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195 South Asian Review

February 27, 2019 0 Comment

195
South Asian Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2015
Reimagining Transnational Identities in
Lahiri’s The Namesake
Binod Paudyal
University of Utah
Abstract: This essay demonstrates that Jhumpa Lahiri’s The
Namesake goes beyond conventional wisdom about immigrant
experiences in so far as it explores how the South Asian diaspora
participates in transnational connections, shaping and transforming the
notion of American identity in the contemporary global era. Lahiri’s
novel offers us a striking account of transnational identity in which
South Asian immigrants and their American-born children import
practices from their country of origin, which they adapt in the new
environment and, in turn, adopt practices from the new environment,
which they adapt in innovative ways to help them feel more at ease.1
owards the second-half of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Gogol
Ganguli celebrates his twenty-seventh birthday at his girlfriend
Maxine’s parents’ lake house in New Hampshire, for the first time
without his own parents. Maxine and her mother Lydia organize a
special dinner to celebrate his birthday. At the dinner, Gogol
encounters Pamela, a white woman, who persists in calling him an
Indian, despite his polite reminder that he is from Boston. Pamela
comments that Gogol “must never get sick” when he travels to India.
When Gogol replies “we get sick all the time” in India, she asserts, “but
you’re an Indian…I’d think the climate wouldn’t affect you, given your
heritage” (156). Lydia corrects Pamela, saying “Pamela, Nick’s
American…He was born here.” But in the end, Lydia evinces her
uncertainty when she asks—despite knowing Gogol for several
months—if he was really born in the United States (157).
T

196 Binod Paudyal

What is striking about this passage is that Pamela insists on
identifying Gogol according to his race, rather than his country of
citizenship or legal residence. Gogol is an American; he was born and
raised in the United States, and speaks “American-accented English”
(118). But for Pamela, a brown skinned man simply does not fit the
category of “American.” She confronts Gogol’s identity within what
Kwame Appiah calls “the script” (79). Appiah is curious to know to
what extent “we expect people of a certain race to behave a certain way
not simply because they are conforming to the script for that identity,
performing that role, but because they have certain antecedent
properties that are consequences of the label’s properly applying to
them” (79). Pamela seems to be someone who presupposes some
antecedent properties ascribed to Americans of Indian ancestry, and
insists upon calling Gogol an Indian. In other words, she constructs
Gogol’s identity as Indian by reference to available labels and available
identities derived from physical properties.
In a typical reading, the reader might view Pamela’s classification
of Gogol’s identity as an example of racial profiling, in which Gogol is
identified by his roots, manifested through his skin color. But The
Namesake goes beyond the conventional wisdom about immigrant
experience. Rather than merely focusing on the complexities of
lifestyles, cultural dislocation, and conflicts of assimilation—and rather
than merely portraying characters as torn between respecting their
family traditions and an Americanized way of life—Lahiri’s novel
celebrates a cultural hybridity resulting inevitably from the
interconnectedness of the modern world. Here, I am not suggesting that
Lahiri’s novel overlooks the existing (and familiar) problems of
cultural diversity in the United States. Instead, I want to suggest that
The Namesake explores these complexities, and the existential
confusion of South Asian immigrants and their American-born
children, in order to assert the necessity of recognizing and adopting a
transnational identity—through constant negotiations between different
aspects of their lives.
Lahiri, the first South Asian American recipient of the Pulitzer
prize for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies
(1999), has gained a great deal of recognition, both within the United
States and internationally. Her success results in part from her
engaging, racy style, edged by gentle humor, and from her realistic
subject matter: the everyday experiences of Bengali American
characters, which she transforms into universal human experiences.2
Yet some critics and reviewers accuse Lahiri of perpetuating the
exoticization and stereotyping of Indian immigrants. For instance,
Tamara Bhalla, in her essay on The Namesake, claims that the success
of the novel “stems from the stereotypes (particularly concerning

Reimagining Transnational Identities 197

gender and ethnicity) that it perpetuates” (109). She argues that “The
Namesake presents limiting, stereotypical representation of Indian
women and objectifies the three main characters as materialistic
consumers, victims of brown male oppression, and repositories of
ethnic tradition,” which contribute to constituting “authentic South
Asian female subjectivity in the West” (110).
Lahiri’s work, however, offers us more than just the typical
representation of Bengali immigrant characters. Her work sheds, as
Lavina Dhingra and Floyd Cheung argue, “light on both universal
dimensions of human experience and more specific Bengali,
postcolonial, South Asian American, and Asian American politics”
(xxi). In this same vein, Karen Cardozo importantly argues that
intertextuality—”prominent references to texts or traditions ostensibly
‘outside’ Bengali, postcolonial, South Asian American, or Asian
American frameworks”—functions as a vehicle in Lahiri’s work to
mediate between ethnic particularities and the broader spectrum of
human experience (3). Lahiri’s use of intertextuality in The Namesake,
for instance, reveals how “the universal inheres in the particular: it is
from specific intercultural encounters that we gain a generalizable
conception of human experience” (Cardozo 3).
A number of critical essays on The Namesake focus on the
complexity of second-generation South Asian American experiences
from various perspectives (e.g., see Field, Shariff, Bhalla, Caesar, and
Friedman). While these perspectives are fruitful to understanding the
existential confusion and struggles of second-generation children,
especially in negotiating the cultural borderlands, my essay broadens
this discourse not only by showing how the South Asian diaspora
involves participation in transnational connections, shaping and
transforming the notion of American identity in the contemporary
global era, but also by explaining how American identity is always, and
already, transnational. I claim that the novel reimagines American
identity as necessarily the heterogeneity of different cultures. This
novel, I shall argue, helps us reimagine—given the specific differences
of the contemporary status of South Asians in the United States—how
transnational identities can function.
I began this essay with the passage about Gogol’s birthday-dinner
incident for two reasons: first, the passage strikingly illustrates how
South Asian Americans are still seen as foreigners and, second, this
passage rehearses a nativist account of American identity, in contrast to
the transnational nature of American identity that the novel offers us.
Pamela fails to recognize that the United States has been intertwined
with the rest of the world since its inception. Her assumption about
American identity, which requires one to be white and descended from
Europeans, contradicts the transnational American identity suggested

