S. Noyingbeni Yanthan/ Diasporic Consciousness: A Study of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake

S. Noyingbeni Yanthan

(Research Scholar)

Dr Sanjay Prasad Pandey

Assistant Professor,

Department of English,

Lovely Professional University,

Phagwara, India.



In the period of globalization and with the fast moving of the development of technology, many people migrate to foreign land for one or the other reason but mostly for better opportunities. In a way to connect and come closer to that place, the closeness to the culture, the native language and the rules evoke a psychological oppression resulting to dilemma of cultural clash and identity. Jhumpa Lahiri, a daughter of an immigrant is one of the postcolonial writers who face clashes between two cultures. In The Namesake, Lahiri presents the character of Ashoke and Ashima where they feel nostalgia as they migrate to a new land and through the feeling of diaspora, they recollect the memories back at home especially in the character of Ashima. It also deals with the cultural identity crisis which is faced by both the generation of the immigrants. In the case of the first generation, the immigrants face dilemma, consciousness of being an outsider and cultural identity crisis due to the language, dressing essence and food habits. But the second generation immigrants they mainly face the crisis in relation to the personality, identity and adjustment in an alien land. The present paper deals with the issue of the migration to present the pain and the problem that are faced by the immigrants by contrasting the subject of diaspora in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

Keywords: Nostalgia, identity, dilemma, immigrant, diaspora, and alienation.

Over the last few centuries there has been an increase of literature among members of racial sectional groups and among academics, surrounding the concept of diaspora. The word “Diaspora” has been derived from the Greek diasperio which means to distribute. It is a compound of sperio, to sow to scatter like seed and dia- from one end to the other. The formation of earth after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was the opening outlook in history, when this great odyssey of diaspora began.

Twentieth century saw enormous population movements. Some of these were due to natural disasters and some ensued because the people could not avoid or the people accepted, or the consequences of political decisions (such as Stalin’s desire to populate Eastern Russia, Central Asia and Siberia; or the transfer of millions of people between India and Pakistan in the 1947 partition). The term diaspora was thus integrated from Greek into English in the mid-20th century and refers to anybody of people or ethnic population who are either forced or induced to leave their traditional homelands, the dispersal of such people, and the resulting developments in their culture. The people having arrived in a new environmental and cultural situation, they try to negotiate two cultures: one which they possess and the other the new one. The diasporic culture is essentially mixed and a unification of the two cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines Diaspora as anybody of people living outside their traditional homeland. Under Colonialism, diaspora is a mixed movement; it involves the European’s impermanent or permanents movement in all parts of the world, which further leads to colonial settlements. Subsequently, the increasing economic exploitation of the already settled places required large amounts of labor that could not be fulfilled by the local population. This led to diaspora resulting from the enslavement of Africans and their removal to places like the British colonies.

Diasporic consciousness is an intricate term as it contains idea including exilic existence; a sense of loss; realization of being an outsider; longing for home; dilemma; burden of exile; dispossession and relocation. The first step out of one’s country is a brave one and one has to take risk, because without it, one cannot hope to get anything. The lives of immigrants do not have straight lines. They live centuries of history in a lifetime and have several lives and moves. They experience a sense of up-rootedness and un-belonging in the host countries. In spite of their attempts of acculturation, they do remain at the outside and are treated as others. Diasporic people are formed out of the unification of accounts about journeys from the old country to the new and where people belonging to the first generation immigrants incline to remember the old land or country more than the children born to the people of migrant.

Salman Rushdie in the Imaginary Homeland: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 stated migrants to “straddle two cultures … fall between two stools” and they suffer “a triple disruption” (Rushdie 5) containing the loss of roots, the linguistic and also the social displacement. Trishanku, an epic Indian character in Ramayana, who was neither accepted in heaven nor earth and had to settle midway between the two realm, serves as a metaphor for the modern emigrant inhabiting the contested universal native space.

