The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Context


Bengali Immigration to the United States in the Late 20th Century

Following World War I (1914–18), the United States desired to limit immigration as a means of impeding the spread of communism—a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed. The culture of discrimination in the United States also led to limitations on immigrants of color. President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) signed the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely limited the immigration of people from communist countries and nearby regions such as China, Russia, and Eastern and Southern Europe. Mexicans were completely barred from immigrating to the United States. Asians from countries that were primarily populated by people of color were also effectively barred from immigrating to the United States by this act using the "two percent rule." Only 2 percent of the number of people who had already emigrated from a given country to the United States could immigrate from that country. The immigration of peoples from mostly white Northern Europe, however, was promoted.

By 1942 American immigration policy began to change, removing exclusions of immigrants from the countries the rules had shut out. The Bracero Program allowed Mexican immigrants to come into the United States to work as laborers on farms. The Magnuson Act allowed Chinese people to immigrate to the United States. In the years that followed, other acts were passed, gradually easing restrictions on immigration and allowing in a certain number of refugees. However, some form of the quota system continued to exist in immigration law until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, or the Hart-Celler Act, was passed. This act traded in the quota system for a new system based on an immigrant's connection to relatives or a job waiting in the United States. Once in the country, an immigrant could sponsor immediate family to come to the United States to live. Temporary workers and university students could also be admitted. This is the act that allowed Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake to come to the United States as a graduate student and then send for his wife to live with him. This first wave of immigrants from India came in when the 1965 act was passed. From 1965 onward, the immigrant population from India exploded, nearly doubling from year to year throughout the next few decades. The first wave of Indian skilled workers and students who became skilled workers stayed long enough to apply for citizenship. In The Namesake the character Ashoke is part of the first wave. He studies engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later becomes a university professor, only returning to India to visit family. The second wave of Indian immigrants, beginning in the 1980s, brought in family members of those who were already in the United States. In the decades that followed, immigration to the United States from India increased exponentially, creating a third wave of mostly educated professionals and college students. By the beginning of the 21st century, Indian immigrants made up the largest group of immigrants from one country to the United States.

The major characters in The Namesake emigrate from West Bengal, a mostly Hindu state with a secondary population of Muslims. Hinduism is an Indian religion based on the Veda texts, scripture that praises in song and ritual gods of natural occurrences and of moral and social laws. Muslims practice Islam, a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of the Koran.

Before 1947 the whole of India, including Bengal, was under British rule, beginning in the late 18th century. As British subjects, India was ruled by a viceroy, a ruler under the authority of the crown. The country also had a parliament and a military, but these British authorities operated alongside the authority of princes. The goal of ruling India was an economic one for Britain, and the British plan included a gradual return to independence for India. However, an effort toward independence on Britain's part did not occur until after World War I, in what was supposed to be a reward for sending thousands of Indian troops but ended up being a broken promise. The Government of India Act of 1919 provided for a gradual switch of provincial government positions to Indian ministers. But the act was never completely carried out, as Britain decided to keep emergency wartime measures in place. The Rowlatt Acts of 1919 expanded the British viceroy's powers, and Indians were kicked out from their governmental positions and treated as second-class citizens. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) encouraged all of India to protest nonviolently by boycotting all British products, disobeying British laws, and refusing to pay British taxes. Muslims felt shut out by the Hindu majority's actions in the first noncooperation movement, which failed.

In 1935 the Government of India Acts were rewritten, and India moved closer to creating a constitution and an Indian-run government. The Congress Party was mostly Hindu, and the Muslim League, run by Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), was not given an adequate voice in planning the government. Elections that year gave the Congress Party a majority large enough that it was clear to Muslims that they would not be a part of Hindu-run India. In addition, the provincial governments were still under British dominion. The protests and arrest of Gandhi and his increasing band of followers continued. The Muslim League realized that to be fully independent, they would have to have their own country: Pakistan. By 1945, elections gave Muslims more seats in government, but that did not assuage the Muslim League. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), the leader of the Congress Party, said that the newly formed committee of the federation did not have to follow previous constitutions. The Muslim League pulled out of the federation plan and vowed to create a Muslim independent state. Civil war broke out between Hindus and Muslims, starting in Calcutta and spreading out across India. When Britain prepared to give India its independence in 1947, it sent Lord Mountbatten (1900–79), the new viceroy, to India to shepherd the process. Mountbatten realized that the religious factions were not going to declare peace any time soon, and he prepared a plan for partitioning India, separating regions by their religious majorities. India was partitioned into states (political territorial units) and ceded land to form Pakistan after independence from Britain in 1947. At this time, the region of Bengal was split into two states: the mostly Muslim East Bengal and the mostly Hindu West Bengal. Bengal had already gone through an earlier, short-lived partition that had separated it from the government of India, causing tensions between Hindu and Muslim populations, but the partition of 1947 was the most violent conflict either population in the region had ever experienced. Each side butchered the other, with refugee Muslims heading for East or West Pakistan (the two Pakistans were divided by states under Indian control) and Hindus escaping to India. The carnage was, according to historians, at the level of genocide on both sides.