198 Binod Paudyal

by Randolph Bourne about a hundred years ago. In his 1916 essay,
Bourne noted that the notion of “Americanization” was responsible for
the failure of the “melting pot” ideal of American identity. He argued
that non-English immigrants were forced to melt into a pot that never
existed. Bourne claimed that this process of “Americanizing” was just
“Anglo-Saxonizing”—because “we are all foreign-born or the
descendants of the foreign-born” (252, 249). He claimed that America
was a “transplanted Europe” because even the Anglo-Saxon, the first
immigrant, had never ceased to be the descendent of immigrants (255).
As long as Americanism is thought in terms of the melting pot, the
American cultural tradition will lie in a misty past—that is, in the
Anglo-Saxon tradition (256). Since America was coming to be a
transnational state, marked by back and forth movements of people of
different colors and types from different parts of the world, Bourne
proposed that we give up the search for a “native ‘American’ culture”
and accept “cosmopolitanism” (255-262).
I summarize Bourne’s argument here because it helps to show how
the United States has been a “transnational” state since its inception.
The United States has never been an insular territory; it has always
been a place for transnational connections of people, ideas, religions,
food, and cultures. Wai Chee Dimock, in Through Other Continents:
American Literature Across Deep Time (2006), argues that American
literature “is better seen as a crisscrossing set of pathways, open-ended
and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other
languages and culture” (3). Her discussion of Emerson’s indebtedness
to the Bhagvad Gita and Islamic scriptures illustrates how the United
States was already connected to the rest of the world through the “deep
time” that predates the era of European colonial domination (3). As
Dimock notes, transnationalism is not limited to any specific time
period; it started long ago with networks and connections between
different people and ideas, crossing national, racial, and ethnic
boundaries.
But transnational cultural exchange has accelerated in the modern
era along with globalization, technological advancement, and
migrations of people and ideas from one place to another. It has
evolved and changed over time, conjuring numerous definitions. Some
scholars define transnationalism as hybridity; some define it as a dual
identity; while others define it as a process by which migrants create
and sustain multi-stranded social relations.3 Anthropologists and social
scientists define transnationalism in reference to migrants’ ties across
countries that link individuals or groups in one or more nation states,
by crossing and opening up various national and transcultural spaces.4
Kandice Chuh helpfully illustrates that US nationalism has constituted
“Asian American” as a transnational identity through the racialization

Reimagining Transnational Identities 199

of Asian Americans as “others” (69). She argues that the incarceration
of Japanese and of American citizens of Japanese origin, during World
War II, is “a particularly visible and material instance within which the
comparative, transnational dimensions of US national identity played
out” (69). Chuh’s work is particularly important for understanding the
fact that transnationalism not only arises from globalization, but also
results from our recognition and understanding of the racialization of
Asian immigrants within the US national context.
For the purpose of this essay, I draw my definition of
transnationalism from The Namesake itself, which offers a striking
account of transnational identity. I define transnationalism as a cultural
space where immigrants and their American-born children import
practices from their country of origin, which they adapt to the new
environment and, in turn, adopt practices from the current environment,
which they adapt in new ways that help them feel more at home. My
understanding of transnationalism overlaps with Chuh’s assertion that
transnationalism arises both from physical border crossing due to
globalization, and, from within the nation, through the racialization of
ethnic groups. Expanding on Chuh, I claim that transnationalism results
from immigrants’ and their children’s voluntary adoption of cultural
practices from their country of origin. In other words, transnationalism,
as shown in the novel, is a cultural phenomenon in which both first-
generation immigrants and their American-born children maintain their
ethnic properties—even when they do not experience racial
discrimination and marginalization—in adaptive ways, and make
connections between their country of residence and country of origin.
My definition of transnationalism challenges the traditional
understanding of migration as a permanent relocation from one country
to another, a process eventually culminating in full assimilation into a
dominant culture. This definition has particular relevance because it
reflects the contemporary global relations and interconnectedness of the
United States to South Asia, redefining American identity in a broader
context.
Lahiri sets her novel in the context of globalization and
technological advancements that allow her characters to maintain their
ethnicity and culture by permitting them easy travel to their home
country of origin and ways to stay connected with their relatives.5 The
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the national-
origins quotas and provided for the admission of 170,000 immigrants
from the eastern hemisphere, played a major role in this migration and
the cultural exchange between South Asia and the United States
(Takaki 419). This revised immigration law attracted thousands of
professionals, technical workers, and graduate degree holders from
South Asia.6 Gogol’s father Ashoke Ganguli’s migration to the United

