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The Namesake as a Diasporic Novel

Instructor: Paulina Bouzas

Paulina studied Creative Writing and Literature in Mexico City and holds an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Eastern Finland.

This lesson examines the elements that make Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, The Namesake, a diasporic novel. The three main elements are explained after providing a brief description of diasporic literature and a summary of the book.

What Are Diasporic Novels?

Can you imagine having your whole life uprooted and starting over in a completely different place? This is what the term diaspora refers to. The word comes from the Greek meaning 'dispersion'~. Diasporic literature encompasses stories about those who disperse or scatter away from their homeland. These novels follow characters who try to assimilate life in a new country, who for several reasons leave home and create a new one sometimes thousands of kilometers from what was known to them.

Diasporic novels are considered transnational as they tend to involve different countries, a home country and the new adopted one. One of the most important themes in these novels is identity; characters must make sense of their own self as they try to adapt in a new place. As their life changes, contrasts soon emerge and the old is compared to the new, the past with the present and the familiar with the foreign.

A perfect example of a diasporic novel is Jhumpa Lahiri's second book, The Namesake, which focuses on the Gangulis, an immigrant Indian American family.

A Brief Summary

The Namesake covers the span of three decades, as the Ganguli family navigates life in America and overcomes the hardships that come with being immigrants. After having an arranged marriage, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli move from Calcutta to Massachusetts. Life for the young couple is hard; particularly for Ashima who misses her family back in India and seems bewildered by the American way of life. Soon afterwards they have two children, Gogol, and Sonia. Unlike their parents, the children feel at home in America and lead a normal life.

Throughout the novel the reader watches each family member grow and adapt to their lives. As happens in every family, relationships are tested, and hurdles overcome. Gogol, the eldest child, comes off age while exploring life, love, and traditions as the second generation of immigrants.

The Namesake as a Diasporic Novel

There are three essential elements that make The Namesake a clear example of a diasporic novel. The first one is the Ganguli's transnational move. After being in a train wreck, Ashoke takes the advice of a fellow passenger who urges him to see the world. With the hope of a better future, he decides to pursue a PhD at MIT and so the Gangulis start their married life at a small apartment in Massachusetts, a vastly different place from their beloved Calcutta.

The second element is cultural assimilation. Think of this as traveling abroad and witnessing a completely different custom: it might take some time to understand it. This is what Ashima goes through as soon as she gets to America. While being bombarded with new traditions, new food and a new language, she tries to keep her own heritage as close to her as possible. Adapting in this new world comes with a deep nostalgia for her home country which leads to constant comparisons. However, by the end of the novel Ashima is perhaps the character who transforms the most as she learns not only to survive in America, but to thrive and create a life split between the two countries.

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