The Namesake Chapters 1-4
As a first-generation immigrant – moving from my homeland Algeria at the young age of 4 – I have lived most of the life I remember in a country whose culture was foreign to me. Growing up, I would struggle to find a middle-ground between my Algerian and newly-Canadian roots. On saturday mornings, I would attend language school and learn how to speak, write, and read in my mother tongue. I would celebrate events like the Algerian New Year and the Arab Spring (…not the revolutionary war in the middle-east, but the start of the season of spring in arab countries). While trying to keep in touch with my roots, I would also be exposed to the canadian culture that would soon shape my identity. I learned French at the age of 4, and English at the age of 11, then spanish at 15. I started celebrating holidays like Halloween, Christmas, “American” New Year’s, and even Easter! It had never occurred to me that growing up in a different environment would change my identity so much until I made my first trip back to my homeland. My family members were baffled at the clothes I wore (too short, in their opinion) and in awe when I told them I celebrated Christmas, a holiday that was only seen in American movies. I then began to see the differences that distinguished me apart from my algerian relatives, but also my canadian entourage. I began to feel like I didn’t fully belong in one group, and that only parts of my identity would exist in either cultures.
In the novel, The Namesake, the Ganguli family all experience internal conflicts that leads them
to through their own cultural identity crisis. As the Bengali couple, Ashima and Ashoke, move to America, they struggle to adjust to the American Life while preserving their Bengali culture. This struggle is enhanced once they have son, Gogol and daughter, Sonia, as their children are born in the United State – a country with limited resources to expose their children to their Bengali Heritage.
In the first few chapters of the book, while Gogol and Sonia are in their early years of life, their parents attempt to connect them to their culture through bengali rites of passages. Both children are spoken to in Bengali and are hosted a rice ceremony. Their efforts to maintain their heritage is heavily affected by their American environment from the moment their first child is born. When Ashima is holding Gogol shortly after giving birth, she thinks to herself,
“Without a single grandparent or parent or uncle or aunt at her side, the baby’s birth […] feels somewhat haphazard. […] As she strokes and suckles and studies her son, she can’t help but pity him.” (Lahiri, 24-25)
Gogol was just born into this world, and already, his mother is struggling to preserve his roots. She realizes how different her son’s life will be compared to her’s, and accepts that through his childhood, he will be shaped by the American life. This realization surfaces during Gogol’s rice ceremony, and again on his first day of school, but becomes apparent during Gogol’s fourteenth birthday. To begin with, during the rice ceremony, Ashima and Ashoke
“ask Dilip Nandi to play the part of Ashima’s brother, to hold the child and feed him rice.” (Lahiri, 39)
Dilip is neither part of Ashima or Ashoke’s family, but since their relatives live so far away, they have no choice but to ask a friend to hold the ceremony with them. This situation furthers the theme of cultural identity crisis as Ashima has to find a way to host a bengali ritual in an environment where caucasian was the dominant culture. She was able to find a Bengali American, but he still doesn’t compare to her real brother being there.
Furthermore, we see the parents’ struggle to maintain their kid’s heritage as they grow older once Gogol begins attending elementary school. In the Bengali culture, individuals get two names. Their pet name is the one they are called by close family members and at home, while their good name – the official name on legal documents – is used in the public and professional world. As Gogol’s childhood is only filled with memories of being addressed by that name, he struggles to understand why it is important for him to go by a different name when not at home. He opposes the Bengali culture for the first time in his life when he gets to school in the following excerpt,
“And what about you Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?” [the principal asks]
After a pause, he shakes his head.
“Is that a no?”
He nods. “Yes.” “ (Lahiri 59)
It is the beginning of Gogol’s cultural identity crisis as he is old enough to distinguish between both cultures, and begins to deviate away from the Bengali and more towards the American one. His parents’ wish to preserve the Bengali norms, but decide to let Gogol ‘win this battle’. Their internal conflict begins as they realize that preserving his roots would be harder than they’d believe. Finally, the distinction between Gogol’s identity and the one his parents want for him are evident during his fourteenth birthday. The contrast between the parties helps demonstrate the cultural shift that Gogol has experience throughout his childhood and into his teenage years. The birthday party Gogol wanted was described with
“His own friends from school […] pizzas [..], a baseball game watched together on television, some Ping-Pong in the den” (Lahiri 72)
While the party his parents threw for him consisted of
“Women […] in saris. […] A group of men [sitting] in a circle on the floor immediately [starting] a game of poker.” (Lahiri 73)
….as well as a LOT of food. Through these two parties, we can see the contradictory points of views of Gogol and his parents. Gogol, who has now been fully americanized, seems to only enjoy the party thrown with his friends as well as identify more with the american side of his identity. Gogol’s continuous preference towards his american roots create an internal conflict for his parents as they strife to preserve his Bengali heritage. They value and prioritize the Bengali culture, and in accordance respond to his birthday by hosting a Bengali party. However, Gogol does not enjoy the party thrown for him by his parents, furthering him away his cultural heritage.
As can be seen in the pictures above, the two teams have very opposing views on the same idea.
These first few chapters end with Gogol coming to terms with his identity and choosing to engage in a lifestyle that fits the american norms and standards, displaying a level of inadequacy in his parents’ continuous attempts at shifting him towards accepting his Bengali roots. However, his parents’ cultural identity crisis is not resolved, as they have complied to the american life to make their children happy, while they themselves don’t believe in those values. Just like Gogol, by living and being affected by my Canadian environment, I have grown to accept the western world’s norms and values and appropriating them to myself. Although I am still proud of my Algerian roots, I understand that most of my identity is shaped by my life as a Canadian. Unlike Gogol, I will continue to make efforts to preserve the Algerian heritage that has been passed onto me. However, I understand his struggle to live life through two different cultures, as if I were living through two different identities, or owning two pairs of lenses…