Priyanka Sharma is an independent researcher and she completed her Master’s Degree (Gold Medalist) in English Literature in 2014 and M. Phil in 2016 from Central University of Odisha, Koraput. Her interests include Postcolonial Studies, South Asian Literature, Film & Literature and Himalayan Studies
Whether it is a forced or a conscious re-location, the migrants are neither able to cast off their inherited legacy nor encapsulate themselves in the new socio-cultural environment. In a perilous balance between two cultures, building a bridge by forging a middle path is similar to the act of walking on a tight rope. Such is the life of the immigrants who venture out to make their own living away from their native lands. The migrant writers bring out the problems of the impact of migration on people with respect to the situation of identity crisis emerging out of various factors in an alien location. This paper will study the crisis of identity as experienced by the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake from a postcolonial perspective.
Keywords: Jhumpa Lahiri; migration; identity crisis; diaspora, culture; immigrant
We are like “chiffon sarees” – a sort of cross-breed attempting to adjust to the pressures of a new world, while actually being from another older one. (Jussawalla 583)
In a perilous balance between two cultures, building a bridge by forging a middle path is similar to the act of walking on a tight rope. Such is the life of the immigrants who venture out to make their own living away from their native lands. This paper will study the crisis of identity as experienced by the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2006) from a postcolonial perspective. The eminent critic, Stuart Hall, in Colonial Discourses and Post Colonial Theory: A Reader (1994) observes “diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.” According to him, the diaspora experience “is defined, not by the essence or purity but by recognition of heterogeneity and diversity, by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, differences” (402).
To understand Lahiri’s predicament from the roots, we need to look into Indian Diaspora in the United States of America (USA). Hiral Macwan in the article “Struggle for Identity and Diaspora in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake” mentions that the first significant presence of the Indians appeared almost one hundred years ago when peasants from the province of Punjab started migrating the West Coast for seeking employment in Washington load mills and California’s vast agricultural fields (45-46). Though predominantly Sikhs, they were described in the popular press as “Hindus”, and almost from the beginning they were seen as incomparable, possessed of “immodest and filthy habits”, the “most undesirable of all the eastern Asiatic races….” (45-46). The subsequent waves of migration included students and “professional Indians” especially in the early sixties went to the United States as a part of “brain drain” (Spivak 61). Moreover, the IT wave and rising economy attracted a large number of Indians who emigrated to the USA. In certain cases, migration was triggered by political factors and religious discrimination as well (Macwan 45-46).
As the novel The Namesake opens we find Ashima Ganguly in the kitchen preparing a concoction which she has been consuming since her pregnancy. Right from the beginning Lahiri sheds light on the diasporic sensibilities through the description of the settings or characters. She leaves traces at places for the readers to grasp the things left unsaid. For instance, Ashima’s wish for mustard oil is an essential ingredient in the kitchen of every Indian household. A drop or two of mustard oil would complete her combination of “Rice Krispies, Planter peanuts, chopped red onion,” to which she adds “salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper” (Lahiri 1).
In the hospital where she is admitted to deliver her first child, numerous thoughts cross her mind. “She wonders if she is the only Indian person in the hospital, but a gentle twitch from the baby reminds her that she is, technically speaking, not alone” (3-4). In fact, she finds it very strange that her child will be born in a hospital where people enter as patients or to die. In India instead the lady is sent away from her in-laws or husbands to her parents’ home, giving birth to the child under the supervision of the neighbourhood women.
But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge nothing has felt normal at all. It’s not so much pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land… That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved… But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare. (5-6)
Ashima has been struggling for eighteen months, since the day she landed in America. Born and brought up in a typical Indian Bengali household, she feels uprooted in the foreign land. A sense of loss, nostalgia coupled with the fear of bringing up her child alone in America define the emotional predicament of the migrants. It is true that the first-generation migrants would experience it even more intensely. Smriti Singh comments:
It is said about Indian women that they are born in an expatriate state and the movements away from home to an alien country is only an accentuation of gendered exile they have borne all along. Survival in their case is the need to survive the pain of uprooting and the ‘shock of arrival’. This is followed by the struggle to surmount the obstacles and comfortably adapt to the new environment. (62)
The conflict within an individual because of the contrast between the environment within the house of an Indian family and the American setting outside, generally gives rise to the situation of crisis. One cannot adhere to either of the two cultures. This is the case especially with Gogol Ganguli, the protagonist of The Namesake. His result of identity crisis is nevertheless also because of his name. Awaiting a letter to be arrived from Ashima’s grandmother which contains the name of the child to be born to Ashima, the couple end up naming their child “Gogol” under the pressure of hospital authorities. It is officially mandatory to give their child a legal name before getting discharged from the hospital. In India, “names can wait” and the elders of the family decide the ‘good name’, usually when the child has to enroll himself in a school (25).
