Cultural assimilation is the process by which a person who immigrates to another country learns to adapt to and accept the culture and customs that are dominant in that country. This process is not easy to undertake, and many immigrants often struggle with assimilation. This struggle is one of the central storylines in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. In this novel, Bengali couple Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli move from Calcutta to America to make a life for themselves and raise a family. Over the course of their thirty-year journey in America, they experience many difficulties and obstacles as they try to raise their children to be successful Bengali-American citizens. For Ashima, her primary struggle concerns her assimilation to American culture. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, the character of Ashima Ganguli struggles to assimilate to American culture but manages to do so successfully by the end of the novel.
When she first moves to America with her husband, Ashima initially resists assimilation to American culture. One example of this can be seen during the naming of Ashima’s first child. Per Bengali tradition, Ashima wants to let her grandmother formally name her child and is therefore content to settle on a private Bengali pet name for her son until her grandmother’s letter arrives. However, Ashima’s attempt to interpolate some of her old culture into the strange new world to which she has moved is halted when she comes into conflict with the American customs that reign supreme (H. Lahiri). The effect that this conflict has upon Ashima is extremely negative. Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “The bad news is that they are told…that they must choose a name for their son. For they learn that in America, a baby cannot be released from the hospital without a birth certificate. And that a birth certificate needs a name” (J. Lahiri 27). Upon being told this information, Ashima experiences distress and disbelief as she is forced to reluctantly name her child by his pet name of Gogol. Rather than accept that this is the way things are in America, Ashima instead resolves to change her son’s name once her grandmother’s letter arrives, thus showing her resistance to American culture.
Shortly after Gogol’s birth, Ashima again demonstrates her resistance to American culture. Upon returning home from the hospital with Gogol, Ashima becomes overwhelmed at the knowledge that she cannot rely on her family or the conveniences she enjoyed back in Calcutta to help her with her new responsibilities as a mother. As a result, Ashima becomes angry with American life and expresses her desire to return to India. Ashima tells her husband, “I’m saying hurry up and finish your degree…I’m saying I don’t want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It’s not right. I want to go back.” (J. Lahiri 33). Through this statement, Ashima demonstrates how much she dislikes living in America. With her family now living thousands of miles away from her, Ashima feels isolated and alienated from American culture and views life in this strange country as arduous and inconvenient. Consequently, Ashima only wishes to remain in America as long as is necessary for her husband to complete his degree, fully intending upon moving with her husband and newborn son back to India as soon as they are able. In this way, Ashima’s stubborn resistance to America and its way of life becomes clear.
In addition to wanting to return to India, Ashima further demonstrates her resistance to assimilation by severely limiting her contact with natural-born Americans. In order to help recreate a sense of home and Bengali culture in America, Ashima and her husband create a close circle of friends that consists exclusively of other Bengali immigrants (Iyer). While this endeavor helps Ashima to feel more at home in America, it inadvertently keeps her from fully integrating into American society. Lahiri writes, “Every weekend, it seems, there is a new home to go to, a new couple or young family to meet. They all come from Calcutta, and for this reason alone they are friends” (J. Lahiri 38). This example shows how Ashima has no desire to make any non-Bengali friends. Rather than learn how to mix herself into the great melting pot that is America, Ashima instead wants to create her own private piece of Calcutta where she can feel secure. As a result, Ashima makes a concerted effort to surround herself with other Bengali individuals while simultaneously keeping any and all Americans as far away from her as possible. By doing so, Ashima demonstrates her fear of Americans and her desire to limit her interaction with them.
Along with these outward actions, Ashima’s resistance to American culture can also be seen in how she views herself and her placement in American society. Despite having lived in America for several years at this point, Ashima does not feel any closer to Americans than she did when she first moved away from Calcutta. Lahiri writes, “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts” (J. Lahiri 49). This demonstrates how disassociated Ashima feels in America and her deep-seated belief that she will never adapt to its customs and style of living. Rather than acknowledge that assimilation to a different culture is a slow and steady process that takes many years, Ashima instead chooses to give up on assimilation and resigns herself to her own pessimistic belief that she will always remain an outsider in America. In this way, Ashima shows a complete lack of faith in her own ability to adapt and accommodate to American culture.