200 Binod Paudyal

States in the late 1960s can be seen as a part of this larger “second
wave”7 of immigration from Asian countries, formerly a “barred zone,”
to the United States. Ashoke comes to the United States to earn a
doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering, at MIT. He goes back to
India to bring an Indian wife and, finally, to settle down in the United
States, by starting a family in the States. Since Ashoke and his wife,
Ashima, come to the United States for better opportunities, “claiming
America” or becoming “American” is not a top priority. Unlike the first
generation of Asian immigrants in the late 19th century and the first half
of the 20th century (mostly from China and Japan), post-1965 South
Asian immigrants were much less concerned with achieving
membership and acceptance into American society. These immigrants
also did not experience difficulty with the English language, with anti-
Asiatic laws, and with incarceration (as persons of Japanese ancestry
did during WWII). These historical conditions, produced by shifting
global capitalism and social and political reforms in the United States,
permit Ashoke and Ashima to continue to practice Indian culture, while
adopting some American practices in due course of time. In this regard,
The Namesake offers a model of transnationalism, in which the
characters maintain cultural practices from their country of origin while
also adopting cultural practices from their newly adopted country.
Lahiri’s characters inhabit crossroads, constantly negotiating different
cultural experiences. They do not hold strong ties to ethnic roots, or
protest against their status as a minority other. Their identity is a hybrid
artifact resulting from the interconnectedness of the modern world.
These characters challenge the conventional wisdom about the
alienated postcolonial subject, and constantly form transnational
identities within, to use James Clifford’s words, the “diverse array of
contemporary diasporic cultural forms” (253-254).
Throughout the novel, Lahiri’s characters remain transnational
agents who are routinely mobile, maintaining transnational ties with
their country of origin. Their positionality de-territorializes the specific
national and cultural identities of Indian immigrants and suggests that
individuals cannot confine themselves within the narrow concept of
national and cultural boundaries in this globalized world characterized
by transculturation and migration. In this regard, Lahiri’s representation
of Indian immigrants echoes Arjun Appadurai’s suggestion that the
notions of nativeness and native places have become very complex as
more and more people identify themselves, or are categorized, in
reference to deterritorialized homelands, cultures, and origins (34).
Appadurai coins the idea of “scapes”8 to explain the understanding of
the contemporary global system and interconnectedness of the modern
world. His concept of “scapes” indicates a changing social, territorial,
and cultural formation of group identity, in which people regroup in

Reimagining Transnational Identities 201

new locations and reconstruct their histories and identities far from
their place of origin. Early in The Namesake, Lahiri shows how the
circle of Bengali acquaintances in Cambridge, Massachusetts, grows.
Many bachelors go to Calcutta one by one and return with wives. They
start living “within walking distance of one another in Cambridge” and
“there is a new home to go to, a new couple or young family to meet”
every weekend (38). The husbands are “teachers, researchers, doctors,
engineers.” Their “homesick” and “bewildered” wives turn to each
other for recipes and advice, wondering if “it’s possible to make halwa
from Cream of Wheat” (38). These Bengalis frequently gather at one
another’s homes and enjoy Indian meals, singing, dancing, and playing
the harmonium. They argue over Bollywood movies, Indian politics,
and various geographical locations in India. These immigrants, away
from their birth country, unite on the basis of their shared history,
ethnicity, and nationality. They adopt some specific characteristics of
the new cultures over time, while preserving their own Indian cultures
and inventing homes out of fragmented memories. They debate
intensely “the politics of America, a country in which none of them is
eligible to vote” (38). They indicate their simultaneous allegiance to
both India and the United States through their activities.
The Namesake may be read as a test of varying accounts of
transnational identity, each of which has been posed as the defining
theoretical account. Dual identity, for example, is a key to Gogol’s
transnational identity. However, this dual identity is not exactly what
W.E.B. Du Bois calls “double consciousness,” because double
consciousness is the experience of being several things and not being
completely anything at once, an experience that causes the individual to
understand himself through the eyes of another. The “Negro,” Du Bois
wrote, can see himself only by looking through the eyes of someone
else. He always feels his “two-ness as an American, a Negro; two souls,
two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one
dark body” (218). While Du Bois’ account of double consciousness
helps to clarify the two-ness of an American identity for some,
transnational identity is not something one perceives through someone
else’s eyes. In Gogol’s case, transnational identity results from his dual
cultural practices. Gogol is brought up in two entirely different
cultures. Although he thinks of India as a foreign country far from
home, both physically and psychologically, and although he initially
opposes certain Indian practices, he is acculturated as an Indian and
performs Indian customs and practices at home (118). But both inside
and outside the home, he practices American ways. More specifically,
while Gogol is fascinated by the comparatively free life of Maxine, his
white girlfriend, and attempts to live the individual life of an American,
he also feels a sense of obligation towards his parents.