Jhumpa Lahiri, like Gogol, is her pet name which her school authorities record as the official name as it is easier than her other names like Nilanjana or Sudeshna. And through these and for other reasons she feels neglected. In an interview released by Houghton Mifflin Company she explains: “As a young child, I felt that the Indian part of me was unacknowledged, and therefore somehow negated, by my American environment, and vice versa. I felt that I led two very separate lives” (Das 178).
This problem of naming/mis-naming, faced by Ashoke and Ashima in America is an example of the kind of cultural dilemma the immigrants face in the foreign land. It is difficult to make the foreigners understand this distinction. The manners of the immigrants are mocked at. As a result they feel bewildered at this humiliation. They show all forms of resistance. It is here, at this juncture the conflict occurs when the there is a tension between the codes of the two distinct cultures.
Lahiri quotes Dostoyevsky’s saying in the novel – “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat” (78). When she was asked in an interview as above, if the Russian novelist Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol had any influence on her as a writer, she replied:
“I’m not sure influence is the right word. I don’t turn to Gogol as consistently as I do to certain other writers when I’m struggling with character or language. His writing is more overtly comic, more antic and absurd than mine tends to be. But I admire his work enormously and reread a lot of it as I was working on the novel, in addition to reading biographical material. “The overcoat” is such a superb story. It really does haunt me the way it haunts the character of Ashoke in the novel …without the inspiration of Nikolai Gogol, without his name and without his writing, my novel would never, have been conceived. In that respect, this book came out of Gogol’s overcoat, quite literally.” (Das 180-181)
To understand the significance of this in the life of Ashoke and ultimately as an inheritance to his son Gogol, we need to analyze the life-changing episode in the life of Ashoke. On October 20, 1961, when Ashoke is twenty–two, he travels to Ranchi from Howrah to visit his grandparents. The only book he carries is a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, gifted to him by his grandfather when he graduates from class twelve. As the train starts pulling from the station, he begins rereading his favourite in the collection, “The Overcoat”. What is captivating for him is the story of Akaky Akakievich, a humble clerk, who loves his work of merely copying the contents of any document written by others. His colleagues used to bully this odd, weird, impoverished clerk.
Each time reading the account of Akaky’s christening, the series of queer names his mother had rejected he laughed aloud. Ashoke was always devastated when Akaky was robbed… leaving him cold and vulnerable, and Akaky’s death some pages later, never failed to bring tears to his eyes… Just as Akaky’s ghost haunted the final pages, so did it haunt a place deep in Ashoke’s soul, shedding light on all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world. (14)
Here in the train, Ashoke has a chance meeting with Mr. Ghosh, a co-traveller who advises him to visit England and America while he is still young and free. “Do yourself a favour. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late” he tells Ashoke (16).
At two-thirty in the morning, 209 kilometers from Calcutta, this train meets with an accident. This is the most traumatic incident of his life, the thought of which makes him shudder even now. Badly injured and lying amid the rubble that night, he hears the voice of the rescue party, and somehow is able to raise his hand clutching the page of ‘The Overcoat’ which finally brings him to notice, therefore he gets rescued. This accident makes him limp slightly at the left foot for his life. But it is a kind of rebirth to him. Not only because of his deep-seated love for his favourite author, which he considers the lucky charm for saving his life, Ashoke holds the author in deep regard and seeks inspiration from him. He feels special kind of kinship with him. As a person he wants to leave India and travel to various places in order to carve a new identity different from the one he had in India. Like Ashoke, even Nikolai Gogol had spent most of his adult life outside his home. Therefore, he keeps the name of his first-born child as ‘Gogol’, unaware of the fact that this pet name would turn into an official name which would torment his child throughout his growing years.