Anywhere in the world diasporic groups are immigrants who know that their traditional native land are reflected intensely in the languages they speak, religion they adopt, and the cultures they produce. They remember their past through memory, imaginary, narrative and fairytale and their search for ethnic individuality make them as “individuals without an anchor, without horizon, colorless, stateless, and rootless- a race of angels.” (Hall 226)

Diaspora led to the flourish of literature. Many Indian writers who reside abroad or foreign lands tend to express themselves through creative writings. The scenario is quite opposite as since earlier for an Indian writer to have a good perception of creative writing he would often take the help of a foreign visitor to India. The Indian Diaspora writers wrote on loss of identity, feeling of isolation, sense of changes, flexibility, and movement. The theme of diaspora caters a very significant role in the Indian literature, and furthermore it helps to contribute the theory of diaspora from a very general sense. From a broader perception we can see that the study of such themes in literature like Diaspora helps us to gather around information on the cultural outlook between different countries. It provides us more vivid information that borders different customs and traditions. Good fiction enhances facts and adds fascinating layers to hold readers’ attention and makes people aware about the contemporary society. Likewise the subject of Diaspora advances some definite questions which embark the definition between homeland and foreign land. Thus Literature as being a creation of culture becomes a great source which helps us to know about the worldwide situation and multiculturalism.

Jhumpa Lahiri, a contemporary American writer of Indian origin was born in London, on July 11, 1967 to Bengali parents. On April 10, 2000, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. She is also the first person of South Asian origin to win an individual prize. The collection of short stories was translated into twenty-nine languages and became bestseller both in the United States and abroad. Besides the Pulitzer, Lahiri has won many awards for her debut collection which includes The TransAtlantic Award from the Henfield Foundation in 1993, the O’Henry Award for short story in 1999, The New Yorker’s Debut of the Year award in 2000 and the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000. Lahiri also received a nomination of for the LA times Book Prize as well as the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. What Jhumpa Lahiri likely means to propagate through her work is that the difference between human cultures is strictly due to human’s wants. Her works which is often characterized by the use of plain language deals mainly with the scenario of Indian immigrants to America who are caught up between the two cultural influences and are finding various means to settle themselves in the new habitant. Her ability to bring about the aspects of earliest cultural conflicts in relation with the current cultures and bringing out the voices of different character are among the unique abilities that have captured the attention of a large audience.

Jhumpa Lahiri expands her Pulitzer Prize-winning short stories of Indian acquisition into her lovely first novel, The Namesake. The novel was published in 2003. It was originally a novella published in The New Yorker and was later expanded to a full- length novel. The book presents the fictional family of the Gangulis. The story rounds up in more than thirty years. The parents Ashoke and Ashima, each born in Calcutta, migrate to America after their marriage. Gogol and Sonia their two children are born and brought up in America and the novel observes the tones involved with being caught two conflicting cultures with their highly distinct social, religious and philosophical differences. The novel focuses on Gogol’s struggle over his name as a jumping off point to explore large issues of cultural identity, integration and assimilation.

Gogol is so named after the Russian novelist, apparently his father believes that sitting up in train reading Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” rescued him from a train accident back in 1961.Gogol finds his strange name a continuous nuisance, and ultimately he changes it to Nikhil. Throughout the novel Gogol has had issues with his name. At one point of time when his father presented him a book of short stories by Nikolai Gogol for his fourteenth birthday, Gogol simply tosses it showing a disinterested attitude. Later when he is a senior at Yale, his father finally reveals him the story of his name. As Gogol moves to New York to work as an architect, he meets Maxine, his first real love, but they separated after his father dies. Later, his mother reintroduces him to Moushmi and they fall in love and eventually got married but their union does not last. At the end of the novel we find that Gogol has come to terms with the issues of his own identity, he does not disregard the traditional Bengali customs anymore. The role of fate that played upon his life made him realize the importance of one’s own tradition and families. After losing his father he is saddened and begins to regard the ways his father taught him. The tale comes full circle when the protagonist heads home for a Bengali Christmas and rediscovers his father’s gift of Gogol’s short stories.

Jhumpa Lahiri has carried forward her Pulitzer Prize winning short stories of Indian acquisition into her first novel. The conditions of immigrants in the host country are usually due to cultural misunderstanding and loneliness. The cultural identity crisis is faced by generations of immigrants due to language, food habits, dress code and personal identity. In Gogol’s case it is due to his name. The feeling of nostalgia, loneliness and homelessness is also divided systematically. In Ashima’s case it is due to migration. Gogol and Moushmi face it due to cultural hybridity. Ashoke and Ghosh are permanently dislocated from the world. They leave all homes behind and reach the other world.

