Caught Between Two Worlds: the Search for Cultural Identity in Lahiri's the Namesake

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Caught between Two Worlds:
The Search for Cultural Identity in Lahiri’s The Namesake

Titien Diah Soelistyarini


The question of identity is always a difficult one for those living in one culture, yet belonging to another. This question frequently lingers in the mind of most immigrants, especially the second generations who were born in a country other than their parents’ motherland. They feel culturally displaced as they are simultaneously living in two cultures. On the one hand, they no longer feel emotionally attached and cannot fully identify themselves with their indigenous culture; while on the other hand, when they wish to adopt the identity of the new culture, they have not been fully accepted as its members. Therefore, such condition makes them considered as having – as in Tyson’s terms – a double consciousness or double vision, a consciousness or a way of perceiving the world as divided between two antagonistic cultures. As they feel caught between two worlds, this double consciousness often produced an unstable sense of self or a crisis of cultural identities.

This study on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake published in 2003 observes the long journey of Indian American immigrants to search for cultural identity. It argues that this novel offers an insight on the struggles of the first-generation immigrants to assert a western identity, as well as to maintain rich eastern traditions. It also explores the challenges faced by the children, being second-generation immigrants, as represented by the main character, Gogol, who attempts to shed the Bengali identity to fully embody the American status. Yet, the journey towards re-invention and self-discovery finally teaches him the value of family, one’s roots and cultural pride. This study concludes that this novel reflects the experiences of many second-generation Asian immigrants who yearn to forge their own identity and feeling through negotiation of values from both the native (eastern) and the newly-adopted (western) cultures.

Keywords:cultural identity, double consciousness, The Namesake, Indian American immigrants, eastern-western values

The presence of the Indians in the United States can be traced back to exactly one hundred years ago, when peasants from the province of Punjab began appearing on the west coast, seeking work in Washington’s lumber mills and California’s vast agricultural fields. Though predominantly Sikhs, they were described in the popular press as "Hindus"; and almost from the outset they were seen as inassimilable, possessed of "immodest and filthy habits", the "most undesirable, of all the eastern Asiatic races . . ." (Lal, 1999: 42). Following these Punjab pioneers, there had been several waves of Indian immigration to the United States until the enactment of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which set a quota of 20,000 immigrants from each country. Since then, the number of Indian immigrants and their descendants living in the United States has grown dramatically. During the same period, the make-up of this community has also changed—the highly educated professional elite who came to this country from the subcontinent in the 1960s has given way to a population encompassing many from the working and middle classes. By 1975 their number had risen to well over 175,000, and it is around this time that the question of self-representation, how they wished to be known collectively to others, and how this highly diverse ethnic group formed an identity and community, first surfaced among members of the Indian community.

Set around this period, the story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake (2003) concerns with the challenges facing Indian immigrants in the United States, particularly depicting the difficulties of making personal connections across cultural boundaries – and sometimes even within families. Known as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her story...
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