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The wife of Ashoke and the mother of Gogol and Sonia, Ashima was raised in Calcutta and married Ashoke having only met him briefly. She moves with him to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and stays in a suburb of Boston to raise her family.
The husband of Ashima and the father of Gogol and Sonia, Ashoke earns his doctorate from MIT and works as a professor in the Boston area while his children grow up. He was in a horrible train accident as a young man while he was reading a work by the Russian author Gogol, and names his son after that author.
The theme of the relationship between parents and children becomes prominent, as Gogol grows old enough to interact with his parents as a child. While Ashima is pregnant with Sonia, Gogol and Ashoke eat dinner alone together and Ashoke scolds Gogol for playing with his food. He says, "At your age I ate tin," to draw attention to how grateful Gogol should be for having the food to eat. The relationship between Ashima and Ashoke and their own parents is also mentioned when they find out that their parents have died; Ashoke's parents both die of cancer, and Ashima's mother dies of kidney disease. They learn about these deaths by phone calls.
As Ashima addresses Christmas cards in Chapter 7, she is wistful that Sonia and Gogol did not come home to celebrate Thanksgiving with her. Their need for independence is contrary to the need she felt at their age to be near her family. Gogol begins to feel tender toward his father after his death, when his attitude toward him while he was alive was generally impatient. As Gogol drives Ashoke's rental car to the rental office of his apartment building, he wonders if a man outside the building mistakes him for his father. The thought is comforting to him. He now understands the guilt and uselessness his parents had felt when their own parents had passed away across the world, in Calcutta.
Their story begins with the birth of Ashima and Ashoke's first child, and continues to follow the newborn's life and the experiences of his mother, father, and sister as they are forced to adjust to American culture. At the onset of Lahiri's novel the reader instantly becomes aware of the obstacles facing the Ganguli family. Ultimately, they will have to assimilate and adjust to their new way of life, while still maintaining the Indian customs and traditions that they hold so dear.
The difficulties Ashima and Ashoke face in America are best articulated by Ashima herself when she says, "For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is sort of lifelong pregnancy-a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts" (49). This sentiment is expressed early on in the work and makes the reader aware that life in America will be a constant struggle. However unlike immigrants during the early 1900's, the problems the Ganguli's face will be less physical and material (the prospect of finding work and housing), and more psychological. Ashima, who is with-child at the beginning of the story, is already extremely fragile and naturally feels more vulnerable in her pregnant state. Her insights during this tumultuous time in her life are extremely important if one is to understand the significance of her journey and the emotional stress it has on her. As Ashima waits to give birth she yearns for her life back in Calcutta. She remarks that in India a mother giving birth would be surrounded by family and friends. The atmosphere in India then, is much more intimate than in Cambridge, where everything feels less personal and "colder" than back home. With only Ashoke at her side, Ashima's feeling of isolation is obvious as she wonders whether she might be the only Indian woman in the hospital giving birth that day.
Once the baby is born, the parents are faced with the prospect of naming their newborn son. Here again, the clash between Indian and American culture is demonstrated. In India, a child would be called by a "pet name", an informal name used by family and friends. Meanwhile, the name listed on official documents is called the child's "good name". In India, this name wouldn't be important right away, and parents would sometimes take years before deciding on a child's good name. Ashima and Ashoke give Ashima's grandmother the honor of officially naming their son, but the letter from India is lost in the mail. The Ganguli's want to wait for the letter to arrive (it never does), but before they leave they have to provide a name on a birth certificate. Finally, they decide on the name, "Gogol", representing a Russian author whose name played a large part in Ashoke's history before coming to the United States. The struggle the parents have here with the naming of their child is obvious, but it also symbolizes the disconnect and distance Ashima and Ashoke feel with the rest of the world. They feel close to neither their new home nor the one they left behind.
In the end, the isolation Ashima and Ashoke feel sums up their immigrant experience. Additionally, the death of relatives in India exacerbates this feeling. In the end, the emotions that accompany loss and the steps necessary to recover from it mirror the process of adjusting to a new life in America. At first, the couple attempts to cling onto their Indian culture, while shunning their new one. It's clear that in America there is a void that can't be filled. A country, like a person, can have a great personality, be part of many meaningful memories, and play a large role in one's life. Ashima and Ashoke are in denial at first, but gradually begin to accept their new culture. They put up a tree on Christmas, celebrate Thanksgiving, and settle into a new life in America. Meanwhile, they still incorporate Indian food, traditions, and people into their daily lives. In the end, the part of the book that chronicles the story of Ashima and Ashoke is an illustration of their life's journey. Not only is their "travel" physical, but they also make a psychological transition that is both meaningful and necessary for the Ganguli's to thrive in their new environment.
Although Ashima and Ashoke's experience in America is of vital importance, the novel would not be complete if it didn't follow their son Gogol's life's journey. In the end, the narrator is able to make a judgment about Gogol and how he lived that is very telling. "He had spent years maintaining distance from his origins; his parent, in bridging that distance as best they could. And yet, for all his aloofness toward his family in the past...he has never been more than a four-hour train ride away"(281). This quote is important because it represents the approach Gogol had to his heritage throughout the novel. Unlike his parents, Gogol goes out of his way to avoid his Indian culture. For example, Gogol's personal life he dates white American women, while befriending mostly Caucasian males. These choices disturb Gogol's parents, especially Ashima who wishes he would settle down with another Indian woman. Paying no attention to her wishes, Gogol maintains distance from his parents throughout his adult life, even if he is always close by. He often waits days to return their phone calls, misses important events to go to his girlfriends' summer homes, and does his best to never embrace the culture that his parents cherish.
These habits are important, but pale in comparison to an action that was a blatant attempt to escape his Indian heritage. When Gogol was in his twenty's he changed his name to a more Americanized Indian name: Nikhil. As extreme as this was, it is more important to note that Nikhil never truly lost the "Gogol" inside of him. In the end, Nikhil realizes that running away from his roots is futile and not gratifying. "Without people in the world to call him Gogol, no matter how long he himself lives, Gogol Ganguli will, once and for all, vanish from the lips of loved ones, and so, cease to exit. Yet the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all" (289). This quote represents one of the main ideas of the book: Gogol, as hard as he tried to run away from his family and Indian culture, was bound by an invisible thread to India and its customs. Despite the influence of pop culture, white girlfriends, and a name change, Gogol couldn't escape. In fact, by the end he realizes that he doesn't want to leave his heritage behind. "Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end" (287). Gogol realizes that everything that has happened to him, from the botched naming attempt at his birth, to his father's death, was meaningful. In the end, the very thing that Gogol was running away from becomes the cornerstone of his life. In fact, even if Gogol never knew it, it always was.
Author Jhumpa Lahiri accomplished something that every writer strives for. She created an engaging piece of literature that has meaning and can speak to everyone. In the end, she fulfilled H.M. Tomlinson's belief that "every right good book is always a book of travel". Following the lives of an immigrant family from Calcutta, The Namesake accurately characterizes the struggles and successes of the Ganguli's as they adjust to life in America. For Ashima and Ashoke, their journey meant learning to balance their newfound American culture with all-important Indian traditions. For Gogol however, it was realizing the significance of his heritage, of his "namesake", that characterized his journey. Lahiri never lead the reader to believe any of these adjustments were easy, which is why the novel is able to deliver its message so powerfully. The challenges facing the Ganguli family were never sugar coated, or presented as if they were as simple as putting up a tree around Christmas time. Instead, the journey is raw and realistic, making the final destination that much more meaningful.