Author’s Note: This article contains spoilers!
You probably don’t remember how many people were present at your birth. Your parents likely consider such a detail trivial since they were there and, after all, that’s what matters, right? Wrong. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, explores the kind of loneliness and discontent immigrant families experience in pursuit of the American Dream or in pursuit of simpler things like finding one’s belonging in the U.S.
The novel follows two generations of the Gangulis. It takes place in 1960s Boston where a boy Gogol Ganguli is born. But there’s something strange about his birth that only his mother Ashima, perpetually homesick for Calcutta, notices: “Without a single grandparent or parent or uncle or aunt at her side, the baby’s birth, like most everything else in America, feels somehow haphazard, only half true. As she strokes and suckles and studies her son, she can’t help but pity him. She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived.” So alone indeed. Gogol’s birth set the tone for his life. Charting the next three decades of his life from baby, to rebellious teen, to ivy-league student, to an architect working full-time in Manhattan, the audience witnesses Gogol’s futile attempts to recreate himself, to find his belonging in America through romantic relationships all the while distancing himself from the preserved Bengali traditions his parents hold dear.
Gogol feels like an outsider. He does not identify with the Indian American students at his university, he does not think of India as his home. He appears to be more like his American friends, but even those connections are insignificant, fleeting, almost nonexistent evoking a sense of detachment not only from his roots and his family but from America as well.
Even the romantic connections Gogol makes are temporary and unsuccessful in helping him find his belonging. Gogol finds himself deeply entrenched in the lives of the Ratliffs, a well-to-do, artsy, liberal family living in New York that vacations at a lake house where their ancestors are buried. He sleeps over at their house with his girlfriend Maxine. He goes on runs with her father, walks their dog and goes on vacation with them. Her father “remembers a bar of French chocolate he bought on his way home and this is unwrapped, broken apart and passed around the table.” This detail is a stark contrast from the plates of chicken tandoori Gogol often ate on paper plates at birthday parties prepared in bulk by his mother. Though he integrates quickly into their lives Gogol is reminded that he is an outsider while on vacation with the Ratliffs “‘But you’re Indian,’ Pamela says, frowning. ‘I’d think the climate wouldn’t affect you, given your heritage.’ ‘Pamela, Nick’s American,’ Lydia says, leaning across the table, rescuing Gogol from the conversation. ‘He was born here.’ She turns to him, and he sees from Lydia’s expression that after all these months, she herself isn’t sure. ‘Weren’t you?’” Then Maxine reveals the limitations of her understanding following the death of his father. She cannot understand why she is excluded from a family trip to Calcutta when her family was so hospitable and accepting. At one point she admits to being jealous of the attention he gives his mother and sister. While Gogol may have fallen in love with her life and even felt like an American who belonged for a moment, there are limitations to these families in their capacity to understand what is not American.
Gogol again finds himself alone. Even when he attempts to find belonging with Moushumi, a childhood family friend that shares the same ambivalence towards their culture that he experienced, their relationship ends tragically. Moushumi has an intimate affair with a teen crush from the past.
This novel captures a haunting truth for many like Gogol. It is so real that it can make the reader shudder in recognition as if recalling something similar in their life. It captures the kind of loneliness a second generation born immigrant feels throughout their life:The rootlessness and disconnection from a family entrenched in a culture that at once feels foreign and embarrassing and alienation and loneliness experienced in the futile attempts to recreate oneself to belong in America.