Cultural Memory in "The Namesake"

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake narrates the assimilation of a Bengali household who emigrated from India to the United States. The story starts with the emigration of Ashoke and Ashima from Calcutta, India, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the U.S., they give birth to a son referred to as Gongol. The story describes the struggles the family faces by raising their baby in the United States. In the new land, they experience cultural dilemmas of either maintaining their Bengali subculture or adopting the new American culture. Ashima and Ashoke face hardships as they assimilate to new customs in the US and still maintain their Bengali structure. In the end, they are neither more Bengali nor more American. They live the lives of extremely aged people who lost touch with all the people they once loved, and try to live according to their new environment while remembering their past culture.

Ashoka and Ashima Ganguli settled in Cambridge and adapted slowly to the American culture. They continued to cling on to their Bengali culture even with the birth of their first born child whom they named after a Russian writer who reminded them of a catastrophe they experienced several years ago in India. Ashoke kept remembering the life they lived in Calcutta. He says, “Finish it, Gogol, at your age I ate tin” (p.55). This statement shows that the culture of Boston is different from that in Calcutta, but Ashoke continued to think about his lifestyle in Calcutta. In Calcutta, they did not waste food, unlike in the US where they would throw food away. Therefore, the family lived their lives with memories of their past, causing a mixture of old and new cultures. Their children were also taught to be bilingual, speaking both American English and Indian Bengalese. In this regard, the family adopts a character of Indianess that cannot be explained in words, but realized through the mind, thought and emotion.

Ashoka and Ashima exhibit multiculturalism which refers to the existence of more than one culture in one’s life. In this regard, they are neither homogenously American nor homogenously Indian. In America, they maintain a circle of friends from India. Lahiri says, “they all come from Calcutta” (Lahiri 38). Their adherence to the Indian culture and people enabled them to celebrate Bengali customs and ceremonies together, including marriage, festivals, childbirth and death. These ceremonies helped them to maintain their original culture while receiving education and social services through the American culture and people. Therefore, the two cultures are mixed to make them more multicultural than Bengalese or American.

The change in culture by Ashoka and Ashima affects their relations with their son. As they try to educate their son in the new environment, they meet several people who try to influence their culture. However, the family continues to meet and seek advice from other Bengalese in the United States. Ashoke used several stories written by a Russian author to remind himself of their past experiences in Bengali. He says, “You remind me of everything that followed” (p.124). This statement shows how the stories of Nikolai Gogol remind him of his life in Calcutta. As he raises his child with his wife Ashima in a new American cultural environment, they use written stories to remind themselves of their past and maintain their culture. Therefore, the family maintains a Bengali culture while living in an American society where they experience both the Bengali and American cultures.

The story of the Bengali culture demonstrates an aspect of multiculturalism. While Ashoka and Ashima maintain their Bengali culture in a foreign land, their son tries to adopt an American culture completely. However, Ashoka and Ashima have maintained their Bengali culture alongside an American culture which they would not avoid because they lived in an American society. Therefore, the family exhibit multiculturalism; neither more Bengali nor more American.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. (2002). The Namesake. New York: Random House Audio

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