Ashima raises Gogol with pride. Since Ashoke has been “hired as an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University” they shift to a University town outside Boston (48). It is more distressing for Ashima, much more than moving from Calcutta to Cambridge. Feeling lonely and displaced in the foreign land, Ashima begins to realize:
… being a foreigner… is a sort of life –long – pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous felling of out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that previous life had vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect. (49)
To be in a foreign country and to sustain oneself is a very big challenge. The above quoted lines are true not only for Ashima but any immigrant. The “constant burden” mentioned by Lahiri is the burden on their shoulders to not only keep themselves intact in the foreign land but also to preserve or conserve the culture and the tradition of their native lands which the immigrants carry with themselves. The feeling of being out of place, dislocated or displaced is one of the central themes of diasporic writing and Lahiri has been successful enough to portray the same through the character of Ashima. Although the second-generation immigrants adopt and assimilate in the host country yet their identity is related to the migration history of their parents and grandparents. The first generation migrants always have a greater difficulty settling down in a new land than the second generation who fit much easily, like Gogol and Sonia.
As a child Gogol could hardly understand the reasons behind the sudden change of his name at school. When he is repeatedly asked questions by calling him ‘Nikhil’ at school by the principal Mrs. Lapidus, Gogol does not respond. It is perplexing for her to understand that if the child has been legally named as ‘Gogol Ganguli’, why is there the need to call him by ‘Nikhil’ at the school. Finally, she settles at the name of ‘Gogol’ since she realizes that only when addressed by this name does the child respond. This happens because the principal is unaware of the general trend of naming the kids in an Indian Bengali household. It is taxing for the Americans to understand this tradition of naming. To avoid unnecessary speculation or confusion, at the time of the birth of Gogol’s sister, Ashoke and Ashima are ready with a name – ‘Sonali’.
Assimilation, i.e., individuals or groups of differing heritages acquiring the basic habits, attitudes and modes of life of an embracing culture is visible in the novel at many instances.
The Gangulis learn to roast turkeys, albeit rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne, at Thanksgiving, to nail wreath to their door in December, to wrap woolen scarves around snowmen, to colour boiled eggs violet or pink at Easter and hide them around the house. For the sake of Gogol and Sonia they celebrate, with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati. (64)
Gogol and Sonia themselves love being at home during Christmas, while during pujas, they are required to throw marigold petals at a card board effigy of a goddess and eat bland vegetarian food. “At the insistence of Gogol, Ashima makes him an American dinner once a week as a treat” (65). Young Gogol hates his Bengali classes and wishes to be at a ballet or softball practice, and also because it keeps him away from his drawing classes.
The peculiarity of his name becomes prominent to him when one day in the sixth grade on a field trip, the children are taken to a graveyard and are asked to trace out the names by rubbing crayons against the newsprint. Gogol, one after another, comes across very unique names, their oddness and flamboyance appeals to him. But back at home Ashima is horrified at hearing this kind of a project. She does not make place for the rubbings in the kitchen where his other creations are displayed. But for reasons unexplained he cannot do away with them. He finds a kind of connection with the names. He puts them behind his chest of drawers rather than throwing away the paper rolls as instructed by his mother.
The fascination for the peculiarity of his name is not for long because gradually this same peculiarity torments him. On Gogol’s fourteenth birthday Ashoke gifts him The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. “Do you know what Dostoyevsky once said?” says Ashoke as he reaches to the door of Gogol’s room. “We all came out of Gogol overcoat”. “What’s that supposed to mean?” retorts Gogol all confused. “It will make sense to you one day”, remarks Ashoke (78). Probably what he means to say here is that had it not for the Russian author, Gogol would not have been born. Ashoke somehow feels indebted to the author for the pages of his short story saving his own life in the train wreck. Also, he followed the author’s example and made his life outside homeland. Just as the pages of the book protected him, on a deeper level cosmic power protects all human beings, and so does the overcoat.
