The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri in her famous book “The Namesake” clearly portrayed the facts and problems of Bengali immigrants in America, their culture, laws and customs of different religious observations and family life. In her novel Lahiri narrates the story of a Bengali family who immigrated to America and their condition in the exile was a blending of cultural and emotional disparity with the Native Americans.

The story is centering about the family of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly, a perfect immigrant family who are deeply interested in carrying their Bengali culture. The story starts with the serious accident in India from which Ashoke fortunately got rescued due to the book of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. Though they thought their child’s name would be selected by Ashima’s grandmother but circumstantially name of their son was given by Ashoke. He named his son Gogol in the name of famous writer Nikolai Gogol.

After moving out of Boston they tried to admit Gogol in the school with a good name Nikhil again according to the similarity to the first name of Nikolai Gogol but Gogol disagree to have that name and he continued with his nick name Gogol. After some days his sister was born and she was given the name Sonali. They simultaneously celebrated the birth of Christ and the most major festival of Bengali Hindu’s Durga Puja, the worship of Goddess Durga. Efforts were made from the part of their parents to aware them of Bengali culture and language. On coming to India they visited several famous places in Calcutta, Delhi and Agra and then came back to America. One day listening to the lecture of her teacher on the life of Nikolai Gogol, Gogol was very much upset and started trying to deny his name.

Consequently Gogol changed his name to Nikhil and then again on hearing the incident behind his naming from his father he became disappointed. Meanwhile Gogol graduated and Sonia started studying in California. At this time Ashoke died of a massive heart attack in Ohio and they observed the death of Ashoke according to the Hindu Custom. Following the breaking of relationship between Maxine and Gogol her mother expressed her interest over the marriage of Gogol with Moushumi Majumdar, whom he met before in family parties.

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They married each other according to the Hindu traditions.  After deciding to come back in Calcutta Ashima realized that for 33 years she missed India and at this older age she will miss her job, American Culture and above all her children. In the mean time divorce took place between Gogol and Moushumi. To search the old books as his mother was willing to donate some books to the library where she last worked, Gogol got the book ‘The short stories of Nikolai Gogol’ given by Ashoke at Gogol’s birth day in 1982 and he became emotionally moved reading his father’s statement in his own handwriting.

In the book several important cultural ceremonies was pictured in an impressive way. At the age of six months Gogol went under ‘anaprasan’ which is based on his first consumption of solid foods in which Dilip Nandy acting as Ashima’s brother played the major role by feeding rice to the child. Lahiri narrates the incident as follows:

Gogol is dressed as an infant Bengali groom, in a pale yellow pajama-punjabi from his grandmother in Calcutta. The fragrance of cumin seeds, sent in the package along with the pajamas, lingers in the weave. A headpiece that Ashima cut out of paper, decorated with pieces of aluminium foil, is tied around Gogol’s head with string. He wears a thin fourteen-karat gold chain around his neck. His tiny forehead has been decorated with considerable struggle with sandalwood paste to form six miniature beige moons floating above his brows. (Lahiri 39)

Such description helps the reader to have a proper look into the Bengali culture. Moreover about Durga Puja she mentioned the custom of worshipping the goddess with marigold petals and eating of vegetarian foods. On Ashoke’s death Ashima, Gogol and Sonia ate mourner’s diet i.e. food without meat and fish which is, another example of Bengali Hindu’s culture. On the eleventh day there was a social ceremony called ‘shradhya’ to end the mourning period. Lahiri described this culture in her own way:

The rest of it-the calls, the flowers that are everywhere, the visitors, the hours they spend sitting together in the living room unable to say a word, mean nothing. Without articulating it to one another, they draw comfort from the fact that it is the only time in the day that they are alone, isolated, as a family; even if there are visitors lingering in the house, only the three of them partake of this meal. And only for its duration is their grief slightly abated, the enforced absence of certain foods on their plates conjuring his father’s presence somehow. (Lahiri 181)

Again while describing the marriage of Gogol and Moushumi she started from the way in which both of them sat in the marriage ceremony to the playing of Shenai music including the inevitable presence of a Brahmin as a priest. While observing these customs Gogol realized the extent of obedience which is involved in such a ceremony. Moreover she also makes aware her readers about the custom of addressing “his second set of parents” as “Baba and Ma”. (222)

If we compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the culture depicted in the book and Judaism, then we will see that both cultures in their own way are different from each other. First we consider the culture regarding birth of a child. The culture portrayed in the book suggest that after the birth of a baby the name is given by her grandparents which symbolizes the place of honor the grandparents hold in the Bengali society, though it is not rare that the name is given by the child’s parents.

On the other hand according to Jewish rituals, immediately after the birth of the child father will pray to the almighty for blessings for the child. If the child is son his name is given on the eighth day after the birth and in case of girl child name is given at the time of birth. According to the Jewish concept marriage is very important without which a person remains incomplete. In the past Jewish marriage were arranged by parents though they can seek help from others to find the appropriate match. The marriage ceremony involves breaking of a plate which symbolizes the destruction of temples in Jerusalem and signifies that Jews are still feeling very bad for that heart breaking incident.

But according to the culture in the book, Marriage can be done on some specific holy days and it can be done in the presence of a Brahmin priest. Father of the bride handed over the bride to the groom and they will ask for blessings from older people including their parents. If we search for similarities then we will see in case of birth both cultures have the tradition of praying to God for the well being of the child. In case of death both cultures several rituals as a sign of mourning and in both cultures being in contact with the dead body causes ritual dirt. And above all both the cultures have beliefs in afterlife which is based on the fact that those who lived an honest life in its truest sense will get another beautiful life.

So far we have discussed different laws and customs regarding religious observances like birth, marriage and death and most importantly family life of the Bengali immigrants in America. Moreover we have tried to research the main culture depicted in the book and at last we tried to compare the different similarities and differences between culture described in the book and the culture of Judaism.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. India: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2006

BBc-Religions and Ethics-Jewish Weding Rites: Jewish Weding Rites.

 May 5, 2008<http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/rites/weddings_1.shtml>.

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