise her child alone in America (33-4). Ashima’s ideas of right and wrong are deeply rooted in home culture. However, there is hardly much the Gangulis can do about it. And under such depressing conditions, books and letters in Bengali script from home provide her the comfort and respite she needs most. Whereas, the grandfather had meant that even while sitting at home, one could roam around the world, in Ashima’s case, books and letters in Bengali let her imaginatively return home. In addition to going through her parents’ letters repeatedly she continues to reread the same five Bengali novels which she had brought from Calcutta (35, 50). The Bengali magazine Desh becomes a route to travel back to the desh that is India. In this transformation of an object into thing, a simple magazine to be read and discarded becomes a priceless possession for Ashima in America. The Bengali script belongs to a shared past of the Gangulis and their other immigrant friends from Calcutta and its importance and intimacy is undeniable to them. Thus, even if ragged conditioned, Bengali books are preserved with utmost care (66). This is the reason the next generation is religiously taught to read and write their ancestral alphabet (65). If only it were home, these efforts of retention and preservation of the native script would not have been so vitally required. Though they need not, Gangulis continue to subscribe Sangbad Bichitra (a fortnightly Bengali newspaper, published by Cultural Association of Bengal that brings local community news from Indian subcontinent to Bengalis all over the world) along with India Abroad, a magazine of similar kind. This is another testimony to the surplus value the physical presence of Bengali script comes to accumulate for them. Material entities and practices, thus, become exceptionally viable means of connecting with home while being abroad. This is not to say that things and materialities play any lesser role in shaping human identities and affiliation at home. It is just that in the immigrant experience their role gets foregrounded. Besides, read deeply many of the episodes discussed earlier also testify to the fact that materiality and immateriality, individuals and things are intrinsically entangled. One can never clearly settle the divide between the subject and the object, the doer and the done to, the dancer and the dance.
1 Unlike Bill Brown who distinguishes between objects and things somewhat in the line of Heidegger, Bruno Latour has some serious doubts on this dualistic categorization of material entities. In his essay, “Why has critique run out of steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (Critical inquiry 30 (2004): 225-248). Latour suggests that as all entities are a part of a complex network of socio-material existence, there are simply no objects in the world.
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