Ashoke wants his son to know the reasons behind gifting him the book because of the sentiments attached to it. But he does not want to narrate the story of his near-to-death experience to his child on his birthday. So he decides to keep everything to himself, until one night when Gogol comes home in the weekend during his graduation years, Ashoke does reveal the entire story to him. Gogol is utterly shocked at this revelation. Until then he just knew the fact that Nikolai Gogol was his father’s favourite author and his father limps because he probably met with an accident while playing soccer, but now he feels like a stone and he becomes numb for a moment. Different emotions run through him like disgust, embarrassment, and fear. He takes time to “absorb the information, feeling awkward, oddly ashamed, at fault” (120). He apologizes to his dad and suddenly the pet name which he has been hearing all this while means completely different to him. A name related to such a ‘catastrophe’ Gogol asks his father, “Do I remind you of that night?” “Not at all. You remind me of everything that followed” says Ashoke (124).
Here we can clearly draw a line of demarcation between the fourteen year old Gogol, who tosses away the book gifted to him by his dad and the one to whom the truth is revealed. Probably, Ashoke does the right thing by not revealing to him the story because at that age, Gogol would not have been able to understand the sentiments attached to his name. There is always a unique quality in the relationships that exists among people in India like father–son, mother–daughter, husband–wife, brother–sister or friends. All these relations are bound by sentiments of love, understanding, friendship and many more emotions. No matter how far people stay, but the warmth of love always binds them together. Gogol, although feels restless at home, as he grows up, confines himself to his own room in the college days because he loves being there all alone, on his own, without any sort of prohibitions upon him.
In his growing years Gogol suffers from the stigma that he feels attached to his name. A name he got by accident. Every now and then he is asked questions regarding his name. Gogol has a different perception of his name:
The writer he is named after – Gogol isn’t his first name. His first name is Nikolai. Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name. And so, it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name. Not even the source of his namesake. (78)
In fact, identity is one’s state of being. It is what or who a person is and how distinct he is from others. Amartya Sen defines identity as fluid, multi-dimensional, pluralistic that cannot be limited to a singular identity. The question of identity arises due to migration and exile particularly after the end of colonial rule. It becomes a very complex phenomenon in the era of globalization, to locate and define a specific place for oneself. Kathryn Woodward in Identity and Difference argues:
Identities in the contemporary world derive from a multiplicity of sources from nationality, ethnicity, social class, community, gender, sexuality – sources may conflict in the construction of identity positions and lead to contradictory fragmented identities…. Identity gives us an idea who we are and how we relate to others and to the world in which we live. (1)
It is seen that identity is often constructed in terms of binary oppositions – self/other, us/them, insider/outsider, black/white, man/woman etc. And these binaries are culturally determined. Stuart Hall also makes an interesting study in his essay “Culture Identity and Diaspora” (2003) where he says, “Identity is not as transparent and unproblematic as we think.” According to Hall there are two kinds of identity – “first, identity as being that includes a sense of commonality, and second, identity as ‘becoming’” He remarks this with relation to diasporic identities and uses Derrida’s theory of ‘difference/differance’ to explain the same. For him ‘difference’ becomes ‘differance’ when meaning is always postponed or deferred by a chain of signifiers. That means, the meaning is not fixed, static or stable. Similarly, identities are forever changing, with no fixities or stability (401-402).
Although Gogol and Sonia have Indian ancestry, they are Americans by birth. Apart from their own home, they do not get the Indian atmosphere anywhere. Therefore, when they visit India, they aren’t at ease with the typical Bengali household habits, customs and rituals. Gogol and Sonia suffer from cultural conflict under such circumstances. Gogol and Sonia “from time to time, privately admit to excruciating cravings, for hamburgers or a slice of pepperoni pizza or a cold glass of milk” (84).