202 Binod Paudyal

As Gogol matures, he notices a gap between American and Indian
cultural values. He particularly contrasts his parents’ cultural practices
with those of Maxine’s parents, and decides he likes American ways:
he prefers American fast foods; he desires to spend vacations and
celebrate festivals among his own family members, rather than among
the whole Bengali community; and he wants freedom in his personal
life. Gogol does not like most of the Indian practices—whether it is his
parents forcing him to eat more at the dinner table or spending a
vacation among a crowd of Bengali people—that compromise his
individual freedom. Therefore, he distances himself from his parents to
venture into Maxine’s life, spending “his nights with Maxine, sleeping
under the same roof as her parents, a thing Ashima refuses to admit to
her Bengali friends” (166). Maxine’s world becomes a refuge for Gogol
to fulfill his desire for individual freedom and romance, which he lacks
in his parents’ community. Gogol finds a sense of freedom even at the
dinner table in Maxine’s parents’ house. He observes Maxine’s parents’
way of serving dinner: “A bowl of small, round, roasted red potatoes is
passed around, and afterward a salad. They eat appreciatively,
commenting on the tenderness of the meat, the freshness of the beans”
(133). Everyone at the dinner table is free to eat whatever they want
and talk about the food. Maxine’s mother does not pay attention to
anybody’s plate; neither does she announce that there is more to eat.
But Gogol’s own parents would insist he empty the plate or request that
he eat more. When Gogol would push the remaining food to the side,
his father would say “there is still some food on your plate . . . Finish it,
Gogol. At your age I ate tin” (55).
Although Gogol is new to American table manners—”this sort of
talk at mealtimes, to the indulgent ritual of the lingering meal, and the
pleasant aftermath of bottle and crumbs and empty glasses that clutter
the table”—he learns to love the food Maxine and her parents eat, “the
polenta and risotto, the bouillabaisse and osso buco, the meat baked in
parchment paper” (134, 137). Gogol’s affection for Maxine indicates
not only his adoption of interracial dating and love, but also the general
adoption of an “American” demeanor, because for him “to know her
and love her is to know and love all of these things” (137). In fact,
Gogol’s love for Maxine grows out of his lack of everything she
possesses—the individual lifestyle of Maxine who has “no sense of
obligation,” and “unlike his parents her parents pressure her to do
nothing, and yet she lives faithfully, happily, at their side” (138).
Gogol’s fascination with American life and his dislike for Indian
culture come out of his own perception of the notion of freedom. The
fact that Maxine’s parents do not interfere or ask her to act according to
their wishes convinces Gogol that freedom means an ability to act on
one’s own choice, which does not involve an interference even from his

Reimagining Transnational Identities 203

parents. Gogol interprets Ashoke’s insistence that he eat more, for
example, as an intervention against his individual freedom. What he
does not understand, though, is that Ashoke’s insistence to eat more is a
cultural practice. Ashoke forces Gogol to eat more because, as an
Indian father, he cares for his son, and wants to make sure Gogol eats
enough and gets the good nutrition necessary for his growth. This
cultural difference, which Gogol initially thinks undesirable, makes
him want to avoid various Indian practices and to adopt American
ways. For instance, Gogol does not like his parents’ way of spending
their vacation; rather, he prefers the ways his girlfriend’s parents spend
their vacation, “playing board games on rainy afternoons, watching
shooting stars at night,” going hiking “up the rocky mountain trails to
watch the sun set over the valley” (155). Gogol imagines that his
parents would find these relaxing and enlivening activities in an
invigorating setting to be boring and lonely, “remarking that they were
the only Indians” there (155). Therefore, he does not feel “nostalgia for
the vacations he’s spent with his family” because he realizes now that
“they were never vacations at all” (155). For him, those vacations spent
with his parents were “overwhelming, disorienting expeditions, either
going to Calcutta, or sightseeing in places they did not belong to and
intended never to see again” (155). Unlike Maxine’s parents, who
spend their vacation at the lake house among family, Gogol’s parents
would spend their vacation on the “road trips with one or two Bengali
families, in rented vans, going to Toronto or Atlanta or Chicago, places
where they had other Bengali friends” (155). The fathers would be
“huddled at the front, taking turns at the wheel, consulting maps
highlighted by AAA,” while the children would be in the back “with
plastic tubs of aloo dum and cold flattened luchis wrapped in foil, fried
the day before, which they would stop in state parks to eat on picnic
tables” (155). They would all stay in a motel, “whole families in a
single room” (155). For Gogol, such family vacations were merely
tours to unfamiliar territories. He finds himself in the position of a
tourist among his parents’ Bengali friends, struggling to navigate and
negotiate their odd and unaccustomed cultural practices.
Although Gogol feels uncomfortable at having so many
connections with his cultural heritage, he cannot avoid them because he
feels obligated to perform these cultural practices for his parents’ sake.
One of these obligations, for instance, compels him to attend a panel
discussion about Indian novels written in English. If Amit, one of his
distant cousins, were not presenting there, Gogol would never have
chosen to attend such a discussion in which the panelists keep
“referring to something called ‘marginality,’ as if it were some sort of
medical condition” (118). Gogol shows no interest in the discussion;
rather he spends his time sketching portraits of the panelists. But the

