The Namesake and Me
I have a tattoo on my left ribcage; it is made up of four lines, drawn to look like the silhouette of a small house, but without a line sealing it at the bottom. To me, it signifies that home is an open-ended concept, one without a lock on the door, one that can be returned to over and over again. The protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, like me, lives between two worlds but never feels fully comfortable or accepted in either. This purgatory sets the course of his (and my own) life, sneaking up on him in moments he least expects it and driving some of his most important decisions. He does not know quite when to give in to the pull of his ancestry or to the illusion of American-ness he has cultivated his entire life. I grew up stretched across an ocean, pulled between Germany and the United States from the age of barely fifteen. Having moved abroad at such a young age, I was malleable and moldable, ever-changing yet desperately trying to retain whatever American identity I had managed to create by then. I was resistant to my new home, never referring to it as such but instead calling it “this place.” I blamed my parents for yanking the rug out from under me and transporting me to a new continent just as I was beginning to discover myself. I was hesitant to make friends, not wanting to abandon the ones I’d left behind and for whom I stayed up till 5 AM, chatting away online as if we were still in the same time zone. Even as I settled into my new school, the sense that I was betraying who I thought I was nagged at me with persistence. I wanted to be happy, but being happy felt like giving in, accepting my reality, instead of rebelling against it as I’d sworn to do from the very first day.
As expected, Germany eventually became a home to me. It was all I could do, really, to find some sense of comfort: I began speaking with their diction and slang and drinking beer on the weekends at the ripe age of 16. As the years went by, I was sure there was still room in the world for my two selves: my American self and my German self. But when I moved back to the U.S. to attend university, it became clear almost immediately that I did not have two selves but was rather a combination of the two, a product of living as a foreigner first in Germany and then as a foreigner in what I thought was my home. This outsider culture, often referred to as being a “third-culture kid,” made me feel more alone than ever. Though every first year student at a university is a “new kid,” I failed to relate to my peers on such a broad level that I spent the majority of my first semester either on the phone with my mother or on Google Earth, looking at Stuttgart from above.
Though the sense that I don’t belong anywhere has calmed down with time as I have accepted my strange transatlantic state of being, the feelings still persist, like a tag on a jumper that doesn’t quite itch but can still be felt throughout the day. Gogol, Lahiri’s protagonist, experiences a similar mixed-up sort of life: as the son of Indian immigrants in America, he grows up in an American neighbourhood, attends an American school, dates American girls, but forever is drawn back to his family by his strange name, the Russian surname of an author chosen by his father to represent a turning point in his own life. In addition to his strange name, Gogol feels like an outsider in his Indian home where he does not understand why his parents cling so strongly to their Bengali ways, but also in the American homes he enters (mostly of various romantic partners) whose parents hover less, cry less, and memorialize less.
The chronological element of the novel allows the reader to follow along easily as Gogol grows from boy to man. Gogol is constantly torn between doing what his parents want and what he believes he wants, two pathways which he believes cannot possibly be part of the same road. The truth, he discovers, is that he does not know how to untangle the two. Does he want to move to New York City simply because his parents dislike it and because it is far away from them, he won’t have to live under their microscope? Will he marry an American girl and start an Americanized life simply because he knows his parents will disapprove?
Wrestling with identity is neither a new nor revolutionary literary topic, but still it is timeless. It is the simplicity with which Lahiri charts Gogol’s growth that enchanted me most, prompting not so much a spaced-out inner dialogue with my “two” selves but something far less complex: a realization that I am not alone in feeling this way. Lahiri also excels at illustrating the exquisite pain of not realizing what we have until we have lost it, of not appreciating what we have when we are young until we are old and no longer have it. These very basic human emotions are in each and every one of us, and Gogol’s experiences remind me that while I may never be able to adequately pin down what home means to me, I can come and go as I please, on my own terms, in my own time.