The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

In 1971 the Gangulis move to the suburbs, to a university town where Ashoke will teach electrical engineering. At first they live in university housing, but within two years, they buy a house on Pemberton Road. The changes are hardest on Ashima, who can no longer walk to perform errands. She doesn't want to learn to drive a car, which they now have because everything in the suburbs is too far away to get to on foot. For Ashoke this change is joyous. He is able to teach and to have unlimited access to a library. Ashima sends photos of the house and of Gogol to relatives in Calcutta, but she feels out of place, as if she is waiting for something to change. She feels as if being a foreigner is like being perpetually pregnant, never knowing what will happen next and feeling like an outsider.

The Gangulis have American neighbors, and their nearest Bengali friends live 20 minutes away in another suburb. They go for drives in the evening, when everyone at the shoreline has gone home, and they walk on the beaches together. When Ashima becomes pregnant again, however, she can't ride in the car without throwing up. Ashoke has to take over the cooking, cleaning, and care of Gogol in the evenings.

In 1973 Ashoke also has to take Gogol to kindergarten. Mrs. Lapidus, the principal, notes that on the registration form, Ashoke has written Gogol's first name as Nikhil, but Gogol doesn't answer to this name. After a futile attempt at explaining the Bengali naming tradition of good names and pet names, Ashoke leaves, thinking he has made himself clear. But Mrs. Lapidus, who has written down the name Gogol, asks Gogol what he wants to be called. Mrs. McNab, the secretary, types up a new form with the name Gogol Ganguli. Ashoke and Ashima realize it is too uncomfortable to try to convince people to follow their tradition with their son, but it baffles them that Gogol gets to decide what he should be called.

When their second child is born, Ashoke and Ashima call the baby Sonali, using only one name. They call her Sonia at home. Gogol begins to enjoy playing with the baby. The entire family makes trips to Calcutta, but in their own town, they adapt to American life, adding Christmas and Thanksgiving to their holiday celebrations, dressing in ready-made clothes, and eating American food. Ashima is the one who, for the most part, holds onto Bengali traditions, still wearing saris and sandals. She and Ashoke make sure their children learn Bengali and celebrate holidays with the Bengali community as well. Ashima continues to cook Bengali food at home, compromising once a week with packaged American foods for dinner and making American lunches for the kids. When Sonia grabs for everything on the plate at her rice ceremony, the guests refer to her as a "true American."

Throughout Gogol's childhood he doesn't mind that his first name is different from everyone else's name. It is okay that no one can get him a keychain from a corner store inscribed with his name or that he never sees it in print anywhere but on books in the library, books he isn't yet ready to read. The Gangulis' mailbox is vandalized, but Ashoke just reapplies their name. However, when Gogol, age 11, goes on a field trip to a graveyard to do gravestone rubbings, he notes that there is no one there for him to recognize because the Bengali tradition is to be burned after death. He makes rubbings of stones bearing odd names no one uses anymore, like "Anguish." He thinks about how his parents are viewed as stupid or become the subject of jokes because they speak with accents and look different. His mother is horrified that a teacher would bring children to the graveyard for an art project, and she won't hang up his stone rubbings; Gogol rolls them up and hides them in his room.

Analysis

Boston's public television station, the children's shows of the 1970s, the processed foods so popular with Americans, and even the appearance of the kindergarten teacher wearing overalls and clogs give the reader a sense of the world around Gogol and his family. These details also put aspects of Indian culture in stark relief against the American landscape. Everything in the Gangulis' life is different in Massachusetts from how it would be in India, except for their celebrations with other Bengalis, where the children learn the language and learn to "make puja," which means to celebrate the divine on special occasions in a ceremony. It is a shock to Ashoke and Ashima when they hear their children speaking English exactly like American children, and Gogol hates missing his drawing class for puja. But they adapt anyway, with a Christmas tree and presents, a turkey at Thanksgiving, and foods that won't make the children stand out at school. They attempt to immerse the children in Indian culture by taking them to events, but their environment, most of the time, is very American.

The culture clash is at its most poignant when Gogol makes gravestone rubbings, even though Gogol is aware his own body will be burned when he dies. This knowledge is heavy for a young child, but to Bengali families, death is serious, not something to be played with or changed in any way; it is a part of life that should not intersect with anything else. Ashima is disgusted at the idea children are using gravestones to make art projects, which shows how sacred the rituals around death are to Ashima. Gogol, however, thinks of the rubbings as proof he is not the only person with a name that sounds different. He keeps this evidence hidden in his room, away from his mother, so that she doesn't destroy it and he doesn't offend her.

The central role of food in Indian culture is represented in this chapter in Ashima's insistence on Indian food at home. Ashima works to keep Bengali culture alive in her family through the food she prepares and serves, and she even makes Indian food to sell along with other university wives who make foods from their own traditions. Ashima is the reason the family still holds on to Indian culture, positioning Ashima's American lunches and suppers as a cultural compromise. Ashima works to stay connected to her culture, not just through trips to Calcutta, but at home as well.

The metaphor of pregnancy expresses the isolation of Ashima. Ashima compares the attention she got when she was pregnant—the stares, questions, and assumptions—to the attention she gets as a foreigner. Ashima feels as if she will never get used to being an outsider, a status she thinks of as one long pregnancy. Ashima's thoughts reveal that being an immigrant never becomes easy. Gogol's realization that his parents are a target of criticism and poor treatment because of their differences also shows immigrants are always just on the edge of fitting in.

The theme of naming recurs as Gogol enters kindergarten. Gogol only knows the one name people call him at home. He doesn't answer to Nikhil because, in his mind, this name does not belong to him; it's someone else. Mrs. Lapidus is sneaky about finding out his preferred name, and she waits until his father is gone to ask Gogol what he wants to be called. Gogol decides to keep his pet name at school because it is tied to his identity and his idea of self. It is also the only word he knows how to write in English. Gogol's parents don't understand why their name preference wouldn't be followed at school, but they make another compromise for American culture when their daughter is born, giving her only one name.

The author highlights the differences between the Gangulis and other families, even as she notes the similarities. The Gangulis have the same kind of house as everyone else, the same things in their yard, and the same type of mailbox with their name on it. But their activities as a family are still influenced by cultural differences. When the Gangulis go to the beach, they don't go during the day when everyone else is there, and they don't wear bathing suits but go in their regular clothing. Instead of going to restaurants and visiting local attractions, they go for drives to absorb their surroundings without having to interact with them. Their social interactions are limited to the weekends, with their Bengali friends. When Ashima goes to the hospital to give birth to Sonali, the neighbor takes care of Gogol, but only until one of their Bengali friends, Maya Nandi, arrives to take over. Maya takes on the role of aunt, Mashi, to Gogol. The Gangulis keep their traditions by tweaking the requirements to accommodate the resources. However, at Sonia's rice ceremony, the guests say she is a "true American," meaning she can do anything she wants. There is no prescribed path for Sonia as an American child.

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