204 Binod Paudyal

term “ABCD,” which he had never heard before, strikes him.
“Teleologically speaking,” one of the presenters announces, “ABCDs
are unable to answer the question ‘where are you from?'” Gogol learns
that ABCD stands for “American-born confused deshi,” and deshi
refers to Indian, and desh to India. Gogol himself, thus, is an ABCD by
this definition. But he does not consider himself a confused deshi
because he “thinks of it India as Americans do, as India” (118). He
avoids connecting with other ABCDs at college and declines Amit’s
offer to join the Indian Association because “they remind him too much
of the way his parents choose to live, befriending people not so much
because they like them, but because of a past they happen to share”
(119). Gogol does not see any rationale other than “hypocrisy” in
joining an Indian Association that “celebrates occasions his parents
forced him, throughout his childhood and adolescence, to attend” (119).
No matter how much Gogol rejects the identity of an ABCD, his
position of living in what Robin Field calls “a liminal space of cultural
borderlands” between the United States and India creates temporary
tension and confusion in him (166). Gogol’s confusion arises mainly
from the fact that he does not understand the significance of his Indian
cultural heritage, and perhaps he views Indian culture as inferior to
mainstream American culture. He believes that his parents’ past
memories and the Indian heritage that he follows do not belong to him.
His “pet name” Gogol disturbs him more than anything else. In Bengali
culture, every person is given two names: a “pet name,” which is
“daknam, meaning, literally, the name by which one is called, by
friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private,
unguarded moments”; and a “good name,” “a bhalonam, for
identification in the outside world” (25-26). While pet names are a
reminder of childhood known to and used only by families, relatives,
and close friends, good names are official names that appear in public
places (26). But Gogol does not understand why his parents had to
follow Bengali tradition and “give him a pet name,” that was neither
Bengali nor American, but Russian (100). Neither does he see any
sense in why he needs to live with a pet name and a good name, a
Bengali tradition, in a country where such distinctions do not exist.
Gogol’s dissatisfaction and frustration with his pet name increases
when he learns from Mr. Lawson’s literature class “about Nikolai
Gogol’s lifelong unhappiness, his mental instability, about how he’d
starved to death” (100-101). In a conversation with his parents, he
complains that they “named me after someone so strange” (101).
Gogol rebels against his parents’ wishes when he decides to
change his name. When Gogol turns eighteen, he goes into a
Cambridge courtroom and asks the judge to change his name, for he
“hates the name Gogol” (102). He believes that by switching his name

Reimagining Transnational Identities 205

to Nikhil, he will escape his cultural past. But he learns later through
his father that his name is so strongly connected to his father’s
unforgettable past that he cannot escape so easily. Ashoke tells him that
he survived a train accident in India in October 1961 because he was
reading Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” when the accident occurred
nearly two hundred and nine kilometers from Calcutta, “killing the
passengers in their sleep” (17). Although Ashoke assures Gogol that his
name does not remind him of that dark night’s catastrophe at all but
“reminds me of everything that followed,” Gogol realizes that his life
is interwoven between the past and present.
Because Gogol’s identity is affected by “multi-stranded social
relations,” it is impossible for him to identify with a fixed American
identity (Basch et al. 7). In other words, he cannot fully avoid the many
connections that he is living with. However, only after his father’s
death does Gogol begin to understand the social reality that, since his
life has been interwoven between Indian cultures and American ways,
he must adopt a hybrid identity. Until his father’s death, he had always
tried to escape his roots and to practice American ways, mostly by
immersing himself in Maxine’s life. But when he hears about his
father’s death and goes to Cleveland to collect his father’s body and
belongings, he regrets any past actions that might have upset his
parents and offended their values. He remembers the Bengali rituals
that his father had performed when his paternal grandfather died.
Ashoke had “shaved off all his hair with a disposable razor” that left
his scalp bleeding in numerous places (179). Gogol had “laughed at the
sight of his hairless, grief-stricken father,” because he did not
understand the mourning rituals of Hinduism at that time. But now
“years later Gogol had learned the significance, that it was a Bengali
son’s duty to shave his head in the wake of a parent’s death” (179).
Gogol follows his father’s footsteps by performing the mourning
ceremony for his father’s death. When Maxine visits Gogol during his
mourning, she suggests that they go to New Hampshire on their
planned vacation “to get away from all this” (182). Clearly, Maxine is
here suggesting that Gogol escape the tiresome and difficult Bengali
tradition of mourning and his duty and responsibility toward his
mother. But Gogol, for the first time, tells her that he does not want to
ignore his cultural practices (182). Gogol’s understanding of the
importance of his cultural heritage redirects him from his search for an
authentic American identity to the adoption of a hybrid and
transnational identity.
The most striking account of transnationalism that The Namesake
offers is the way immigrants import cultural practices, which they adapt
to the new environment, and adopt cultural practices from the
environment, which they adapt in new ways that help them feel more