After partitioning, West Bengal became a state in India, but its economic situation was in steady decline, worsened by the influx of refugees from other regions. People immigrating to the United States from West Bengal came to escape ongoing conflict between Muslims and Hindus and to find jobs. The capital of West Bengal, Calcutta, is where half of the state's urban population lives, but most Bengalis live in small villages. Economic opportunities for villagers were slim in the later decades of the 20th century, pushing many Bengalis to immigrate to the United States. In The Namesake, the Ganguli family's social life revolves around a large group of Bengali families who emigrated to study and to provide for their families.

American and Indian Cultural Differences in the Late 20th Century

Bengali immigrants to the United States, like the characters Ashoke and Ashima in The Namesake, were confronted with culture shock. They adjusted to changes in food and clothing. They were also faced with having to learn American English, which was different from the British English they had learned in India, along with a switch to imperial measurements rather than metric. Many Bengalis spoke English, but their native language was mostly Bengali or Hindi, spoken at home. The need for familiar faces and voices, along with Bengali customs, led Bengalis to find one another and create communities. They balanced integration into the American workforce with maintenance of key aspects of culture. The focus for Indian immigrants was education and work, which meant their culture mostly stayed insular to their communities. In addition, the tendency for Americans to socialize outside of the home and not within their neighborhoods contrasted with the village mentality of Indian immigrants. These differences in social customs also contributed to immigrants' need for their own communities.

Culturally, immigrants from India tried to maintain their traditions, notably with food eaten at home, which remained Indian rather than American. In the novel Ashima tries to replicate Indian recipes with American ingredients. Indian holidays were still celebrated, and holiday foods became more common on a daily basis, in an effort to keep ties to the culture strong. In the 1960s and 1970s, immigrants read materials from home in their native languages and listened to imported Indian music. While in the maternity ward, Ashima reads materials from home in her native language. Clothing also stayed close to traditional Indian styles, mostly for women day-to-day and for everyone on holidays. The strong ties with family back in India also helped to maintain connections with cultural traditions. For this reason Ashima looks forward to letters from her family.

Families continued to arrange marriages, but as their children born in the United States grew up, the practice faded. Marriage was important to Indian society, and that importance was carried over with immigrant families, most of whom stayed together. Divorce in Indian families was uncommon, although Gogol's marriage to a Bengali woman ends in divorce after she has an affair. The social roles of family members also changed in that immigrants no longer hired help to do cooking and housework, so these jobs shifted to women in families. As equality on the job front became more accessible, Indian immigrant women and their female children took on the role of breadwinner. However, the cultural pull to remain at home and raise children was still strong.

Nikolai Gogol and "The Overcoat"

Nikolai (Nikolay) Gogol (1809–52) was a Ukrainian (former Russian Empire) fiction writer and humorist whose works, particularly the story "The Overcoat," were influential in Russian realist literature of the 19th century. Russian realism focused on a character-based exploration of the human condition that was often contemporary, humorous, satirical, and forgiving of human weaknesses. In his early life Gogol tried to be an actor and a poet, but neither occupation worked for him. He wrote a series of eight narratives based on memories of folk traditions from his childhood (Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, 1831–32), and his bright and humorous prose caught the attention of the reading public. His instant fame also caught the attention of other Russian authors such as Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837) and Sergey Aksakov (1791–1859). Gogol released two more collections of stories, in which romantic heroes confronted the evil of a vulgar world. His play The Government Inspector (1836) is a comedy lampooning corruption in the Russian government led by Nicholas I. Reaction to Gogol's work forced him to leave Russia and live in Rome, Italy, until 1842. While he was in Rome, he wrote the novel Dead Souls (1842), which is considered his masterpiece, about a corrupt man who tries to concoct a fraudulent landowning deal.

In the same year Dead Souls was published, the first volume of Gogol's collected works emerged. Included in these works is the story "The Overcoat," a tale of a poor scribe who gets a wonderful overcoat, his prize possession, acquired only by sacrificing almost everything else. The coat is stolen, and the scribe dies, brokenhearted. The main character of this story is so well developed that famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) was said to remark of "The Overcoat" that all of the realists in Russian literature came "from under Gogol's greatcoat." This story, with the truth of human tragedy laid threadbare, is the story that captures Ashoke Ganguli's heart. A page of this favorite story saves Ashoke from certain death during a train wreck. He names his son for the lifesaving author, and he gives a volume of Gogol's works to the most precious person in his life: his son, Gogol.

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