Jhumpa Lahiri, as a writer of Indian diaspora, inspects the problem of identity, nostalgia, alienation and the clashes between different cultures. As an Indian immigrants she bring her own experiences and relate it to the crisis that are faced by the immigrant and present it through her writings with the help of the characters. The recurring theme in Lahiri’s writing is the bitter- sweet experience of emigrant to America from India. She mostly presents the characters who immigrate to different countries and thus are caught up between the cultural clash, though excited with their new land yet they face the loss of their original homeland. Gogol is obsessed with the matter of his name. His hatred for his name is explained thus: “But instead he takes a deep breath and tells the people in the courtroom what he has never admit to his parents. I hate the name Gogol. I’ve always hated it.” (Lahiri 102) Gogol by now, he hates everything that matters pertaining to his name and he hates that his name is both absurd and obscure.

Multiculturalism proposes the co-existence of an amount of different cultures. It also does not encourage openly different cultural religious, lingual or racial citizens of a particular society to destroy and isolate each other so that such a culture is broken or destroyed permanently. In The Namesake, characters are constantly making contrasts or comparison between the two Indian and American cultures. The two Indian Immigrants Ashima and Ashoke draws many comparison between the two cultures, everything is foreign to them when they first came to settle in America. Though back at home they are at least known by their friends and families, but in America they both are like complete strangers to the people. As immigrants, they both have mixtures of Bengali and American features. They are keen to celebrate Christmas just for the sake of their children who are accustomed with the American culture. Gogol and Moushimi face the foreignness in both society; they often feel like travellers who have no chance to return. Though they try to adjust with their new cultures yet the elements of alienation and loneliness are visible regarding their origin society. It is not only the identity crisis which they face but alienation and loneliness becomes a part of their sufferings. It is the sight and feeling of their original homeland which does not allow them to completely acknowledge their new land cultures. It is a bitter fact to know that they still consider their new land as another country. The key reason why Gogol is not adhered with his name is that right from the birth he was born and brought up in America and so this feeling captivated him in loving the American tradition more than the Indian traditions and cultures. The Namesake describes the cultural displacement at its depth. For instance Ashima is upset when Gogol tells him that he has rented a room three months and also she is upset because their children could not visit her quite often. Ashima suffers a lot: “Having been deprived of the company of her own parents upon moving to America, her children’s independence, their need to keep their distance from her, is something she will never understand.” (Macwan 122)

Diaspora is a voyage towards self-recognition, self-definition, and self-realization. There is an element of inventiveness in diaspora writings which paves the way for many losses. The Indian Diaspora writing contributes on a world wide scale, the cultures of different societies. Diaspora literature thus builds information which result in solving many cultural and psychological problems. It helps to re-discover the unity and completeness of India. The Namesake works as a network to solidify the different parts of the states in India and also in relation with the other parts of the world like America. The Indian philosophy has its notion that the world is a family to an extent. Thus with reference to the context multiculturalism presents a mixture of various cultures setting up a world peace, harmony and universal communal. Lahiri’s The Namesake is an example of the Modern-day immigrant narration which doesn’t place the idea of an American drama at the center of the story, but rather situations the immigrant ethnic family within a communal of international travellers. She accounts displacement and societal discomfort in a fresh manner. She balances the two cultures and creates inner chaos for many of her characters who struggle to balance the Western and Indian influence.

Through Namesake, Lahiri exposes the trauma and pains in migrating to a different country, she sends a clear message to people who are dreaming to settle in different countries for a better life. Lahiri notes that people without realizing the effects of migration tends to look upon only on the luxurious side, they forget that displacement demands a greater flexibility in terms of climate and culture. On the other hand the problem of name cannot be solved by the name on record. The problem faced by the individual regarding his/her identity takes a process of reflections and discovery. When one is born in his motherland then the question of identity does not arise much, in fact not at all, since the individual has quite a familiar society around him. He is nurtured around by people like him, he is a son of a father who has a social status. He eventually is not concerned about his identity because he has the trust of being known by people in that society. However if he is born on a foreign land, the question of identity starts to round up, he feels like a total stranger on the new land. The differences in skin colour, language, cultures form a unique blend where he starts to search for his own identity. Being a second generation immigrant the crisis of identity perpetuate all through his life. The quest to find his own identity marks the disaporic consciousness in Gogol’s life. Thus Diaspora creates a place for growth, resolution of conflicts and most importantly a new identity. Every Diaspora movement holds a historical significance, as it carries within itself the core of the nation’s history.

Works Cited

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Contemporary Post-Colonial Theory ed. Padmini Mongia. New Delhi: Oxford UP (1997): 222-237. Print.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.

Macwan, Hiral. “A Study of Diasporic Sensibility and acculturation in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.” International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities. II.VII November (2014): 110-127. Print.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism. London: Granta, 1991. Print.


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