206 Binod Paudyal

familiar. Lisa Lowe describes this process of transnational identity
formation as “practices that are partly inherited, partly modified, as
well as partly invented” (65). Lahiri’s characters carry with them a
collective memory, a memory that helps them retain historical
memories as well as the cultural heritage of their home country. They
maintain their traditions of origin, but they are also gradually subject to
social, cultural, and political integration into the United States. They
retain ties to their country of origin by maintaining regular
communications with their families and friends and traveling frequently
to their country of origin. Although, at the beginning of the novel, the
characters adhere to their cultural roots, they later modify their
practices and behavior. Ashima, for example, undergoes a number of
transformations in different stages of her life in the United States.
When she first arrives in the United States, she feels completely alone
in the foreign land. Ashima is shocked to find people who live detached
from one another. She gives birth to Gogol, her first child, but she is
“terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one,
where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare” (6).
She remembers her home country, where most of the relatives and
elders gather to bless a baby upon its birth. In contrast, she finds no one
surrounding her and her child in the United States, except Nandis and
Dr. Gupta, who are “only substitutes for the people who really ought to
be surrounding them” (24). Ashima feels sorry for her son, for “she has
never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived” (25).
Upon returning home from the hospital, Ashima feels dislocated
and lonely in her three-bedroom apartment. Unlike in Calcutta, she has
no relatives surrounding her. Neither does she have servants to do the
dishes, sweep the floor, wash the clothes, shop for groceries, and
prepare meals on days she is tired. Ashima assumes that “the very lack
of such amenities is the American way” (13). The fact that her husband
brings her a cup of tea, an odd practice in her Bengali culture, frustrates
her. She makes up her mind that they must go back to India as soon as
Ashoke completes his degree because she believes that they have no
connections with other people and their cultures of the United States.
Ashima desperately urges Ashoke to “hurry up and finish your degree”
so that they can go back and live in their familiar culture (33). Ashoke
knows that Ashima is feeling homesick in the United States; many
times, he finds Ashima “quietly crying,” but he does not have words to
console her, except putting an arm around her and feeling guilty “for
marrying her, for bringing her here” (33). Possibly, he could have
listened to her request to return to their home country, but Ashima’s
insistence on going back to India reminds him only of Mr. Gosh, the
man he befriended on the train before the wreck, who confessed that he
regretted listening to his wife and leaving England. Ashoke does not

Reimagining Transnational Identities 207

want to make the same mistake that Mr. Gosh had made years ago by
returning to India.
Ashoke consolidates Indian culture with American culture more
easily than Ashima because of his understanding and recognition of
other peoples and cultures even before coming to the United States,
particularly through reading a large number of books. He is an
enthusiastic reader of prominent English and Russian writers like
Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
and Leo Tolstoy (12-13). He learns from his grandfather that books are
a means to travel the world without actually moving. However, this
idea is replaced by inspiration from Mr. Gosh, who tells him to “pack a
pillow and blanket and see as much of the world as you can” (16).
Ashoke imagines the West as “another sort of future . . . walking away,
as far as he could from the place in which he was born and in which he
had nearly died” (20). He integrates easily into the American culture
when he arrives in the United States. For instance, he “stops wearing
jackets and ties to the University,” despite being a tenured full
professor, because he does not want to appear different from his
American colleagues (65). Ashoke also starts using the American
“ballpoint,” replacing the “fountain pen” which is traditionally
considered a marker of high status for Indian intellectuals (65).
Ashima seems to be less acquainted with the world outside India
before coming to the United States. She therefore resists American
cultural practices in the beginning, feeling dislocated and homeless
upon her arrival in the United States. The Namesake begins on a “sticky
August evening” in Cambridge, with Ashima two weeks before her due
date, trying to make some Bengali style snacks out of the available
American ingredients in the kitchen (1). She combines “Rice Krispies
and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt,
lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were
mustard oil to pour into the mix” (1). This inexpensive spicy mix snack
is sold in a cone made from old newspapers at sidewalks and on
railway platforms throughout India. Although Ashima cannot find the
exact ingredients and can make only “a humble approximation of the
snack,” she eats this snack throughout her pregnancy (1). Ashima
makes and eats “spicy mix snack” not only because as a pregnant
woman she craves it, but also because this act allows her to feel more
connected to Calcutta.
This opening strategy of the novel instantly forecasts Ashima’s
loneliness and psychological discomfort, resulting from both her
migration to the United States and her pregnancy. She is pregnant and
needs intimate care and familiar surroundings that provide her a sense
of home and comfort. But in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment,
she finds herself alone and bewildered, even though her husband is in

208 Binod Paudyal

the bedroom busy reading. In an attempt to ameliorate her loneliness,
Ashima does things that feel familiar to her. Preparing and eating
“spicy mix snack,” is one way to create an imaginary homeland in the
United States and feel connected to Calcutta. Put simply, Ashima
implants India into the United States by performing and maintaining
Indian cultural practices at her new home in Boston. For instance, she
cooks Indian food daily, wears a sari, adorns her forehead with the
bindi, reads a copy of Desh magazine (printed in her mother tongue) a
dozen times, and most importantly, does not utter her husband’s first
name, a common practice in a traditional Indian home (2, 6).
Later on, though, Ashima starts to adopt American culture. She
learns many American cultural practices from her colleagues in the city
library, her first job in the United States. Although she was upset at
having been “deprived of the company of her parents upon moving to
America, her children’s independence, their need to keep distance from
her,” she gradually learns that “it was inevitable, that eventually parents
had to stop assuming that their children would return faithfully for the
holidays” (166). Ashima enters into the American culture of
individualism: she drives her car, buys her groceries herself, pushes her
stroller like all American mothers, and lives by herself in her house
when Ashoke travels to Ohio for six months. After Ashoke dies of a
heart attack in Cleveland, she understands why Ashoke did not want
her to join him in Cleveland. She tells people that he wanted her to stay
in Boston because “he was teaching me how to live alone” (183). She
realizes that one needs to learn to live independently in American
society.
Ashima’s growing understanding and acceptance of American
culture replaces her initial feelings of homelessness in the United
States. One winter evening, Ashima goes shopping to downtown
Boston for her first trip back to Calcutta. She spends hours buying gifts
for all her family members and relatives in Calcutta. “Exhilarated,
exhausted, and nervous with anticipation of the trip,” Ashima forgets
her shopping items on the subway train (42). As a result, she is “furious
with herself, humiliated at the prospect of arriving in Calcutta empty-
handed apart from sweaters and the paintbrushes” (42). Ashoke calls
the MBTA lost-and-found to locate the items. When they retrieve all
her items the next day, “not a teaspoon missing,” Ashima begins to
trust the American system, and feels “connected to Cambridge in a way
she has not previously thought possible” (43). She feels affiliated to the
exceptions and rules of America—things that would be impossible in
her hometown of Calcutta. Ashima starts inviting non-Indian friends to
her house for dinner and other celebrations. She is now not surprised to
learn about American women living alone because they are divorced,
and “dating in middle age” (163). At the end of the novel, Ashima