In their visit to Delhi, Gogol and Sonia are powerfully affected by the legend of how the thumbs were cut off of the twenty–two thousand builders who built the Taj Mahal. Gogol attempts to sketch the dome and some part of the façade but the grace of the building evades and he quits the attempt. Perhaps this can be compared to that situation when any westerner tries to understand India, its culture, heritage and tradition but ultimately finds himself utterly befuddled amidst everything. Like the character of Mrs. Moore, the sympathetic, old lady from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, who although sincerely attempts to understand India fails in her attempt, especially in the cave episode where she does not enter the Marabar Caves because she feels puzzled by the entire situation. Although Gogol isn’t completely a foreigner but by being born and brought up in America and visiting India as a tourist once in a couple of years, it becomes difficult for him to decipher the true meaning.
In one of his classes Gogol is taught the short story of The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol enlisted in the syllabus. As Mr. Lawson proceeds in his teaching, Gogol starts retreating into himself more and more.
He is celebrated today as one of Russia’s most brilliant writers …eccentric genius. Gogol’s life, in a nutshell, was a steady decline into madness …an intelligent, queer and sickly creature …a hypochondriac and a deeply paranoid, frustrated man …morbidly melancholic, given to fits of severe depression. (91)
Gogol feels that his parents have never mentioned this part of the writer. He can no longer tolerate the voice of his teacher. He lowers his head on the desk, presses his ears with both his hands to prevent himself from hearing the teacher’s voice and shuts his eyes. Till now it is the eccentricity of the name which becomes intolerable to him but now learning about the pathetic life of writer, he cannot even feel the slightest of connection with the name. He feels as though he and his works are being attacked when his classmates express displeasure after knowing about Nikolai Gogol. “To read the story, he believes, would mean paying tribute to his namesake, accepting it somehow. Still, listening to his classmates complain, he feels perversely responsible, as if his own work were being attacked” (92).
These activities of Gogol are a clear indication that he is not at all at ease with his name. As it is, an immigrant feels ‘nowhere’ in the host country, on top of that, Gogol, although a second generation immigrant, feels ostracized because of the peculiarity of his name. He cannot even connect to his own name and he starts feeling ashamed. He is tired of the constant questions, or shrinking of faces when they hear his name for the first time. Because of this low self-esteem he dates nobody in high school, does not attend dances or parties and suffers quiet crushes. But the impact of environment proves to play an important role and therefore Gogol starts to experiment with things which were considered taboo such as cigarettes and smoking pot. At one such party he meets a girl named Kim, who introduces herself to him but when it comes for Gogol’s turn, he starts getting perplexed, desperately searching for another name and finally settles on ‘Nikhil’, the other name which was once chosen for him. At the age of eighteen, he rejects his name or rather the identity imposed by his father. The name “Nikhil” serves as his symbolic overcoat by wearing which he would become an American thereby erasing the presence of Gogol. As readers we tend to feel that the problem in the novel is only regarding the name- “Gogol”. But at a deeper level we realize that it reflects a larger anxiety whereby the migrant people can neither call themselves completely Indians nor completely Americans.
Sitting in the waiting room of a dentist, he comes across the article ‘Second Baptisms’, published in an issue of Reader’s Digest. He realizes that many famous celebrities, laureates, actors and writers have their names changed. Therefore he now wants to change his name. He “feels that he is overstepping them (parents), correcting a mistake they’ve made” (101). He wishes to come out of that shadow of his parents and yearns to assert his one independent identity.
… now that he is Nikhil it’s easier to ignore his parents, to tune out their concerns and pleas… It is as Nikhil, that in the first semester, he grows a goatee, starts smoking Camel Lights at parties and while writing papers and before exams, loses his virginity at a party with a girl …there is only one complication: he does not feel like Nikhil …after eighteen years of Gogol, two months of Nikhil feel scant, inconsequential. (106)
Identity is dynamic, multiple, and multi-faceted. This is what Gogol needs to understand. Gogol thinks that he should be either an Indian or an American at a single point of time which in turn triggers his identity crisis. He should be open to accept multiplicity and ambiguity. Judith Caesar, a critic of Lahiri’s works is of the opinion that, Ashoke Ganguli does the perfect thing by trying to give his sons two names to survive in this complex world. Had Gogol accepted his ‘bhalonam’ and ‘daaknaam’, his problem of identity would be solved. It would assert that he is perceived differently by different people at different situations - who he is to his family, the people who love and care for him and the other he, who is the one to the outside world.
