One of the main themes in the novel is that of the immigrant experience. Ashoke and Ashima are immigrants traveling from the country they have always known to make their life in a vastly foreign land. While Ashoke is able to throw himself into his work, through Ashima readers catch a glimpse of the anxiety and alienation of foreigners. In the first sentence of the novel, Ashima is attempting to make a snack resembling her favorite food back home. However, the attempt is an inexact copy; the original ingredients are unavailable in Cambridge, and Ashima can only effect an approximation. This first image applies to much of Ashoke and Ashima’s lives. Their Bengali friends are an approximation of the extended family they left behind. Their attempts to name Gogol according to the Indian tradition of pet names and formal names are misconstrued and ultimately abandoned, another failed approximation. Indeed, even as the years go on, Ashoke and Ashima remain tied to India, visiting it every few years. No matter how long they live in America, they will always be living in a foreign land. This is an essential aspect of Ashoke and Ashima’s experience.
The process of assimilation, in which immigrants take on the mannerisms and customs of their new country, is also evident in The Namesake. For instance, Ashoke and Ashima begin celebrating Christmas and Easter, though they do so mainly for their children. In fact, Gogol and Sonia, as first-generation Americans, also demonstrate an important aspect of the immigrant experience. As first-generation Americans, they are not living in a foreign land; they are not pulled between two countries in the way that their parents are, but they are pulled between two cultures in a way that their parents are not. Indeed, Ashoke and Ashima do not feel the need to conform to American ideals and traditions, yet their children, especially Gogol, do. As children, Gogol and Sonia urge their parents to celebrate Christian holidays, they prefer American food to Indian food, and they resent the long family trips to India. Where their parents entered into an arranged marriage, Gogol and Sonia date Americans freely. Even when Gogol and Moushumi eventually marry, they still prefer an American wedding. Instead, they have a Bengali ceremony to please their families. Gogol, Sonia, and even Moushumi must balance two heritages, the American one they grew up with and the Indian one they inherited. Each does so with varying degrees of success.
While The Namesake largely explores the immigrant experience, it cannot help but touch upon the closely related theme of identity. Indeed, the dual heritages that Gogol, Sonia, and Moushumi carry are essentially two cultural identities. The unasked question that haunts their lives is whether they are Indian or American. The answer is that they are simultaneously both and neither. It would be an oversimplification to say that they are Indian Americans, but this nevertheless speaks not only to the trouble that first-generation immigrants have identifying themselves but also the trouble that outsiders have in identifying bicultural individuals. This quandary is largely represented in Gogol’s two names. In fact, Gogol’s changing feelings regarding his name correspond to his feelings about his cultural identity. When Gogol accepts the name given him by his parents, it is as if he is accepting them. Notably, when he attempts to create himself anew as Nikhil, he feels torn between two identities, but when he fully embraces his name and his Indian heritage, he does not feel any anxiety. His two names—one at school, one at home—make him feel as if ‘‘he’s cast himself in a play acting the part of twins.’’ Amidst the confusion he has caused, Gogol ‘‘feels helpless, annoyed . . . caught in the mess he’s made.’’
As the novel progresses, Gogol becomes more comfortable with his Indian identity, with the rituals and customs that connect him to his family. This change enables him to marry Moushumi, to ungrudgingly do so in a ceremony contrary to his personal tastes. By the novel’s end, Gogol realizes that ‘‘the name he had so detested . . . was the first thing his father had ever given him.’’ Indeed, by rejecting his name, Gogol had rejected his father, his parents, his roots, and his identity—all things he no longer rejects. Now, having all but succeeded in obliterating his original name, ‘‘the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all.’’
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Jhumpa Lahiri, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.