Reimagining Transnational Identities 209

decides to divide her time between the United States and India: “She
will spend six months of her life in India, six months in the States”
(275). She announces that her real home is in Boston, “though his
Ashoke’s ashes have been scattered into the Ganges, it is here, in this
house and in this town that he will continue to dwell in her mind”
(279). Ashima’s home is no longer considered to be a single
geographical location, but belongs to different geographical locations,
based on her travels and migration. Ashima’s decision to divide her
time between India and the United States shows, as Natalie Friedman
states, “America not as a newly adopted homeland, but as an option—
Ashima does not feel bound to stay in America, nor does she feels
nostalgically driven to return to India” (113). In fact, as the name
Ashima means “limitless, without borders,” for her, home becomes a
psychological state rather than a fixed physical location (Lahiri 26).
Ashima’s identity, therefore, can be defined less by national identities
than by “cultural hybridity,” to borrow Bhabha’s words (The Location
of Culture 37); less by “roots” than by “routes” and migration, to echo
Clifford (302).
In the initial stages of her life in the United States, Ashima is very
suspicious and fearful of American culture because she finds it very
isolating and strange. She always fears that Gogol will forget his Indian
cultural heritage. She seeks to maintain and preserve Indian traditions
in America because, at that point, she still thinks that India is her home.
“After twenty-seven years in America,” Ashima confesses, “she still
cannot bring herself to refer to Pemberton Road as home” (108). The
fact that Gogol claims New Haven as his home, after living there for
only three months, frustrates Ashima. She initially protests against
Gogol’s love affair with Maxine, and does not like his spending nights
with her. She had always wanted Gogol to follow Hindu culture and
marry a Hindu girl. But later, after Gogol’s break-up with Maxine, she
asks Gogol if he could patch up with Maxine again. She recognizes that
marriage in America is not something their parents arrange, but
individuals’ choice. Therefore, Ashima happily accepts Ben, who is
half Chinese and half white, as her son-in-law. She believes that her
daughter Sonia is old enough to make her own decisions. Many of her
friends’ children “had married Americans, had produced pale, dark
skinned, half-American grandchildren, and none of it was as terrible as
they had feared” (216). So, as long as her children are old enough to
make their decision, it finally does not matter to her whether Gogol
marries Maxine, or Sonia marries Ben.
The Ganguli family house itself functions as a social space for
intercultural conversations and celebrations. As the Bengali community
in Cambridge grows, Bengalis gather at the Gangulis’ house not only to
celebrate Indian festivities and maintain cultural practices, but also to

210 Binod Paudyal

celebrate Christian festivals and American national holidays, if in
somewhat modified ways. For instance, they “learn to roast turkeys . . .
at Thanksgiving, to nail a wreath to their door in December, to wrap
woolen scarves around the snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and
pink at Easter” (64). They practice these celebrations just as they
prepare for festivities associated with the Goddesses Durga and
Saraswati (64). Though turkey at Thanksgiving is an American cultural
tradition, they prepare turkey in the way they used to roast chicken
back in India, “rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne” (64). In
other words, they make turkey Indian-style. These Bengalis celebrate
Christmas and other American festivals as a community—just as Durga
Pooja, one of the greatest festivals in Hinduism, is celebrated among
people of the same community. Even though these immigrants are not
Christians, they have made these holidays part of their own cultural
tradition. In this regard, they construct an imaginary landscape between
the United States and India, where they must negotiate between
different cultural practices and relocate themselves between newly
acquired American territory and an imaginary Indian nation.
Lahiri’s characters’ transformation through intercultural interaction
is a necessary and inevitable condition for them. As long as they adhere
only to their native culture and resist adopting a multiplicity of
identities, they risk marginalization and alienation. For instance,
Ashima suffers from cultural dislocation at the beginning of her life in
the United States, mainly because of her inability to negotiate different
cultures. As long as Ashima thinks of the United States as a foreign
country, she feels a sense of exile. When she suffers from the conflict
between rootedness, constituting a tie to her past, and uprootedness,
living in the present, and is unable to feel at home in the new land of
settlement, she develops a sense of inhabiting what Salman Rushdie
calls “imaginary homelands” (14). When Ashima is displaced due to
her migration, however, she learns to invent home and homeland (in the
absence of her native land) through familiar cultural practices.9 But she
cannot confine herself to a single indigenous principle of national and
cultural identity while living in a country that is heterogeneously
constructed. Although her tenacity in clinging to the past is obvious,
she constantly negotiates different identities even though she does not
realize her practice.10 While she lives in the present experience of
American culture, she also inherits and practices her culture of origin.
In this sense, she lives in two countries and has two homes—one
corporeal, that is in the United States, and another an “imaginary
homeland”—and, thus, she becomes a “transmigrant.”11
Lahiri’s characters do not assimilate into American culture, but
they negotiate it. Assimilation, after all, involves forgetting the past and
immersing completely into a dominant culture, willing to disregard

