As a individual, who has grown up in a household enriched with two completely juxtaposing cultures, and also immersed in my own resident culture, the discussion of hybridity and identity is one which I feel resonates with my own personal experiences. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, a novel which is precisely imbued with the intricacies and adversities that are often experienced by those who find themselves between two or more cultures, explores the personal conflicts that arise at the level of both first and second generation immigrants.
The novel opens in medias res, where we are transported back to a sticky summer’s eve of the year 1968, just moments before Ashima Ganguli’s gives birth. Although the scene is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the dualism of the narrative is at once established with the references to the smells and tastes of Calcutta that both infiltrate and occupy their Central Square apartment. The first portion of the narrative focuses on Ashima’s own feeling on “outsiderness”, with her struggle to reconcile her strong cultural background to her new setting. Ashima’s perspective frames the novel, and within the thirty-two years that pass, we see the transition of her identity from identifying as Bengali to American-Bengali.
Running streamline to this, the reader also goes on a journey with Gogol, the namesake of the novel, with his name itself becoming emblematic of the quest for identity. Initially his pet name, after the famous Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, Gogol is at first too young and unaware to fully appreciate the gravitas which underpins the meaning of his name. As he grows older however, he begins to feel trapped in a name which bears no relation to his cultural heritage nor identity as an American. It is only until after college when Gogol decides to legally change his name to Nikhil, that he comes to realise that it is not a name itself that defines one’s identity or character, in the same way it is not his name(s) that hinder his coming into being, but rather, his unhappiness is the result of his lack of acceptance of his dual identity and his inability to reconcile two distinctive selves, which both innately presides within him.
The fact that the narrative is disclosed from the detached, omniscient narrator, naturally creating some distance between the readers and the characters, acts as a reminder that we too, are in many ways ‘foreign’ to the characters’ lives. That said, this does not take away from the novel binary function of both embodying the ‘foreign’ as well as the ‘familiar’. The narrative is not just about the individual American-Bengalis experience, but in fact it acts as a microcosm for all the different minority communities in America that share these experiences because of the individualism of their spirit that is just as equally present and influential as their collective identities as Americans.