When Gogol starts dating Ruth, he wants to tell his parents about his first girlfriend but “he has no patience for their surprise, their nervousness, their quiet disappointment, and their questions about what Ruth’s parents did and whether or not the relationship was serious” (115). In fact, Gogol pities his parents thinking that they have had no experience of being young and in love. His relationship with Ruth is severed after she leaves for a summer course in Oxford.
Gogol considers his parents as the ones who cannot normally accept that their son is seeing somebody. In India, it is usually the parents who select the partners for their children, unlike America where the children take their own independent decisions with no interference from the parents. The social norms and codes play a significant role in India plays unlike in America where couples are given the independence to stay together or fall apart. Through these details, we realize the differences that exist among various cultures. So naturally when the children of the migrants grow up in a new culture, they tend to identify with a new worldview leading to an awkward intergenerational conflict between the parents and the children. The contrast between first generation and second-generation migrants clearly reveals the difficulties of the process of acculturation.
In 1994, after graduating from Columbia University in architecture Gogol takes up a job with a new firm at New York. There he gets involved with his second girlfriend Maxine, whom he meets at a party. Gogol is invited to dinner one day and the genial atmosphere at her home completely takes over him. He starts visiting them often, and much to his strangeness he likes the frankness and openness with which Maxine’s parents handle the matter. He is never used to this kind of amiability. Her parents are least bothered about their visits. In fact, he goes back to her home after work as a routine. He even stays overnight and makes love to her. To his utter dismay, “Gerald and Lydia think nothing, in the mornings, when he and Maxine join them downstairs in the kitchen, their hair uncombed, seeking bowls of café au lait and toasted slices of French bread and jam. The first morning he sleeps over he’s been mortified to face them,” but they are not bothered as usual. It is just not possible for him to fall in love with Maxine alone. He is in love with “the house, and Gerald and Lydia’s manner of living” (137). Seeing her parents, curled up in sofa in a romantic mood, he is reminded of his own parents’ relationship which is “an utterly private, uncelebrated thing” (138). Within six months he gets the keys to their house, formally presented to him “on a silver tiffany chain” (140). He does all the chores of the house as Americans do like taking the dog out for a walk, preparing for weekend parties, washing the dishes and much more.
Gogol’s own internal conflict with himself makes him ponder over the differences between Maxine and himself. The biggest difference he finds is that unlike him, she happily accepts her life and the fact that who she is as an individual. She does not crave to be somebody else at any time. She respects her origin, her home, her birthplace, and her past affairs. She does not feel suffocated around her parent’s presence as he does. She sincerely loves dwelling beside them in her own secure place. This study of the differences by Gogol reflects his desperation for the resolution of his inner conflict bringing his own stability. With this subtlety Lahiri brings out the diasporic sensibilities.
Maxine’s parents go to their Lake house in New Hampshire, leaving Maxine and Gogol by themselves. Although he has the entire house to himself, he does not feel independent. He feels that even in their absence, Gerald and Lydia are supervising his activities. A sense to become the master of the house overpowers. Though Gogol makes conscious efforts to be different from his parents and live away from the shadows of Bengali culture, he experiences cultural dilemma on a number of occasions. The in-between-ness and belonging to nowhere is experienced by him more intensely. According to Rushdie migrants suffer from “triple disruption comprising the loss of roots both the linguistic and social dislocation” (279).
Gogol visits his parents with Maxine whom he had instructed that they would not be able to touch each other or kiss in front of his parents, and no wine would be served with lunch. Maxine is amused. She takes this as “a single afternoon’s challenge, an anomaly never to be repeated” (146). Maxine addresses his parents by their first name as Americans do. Gogol cannot process that these are not the problems of his family or shortcomings which he should be ashamed of but it is the result of cultural differences. Like a betrayer, he rejects everything Indian starting from food habits to clothing and conversational style but more than anything else he rejects his own identity.
At Maxine’s lake house Gogol loves being aloof, cut off from the outside world. He starts appreciating that idyllic place. He enjoys running around the lake with Gerald, swimming over to their grandparent’s house with Maxine, spending the entire nights by the lake making love to her, and sitting idly with nothing to do. He doubts if his parents would like such a life.