Reimagining Transnational Identities 211

previous cultural practices. It involves the idea of purity and what
Bhabha calls “originary”12 culture. The characters in Lahiri’s novel
maintain and preserve their cultures in different forms, while also
locating themselves in the new territories and creating their
transnational and fluid identities. Ashima, Ashoke, and other Indian
immigrants in the novel are at once the carriers of Indian cultural and
national identities, as well as transnational agents who consolidate two
different worlds and construct transnational identities in the United
States. Transnationalism, here, is not the negation of nationalism and
histories, but at once the practice of both Indian and American cultural
values, in adaptive ways, on American soil. Since Lahiri’s characters
live between different worlds and practice both Indian and American
cultural values in modified forms, their identities are not limited by
location. Instead, their identities become fluid. These immigrant
characters still carry with them the expectations for their children that
they should marry Indian girls, achieve university degrees from Yale,
MIT, or Brown, have prestigious jobs, and earn big paychecks. For
instance, when Gogol turns eighteen, “like the rest of their Bengali
friends, his parents expect him to be, if not an engineer, then a doctor, a
lawyer, an economist at the least” because these are the most highly
respected fields among Indian communities (105). Ashoke reminds
Gogol repeatedly that these were “the fields that brought them to
America, and earned them security and respect” (105). But with time
these inherited legacies are modified, and sometimes reinvented. The
Gangulis and other immigrant characters not only move beyond their
preferred fields of study and professions, but they also redefine their
cultural concept of marriage by allowing their children to make
individual decisions and by accepting interracial marriages.
While The Namesake explores the challenges the first-generation
immigrants and their American-born children encounter, it also focuses
on the unavoidability of cultural transformation resulting from the
mobility and connectivity of peoples, cultures, and ideas. The
immigrant characters in the novel not only leave somewhere called
home to make a new home in the United States, but they continue the
endless process of traveling back and forth between India and the
United States, creating familial, cultural, linguistic and economic ties
across national borders. These back and forth travels, made easier by
new means of transportation and communication technologies,
facilitate the maintenance of Indian cultural values while interweaving
the United States with India.13 The novel’s focus on transnational
connections broadens the boundaries of the United States beyond
national borders. It rediscovers the United States as a place of
heterogeneity and multiplicity of identities, in which immigrants
practice both: the cultures of their present country of residence and the

212 Binod Paudyal

country of their origin, and in adaptive and familiar ways that help
them feel at home. By extension, the novel helps readers grasp a
diasporic and transnational vision of American identity—rather than
Pamela’s version of a reified and exclusionary nativist American
identity—and they do so by understanding the complex transnational
networks and dynamics at work.
Notes
1. I would like to thank Vincent Cheng and Howard Horwitz for their
constructive comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay. A
version of this paper was presented at the American Literature Association’s
annual conference in Boston in May 2011.
2. See Lee (176), Dhingra and Cheung (xvi), and Mani (34).
3. Bhabha, in The Location of Culture, suggests transnationalism as
hybridity (p. 38); Basch et al in Nations Unbound define transnationalism as a
process by which migrants create, through their daily activities, multi-stranded
social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement (p. 7).
4. See Clifford’s Routes (p. 302-303); Thomas Faist’s “Diaspora and
Transnationalism” (p. 9-11).
5. See Prema Kurien’s “Place at the Multicultural table: The Development
of an American Hinduism” (p.5)
6. Since this reformed immigration law occurred when postcolonial India,
under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, had produced a high number of
technological professionals and scientists and employment opportunities were
very slim, thousands of professionals and scientists, as well as post-graduate
students, started emigrating to the United States through a selective
immigration policy. The United States particularly welcomed these highly
skilled immigrants from South Asia and other Asian countries as the United
States was trying to keep up with the USSR, especially after the USSR
launched Sputnik I and II into orbit. See Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk
(p. 74-76); Hing’s Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration
Policy 1850-1990 (p. 101-105).
7. See Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore (page 420).
8. According to Appadurai, there is a global cultural economy which can
be best understood in terms of the interconnectedness and interaction of five
dimensions of global cultural flows: Ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes,
financescapes, and ideoscapes (see Appadurai 33-36).
9. For instance, Liisa H. Malkki, an anthropologist, argues that “there has
emerged a new awareness of the global social fact that, now more than perhaps
ever before, people are chronically mobile and routinely displaced, and invent
homes and homelands in the absence of territorial, national bases” (52).
10. In his interview with Rutherford, Bhabha argues that we negotiate all
the time. He states, “we are always negotiating in any situation of political
opposition or antagonism” (216).
11. Basch et al. define the term transmigrant to refer to immigrants who
develop and maintain multiple relationships—familial, economic, social,
organizational, religious, and political—between two countries or more.
12. See Bhabha’s Location of Culture (p. 38).

Reimagining Transnational Identities 213

13. Again, see Prema Kurien’s “Place at the Multicultural Table: The
Development of an American Hinduism” (p. 5).
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