As time goes on, however, Ashima begins to overcome her fear of American culture and assimilate to it. This transformation is slow, but steady, as Ashima learns to accommodate new American ideals in with her old Bengali customs (H. Lahiri). This process can first be seen during the naming of Ashima’s second child. Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “The only way to avoid such confusion…is to do away with the pet name altogether, as many of their Bengali friends have already done. For their daughter, good name and pet name are one and the same” (J. Lahiri 61 – 62). This example shows Ashima’s beginning assimilation to American culture. Rather than repeat the same experience she had with Gogol to maintain a tradition that is nonexistent in America, Ashima instead chooses to learn from it. As a result, Ashima not only chooses her daughter’s name herself, but she also adapts to the American custom of using only one name for formal and informal use instead of continuing to practice the Bengali tradition of using a separate name for each use. In so doing, Ashima shows that she is beginning to accept American culture and acknowledge the conveniences that some of its customs allow.
In addition to this, Ashima shows her assimilation through her willingness to accept and celebrate American holidays for the sake of her family. Even though Ashima still makes her children celebrate traditional Bengali holidays in an effort to keep their culture alive, she does not object to them celebrating the holidays that are the social norm in America. Lahiri writes, “For the sake of Gogol and Sonia they celebrate, with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati” (J. Lahiri 64). Through this example, it is clear that Ashima is growing comfortable with life in America. Due to her Bengali heritage, Ashima is under no obligation to celebrate or let her children celebrate American holidays such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, because she wants her children to prosper in America and become happy and successful, Ashima nobly swallows any distaste or indifference for these holidays that she has and acquiesces to celebrating them (Roy). By making this quiet self-sacrifice, Ashima demonstrates her willingness to adapt to the American way of life for the benefit of her family.
As the story progresses, Ashima’s assimilation to American culture grows exponentially, as is shown after her children have grown up and moved away and her husband has taken a teaching job in Cleveland, Ohio. Left alone for one of the first times in her life, Ashima shows how much she has grown by getting a part-time job at a library and making friends with the American women who work there. Lahiri writes, “She is friendly with the other women who work at the library…They are the first American friends she has made in her life…On occasion she has her library friends over to the house for lunch, goes shopping with them on weekends to outlet stores in Maine” (J. Lahiri 163 – 164). Through this example, it is clear that Ashima is not only assimilating to American culture but also thriving inside of it. In addition to stepping outside from her Bengali circle of friends, Ashima enjoys spending time with these new people and makes room for them in her life, even letting them into the sanctuary of her home. In this way, Ashima shows that she has not only made great strides in her assimilation to American culture but is also welcoming it into her life.
In addition to this, Ashima also demonstrates her acceptance of American culture through her treatment of her son Gogol’s American girlfriend, Maxine. Ashima has a very negative opinion of Maxine, viewing her as strange and disrespectful, yet she does not interfere with Gogol’s attachment to this girl. Lahiri writes, “Ashima doesn’t want her for a daughter-in-law…And yet Gogol has been dating her for over a year now…She knows the relationship is something she must be willing to accept. Sonia has told her this, and so have her American friends at the library” (J. Lahiri 166). Through this example, Ashima demonstrates that she has gained the ability to accept an American custom that goes against her own personal wishes. Though Ashima wants Gogol to date a Bengali girl instead of an American one, she knows that American parents allow their child to do whatever makes him or her happy, even if doing so will clash with what the parents want. As a result, Ashima keeps her personal feelings about Gogol’s relationship to herself, thus showing her continued assimilation to American culture.
