In Jhumpas Lahiri’s The Namesake, it becomes evident that Gogol never entirely belongs as Gogol or Nikhil. Gogol retains conflict regarding his name throughout the novel. Belonging is the fundamental nature of humans to connect with others. Names and naming and his name are a constant source of difficulty for Gogol. Names are closely linked to identity and can help or hinder a sense of belonging. However, in Gogol’s circumstance, he struggles to fit in with American society and his Bengali home as he feels his name does not belong in either culture.
The motif of naming causes Gogol to have difficulty in relationships with women and catalysts for the cultural and family conflict he experiences. Yet when Gogol acquires the new name “Nikhil,” ironically complicates his sense of identity and struggles to find a sense of belonging. The motif of naming is used throughout The Namesake to represent the connection between belonging and identity. As Gogol ages, his name represents how he does not “fit” into American society. Lahiri uses the motif device to emphasize the connections between a name, culture and identity.
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The Bengali tradition of pet names, or daknam and “good” names, or bhalonam becomes apparent. The only close family uses the pet name in the privacy of the home, while the “good” name is used in formal situations like work. Ashima and Ashoke have to give their son a pet name as they wait for the “good” name suggestions to arrive from Ashima’s grandmother, but the letter from Calcutta never comes. The quote “one day the peculiarity of his name becomes apparent” foreshadows the complex relationship Gogol will begin to have with his name as he matures.
Gogol has mixed feelings about his name and identity as an Indian-American. He is comfortable with his name as a young boy, but his last name is the cause of a variety of reactions. The contrast between Gogol’s reaction to his name when on going to India: “He remembers the astonishment of seeing six pages full of Ganguli’s…He’d wanted to rip the page out as a souvenir” with the anguish he feels when their name on the letterbox at 67 Pemberton Road is vandalized to spell “Gang Green.” These two incidents show how Gogol is isolated in both India and America as he does not appear to fit in at either place.
From an early stage in the novel, it is evident that Gogol cannot accept his dual cultural heritage. “He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure” and “that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian.” The negative diction of the word ‘hate’ is repeated to show his insecurity of being different and that he has little understanding of his identity. He feels like he neither belongs to either of his dual cultures. Gogol’s name, therefore, acts as an extended metaphor for his sense of cultural identity.
Gogol’s school trip helps forge a sense of belonging to his name and highlights the conflict around his name. It had “not occurred to Gogol that names die over time that they perish just as people do.” Lahiri personifies names in this instance. Gogol becomes “attached to” these names imprinted on paper. These American names are unusual, like his, and so Gogol feels connected to them. Yet, these names are of the past and have little effect on his insecurity and confidence in the present and, therefore, his sense of belonging.
In rejecting the name given to him by his parents, Gogol feels he has achieved freedom of identity and a greater sense of belonging to the American culture. When he is a schoolboy, Gogol is given a good name along with his “daknam.” Yet when Gogol’s teacher asks whether he wishes to be called Nikhil, “after a pause, he shakes his head.” The low modality of Gogol’s decision highlights his uncertainness of openly disregarding his cultural heritage. He knows that it is an integral part of his identity, yet he still disregards it. Yet this rejected name soon has new meaning when Ashoke reveals the accident that nearly took his life. The event of Gogol changing his name reflects his desire to be independent of his parents and his cultural background.
In changing his name to “Nikhil,” he is looking for a way to find his sense of identity, unhindered by his cultural and family background expectations. The interconnection between Gogol’s name and his father allows him to accept his name and his past and culture. Lahiri used the direct speech to emphasize the rawness of the character’s feelings: “Is that what you think of when you think of me?…do I remind you of that night?… You remind me of everything that followed.” The emphatic reply that Ashoke gives Gogol is essential as it creates an opportunity for the bond between father and son to be strengthened. Ashoke wants Gogol to realize how important he is in Ashoke’s life and how he represents the opportunities and optimism he sought after such a horrific experience.
The acquisition of the new name ‘Nikhil’ ironically complicates his sense of identity. The irony of his new name, Nikhil, meaning ‘he who is entire, encompassing all,’ highlights Gogol’s confusion of his identity and resistance to his past experiences. Gogol separates himself into two separate people. “At times, he feels as if he’s cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different.” This analogy used completely juxtaposes the two persona’s contained in Gogol. His new name allows him to be someone different and escape his cultural heritage and family. It allows him to belong to American society. Gogol is reluctant to introduce himself to Kim at the college party as “Gogol,” so he says his name is Nikhil. It gives him the confidence to kiss her: “It hadn’t been Gogol who had kissed Kim… Gogol had nothing to do with it.”Yet “there is only one complication: he doesn’t feel like Nikhil”.
The irony of this statement is that he still doesn’t belong even though he has changed his name and self. In this case, by changing his name, he has rejected his old name and, therefore, his true identity. In conclusion, Gogol’s distinctive name prevents him from fully belonging to American and Indian culture. Gogol feels he achieves freedom of identity and a greater sense of belonging to the hegemonic American culture through rejecting his name and cultural heritage. Yet, the acquisition of the new name ‘Nikhil’ ironically complicates his sense of identity and struggles to feel belonging. Only through accepting his cultural heritage, family and name can he achieve a true sense of belonging.