They would have felt lonely in this setting, remarking that they were the only Indians. They would not want to go hiking, as he and Maxine and Gerald and Lydia do almost everyday, up the rocky mountain trails, to watch the sun set over the valley... His mother would not put on a bathing suit or swim. (155)
The incident of his father’s death has left Gogol cold and numb from within. He does not engage in conversation with Maxine at the dinner table, is indifferent in bed and becomes too private in his thoughts and activities. He visits his family every weekend and converses over telephone every evening. The guilt of distancing himself from his family, distances himself from Maxine. Gogol finally walks out of the relationship with her.
After his father’s death Gogol fondly remembers the times he has spent with him. One among them is when Ashoke takes Gogol on a walk on Cape Cod, standing over the last piece of land from where they could go no further. Ashoke says, “Try to remember it always …Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go” (187). Although these lines do not make any sense to him then, but now he somewhere realizes that his father wanted him to discover a path for himself to assert his own identity.
Like Gogol, Moushumi Mazoomdar is the daughter of immigrant parents from India. Though unwilling, Gogol meets her under the pressure of Ashima and develops a liking for her. At a party with Moushumi’s friends, Donald and Astrid, who are acquainted to her through her ex-fiancé Graham, addresses Gogol as ‘Graham’ by mistake, while Moushumi reveals to all that Gogol has changed his name to ‘Nikhil’. Gogol does not expect her to blurt out the secret. “He stares at her, stunned. He has never told her not to tell anyone. He simply assumed she never would. His expression is lost on her; she smiles back at him, unaware of what she has done” (243). Even Moushumi suffers from the same problem as Gogol. Instead of creating her own identity, she searches for stability and identity through multiple relationships. Moushumi begins an extra-marital affair with Dimitri Desjardin which ends her marriage with Gogol. Probably they chose one another unconsciously in order to remain connected to their family values and childhood after being disillusioned from their previous affairs. Moushumi’s sense of identity is much more insecure and complex since she suffers from a broken relationship. This relationship had given her identity but when it is shattered even her own identity is shattered. Gogol is only a substitute of ‘Graham’, her former fiancé. The most ironical thing out here is that according to the preconceived notion that people from the same cultural background would live in harmony, is reversed. Gogol’s parents consider his involvement with Maxine as momentary. She is an American and her American way of life troubles them. But according to Ashima, in the case of Moushumi she tries to make an almost perfect match by getting his son Gogol married to a girl of Indian ancestry; still their marriage does not work.
Ashima, proving true to the meaning of her name ‘without borders’, decides to live in America for six months and in India for six months. After having lived in the Pembeston Road for twenty–seven years, a widow of fifty–three, she is ready to depart to India in the end. During the final get-together at their home, Gogol comes across ‘The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol’, presented to him on his birthday by his father. It still bears the inscription: “… for Gogol Ganguli …The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name” (288). Gogol realizes that after his mother is gone, the name Gogol Ganguli would vanish from the lips of his loved ones and so “… cease to exist” (289). This troubles him rather than giving him peace. The name which he hates so much is the first thing his father gives him. “The givers of Gogol’s name are far away from him now. One dead. Another, a widow, on the verge of different sort of departure, in order to dwell, as his father does, in a separate world” (289). Although the novel ends here but it is now that Gogol will understand the significance of the sentence “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat” (78).
Salman Rushdie in his Imaginary Homelands reflects upon the ambiguity associated with a migrant’s space through the following words:
Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools …But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles. (18)
This openness of perception is a byproduct of diaspora and helps an individual recognize that the world is an open platform where various interpretations are possible, depicting positivity and progressiveness. Ashima evolves from being a dependent, introvert, coy and home-bound lady to an independent, bold and strong personality. She would not be confined to one country. This shows that not only does she have a deep affinity for India but also now she starts considering America her home where she has spent her life with Ashoke and her children. It is there, in America, that she matures as an individual in all respects. While Gogol, by all means starts realizing that one cannot stick to a particular identity at a time but one has to have multiple identities in order to survive. Also, by understanding the deep-seated meanings, associated with the events of one’s life, one can attain peace and stability.
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