By the end of the novel, Ashima demonstrates that she has fully assimilated to American culture and embraced its customs. One example of this can be seen through Ashima’s actions after the death of her husband. With nothing else to keep her tethered to one location any longer, Ashima decides to sell her home in Boston and live abroad. Lahiri writes, “Ashima has decided to spend six months…in India, six months in the States…In Calcutta, Ashima will live with her younger brother…In spring and summer she will return to the Northeast, dividing her time among her son, her daughter, and her close Bengali friends” (J. Lahiri 275 – 276). Through this example, Ashima’s complete assimilation to American culture is made clear. By dividing her attention between Calcutta and America, Ashima shows that she has grown to accept the fact that she has become not only Indian, but American as well. Also, by resolving to return to the States regularly rather than stay completely in Calcutta, Ashima shows that she has come to enjoy life in America and is unwilling to abandon it for the old familiarity and customs that await her in Calcutta. This not only demonstrates Ashima’s assimilation to American culture but also depicts the fondness that she has developed for America itself.
In addition to this, Ashima’s complete assimilation can be seen through her changed perspective on divorce. Initially, Ashima held to the Bengali belief that a marriage should not be ended under any circumstances. Faced with her son’s unhappy marriage to his unfaithful wife, however, Ashima’s view of divorce changes dramatically. Lahiri writes, “Fortunately they have not considered it their duty to stay married…They are not willing to accept…something less than their ideal of happiness. That pressure has given way…to American common sense” (J. Lahiri 276). Through this example, Ashima shows her assimilation to American culture by expressing gratefulness towards the American custom of divorce. Ashima acknowledges that it is sensible and beneficial for a person to have the freedom to separate from his or her spouse if he or she is unhappy. As a result, Ashima approves of her son’s divorce, knowing that it will set him free from his miserable marriage. By holding her son’s happiness over her own traditional Bengali beliefs, Ashima demonstrates her complete assimilation to American culture.
One final example of Ashima’s successful assimilation can be seen through her acknowledgement of her own personal growth since moving to America. As she prepares to leave her Boston home, Ashima reflects on how living in America has changed her into a strong, independent, and fearless woman. Lahiri writes, “The prospect no longer terrifies her. She has learned to do things on her own, and though she still wears saris, still puts her long hair in a bun, she is not the same Ashima who had once lived in Calcutta” (J. Lahiri 276). Through this example, it is clear just how much Ashima has changed since the beginning of the novel. Initially, Ashima was afraid of every little thing that America had to offer and did everything within her power to shut out any and all American customs and aspects of life. Now, however, Ashima has become a tower of strength, and she acknowledges that this significant change is due solely to her appreciation of American life and her acceptance of its culture. In this way, Ashima’s assimilation to American culture is successfully completed.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Ashima Ganguli struggles to assimilate to American culture but eventually succeeds in doing so by the end of the novel. While Ashima initially resists assimilation, she gradually comes to accept American culture until she has successfully assimilated to it, which in turn helps her to improve as an individual. Through the example set by Ashima Ganguli, one can learn that assimilating to a different culture can be scary and oftentimes difficult but is overall beneficial to one’s own character and worth it in the end.
- Iyer, Nalini. ‘Perpetual Foreigners, Settlers, and Sojourners: An Overview of a Century of South Asian Immigrant Writing in North America.’ Critical Insights: Immigrant Experience, The, edited by Maryse Jayasuriya, Salem, 2018. Salem Online, https://online-salempress-com.cerritoscoll.idm.oclc.org.
- Lahiri, Himadri. “‘Individual-Family Interface in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.’” Americana: E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, vol. 4, no. 2, Nov. 2008, p. 8. EBSCOhost, cerritoscoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=43797876&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. First Mariner Books, 2004.
- Roy, Sumita. “The South Asian Diaspora: The Bengali Woman’s Alienation in a Hyphenated Culture.” NAAAS & Affiliates Conference Monographs, Jan. 2010, pp. 1388–1400. EBSCOhost, cerritoscoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login. aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=61059977&site=ehost-live&scope=site.