The effect of Bengali culture on the plot development and literary features in The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies

Through the understanding of cultures and ideals of an author, works of literature can come to life and be more vivid and understandable than ever before. When stumbling across Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, I found that because of my previous knowledge of the customs she mentioned in her works I was able to enjoy parts of the novels and stories that others with less of an understanding didn’t seem to grasp at first glance. Therefore, I decided to take a look at Lahiri’s work and analyze exactly how Bengali culture affected the plot development and literary features of the novel.

This paper is broken up into an in-depth analysis of many instances of culture that Lahiri brought up throughout both of her books, The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies. By taking a look at these, and seeing how many examples there were for either work, in turn helped the reader see quite the effect that references to Bengali life made. I took into context every cultural allusion made by Lahiri to either customs, traditions, or just things that related to family, and checked to see if any of those allusions helped aid the use of literary features in the passage. The sections of the book that demonstrated those requirements are the ones I delved into throughout my essay.

I learned that especially in the case of an author like Lahiri, even though the books on their own have incredible meaning and writing style, the understanding of Bengali culture and the hints that it provided in her works enhances the works so much more. Reading the book after finishing the essay showed me that there were a lot of clues and messages that I missed throughout Lahiri’s writing, due to the colorful use of her own personal experience.

 

Introduction

Pulitzer Prize winning Jhumpa Lahiri, a London born but American grown author, is primarily known for her powerful works with many omnipresent themes and symbols from her native South Asian culture. Born in 1967 to two Bengali- Indian parents, Lahiri spent her life feeling how most immigrants feel, this “half-way feeling [of being American].” (Glassie) This personal social struggle that she faced became the basis of her work in fiction, especially with her two most popular books, The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies. Though both are created in totally different formats, one being a book of short stories, and another a novel, they have the same overarching theme of dealing with ethnic culture and that theme plays a huge part in the foreshadowing and development of both books.

The customs that Jhumpa Lahiri refers to the most throughout her books are the ones of the eastern most region of India known as the West Bengal. The capital of the region, Calcutta or also known as the “culture capital”, is very distinct in all of its customs and values as Lahiri mentions in little lessons throughout The Namesake.

 

Bengali Culture

The culture featured throughout both novels is especially unique. There are two parts of the Bengal, East Bengal that is now known as Bangladesh and the current Indian state of West Bengal. Lahiri comes from the Hindu Bengal, which differs in a lot of ways from the more commonly known Bengali culture and is incredibly unique. West Bengal’s capital is Calcutta, formerly known as the capital of India, and is known “”cultural [or literary] capital” of the area (Reeves). There is a huge value placed on community and family within the culture, and that importance is prevalent in many aspects of the novel where main characters express their feelings of detachment or loneliness. Bengali’s find comfort and enjoyment in their communities and friend groups because of the activities that happen within them, such as addas. Described as “a place for careless talk with boon companions” by the scholar Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay, addas are a way that a community grows together and grows closer. Situations similar to these get-togethers also come up in Lahiri’s novels, and add to the authenticity of the story that she is trying to create.

With a rich history involved with lots of conflicts and shuffling between present day India and Bangladesh, the Bengal is especially rooted in its connection to the arts and culture. Literature is highly celebrated throughout South Asia, and many celebrate Rabindranath Tagore, a famous author. Bengalis have a connection to words and language due to the fact that there was a lot of struggle for the right to speak their own language. It’s this great connection to words that become prevalent in Lahiri’s writing too, especially with the plot development behind The Namesake. The main character’s father’s backstory dealing with his nearly fatal experience and is quite essential to the story because it explains why his he has such an deeps resonance with his sons’ name, his sons’ life, and who his son ultimately grows to become.

 

 

Analysis of The Namesake

The Namesake starts off with mentioning Ashima Ganguli, one of the most important characters throughout the book who deals directly with the conflict between her culture and her new surroundings. The book places her in her lonely apartment, cooking as she eats a random pregnancy craving concoction. She thinks about her homeland, and as she continues to cook, she realizes that her due date has come. However, despite the pain that Ashima endures as she calls out to her husband to take her to the hospital, she does something quite traditional of Bengali wives and doesn’t call out her husband’s name. In Bengali culture, things like a husbands’ first name are intimate on the same levels as a kiss, and she doesn’t dare say it even though “she knows perfectly well what it is.” (Lahiri, The Namesake 3) This is one of the beginning moments of Ashima’s steadfast loyalty to her culture, that she wouldn’t dare think to break tradition at any moment, and sets up for the reader what Ashima’s true priorities and ideals are.

Another major moment of conflicting cultures was right after the birth of the baby Ganguli. It’s typical in Bengali tradition to have a grandparent name a newborn child, but as they tell the nurse that they are waiting on a letter with a list of names, they are told to either pick something now or to go home with a child named “Baby Boy Ganguli” (Lahiri, 27). The situation the Ganguli’s are faced with foreshadows the difficulty that there is in carrying out ethnic traditions in the new western world. People in India have practiced this tradition of naming their grandkids for countless years, but because of the distance between their homeland where all of this could easily occur and their new home, the tradition had to be dropped. This also foreshadows a major plot of the book itself, the story of the little boy and the journey that he has with the impromptu name put upon him — Gogol Ganguli.

Annaprasan, also known as Mukhe Bhaat, is another Bengali tradition is a moment of culture that directly foreshadows Gogol’s fate and life in the book. The ceremony that takes place is in order to celebrate the first solid food that a child eats, marking the first meal “to inaugurate tens of thousands of unremembered meals to come” (Lahiri, 40). It’s then followed by a traditional ceremony where the child is presented with a tray of 4 different objects. Each of the things placed on the tray have an extreme significance because its believed that the thing the child first touches is what the child will find interest in later in life. For example, the lump of earth symbolizes property and also signifies fertility and prosperity for girls, the book symbolizes learning, a pen symbolizes wisdom and a silver coin, or a tiny silver box as pictured symbolizes wealth. Most children grab at something, but in Gogol’s case, he turns away and begins to cry. The startled reaction hints Gogol’s personality from the very beginning as an indecisive individual who does not know what he wants, but also doesn’t like to be faced with decision-making—a characteristic that is consistent throughout the entirety of the novel.

The Ganguli’s trouble with people accepting their culture and customs and traditions comes up a countless number of times, but the most prominent is when Gogol is registering for kindergarten. In Bengali culture, people have two names they identify with, a bhalo nam or a ‘good name’, which is to be used on all legal documents and a dak nam or a ‘call name’, which is just used by family and friends. Gogol is sent to school as a new name, Nikhil, which his parents want to become his good name. But as Gogol finds it new and unfamiliar to respond to the name Nikhil and hesitates at the sound of it, the principal picks up on Gogol’s pet name and questions why Mr. Ganguli would ever want to change it. She takes it upon herself to ask Gogol what he finds more comfortable, ignoring his “parents instructions” (Lahiri, 61) and registering him under his pet name. This is the pivotal moment that changes Gogol’s life forever, as he could’ve lived and grown up very differently had he used a different name at school. It creates the feeling within the reader that Gogol’s situation is really his fault, and as he lives with it, it’s his own personal struggle, and he really is not able to place the blame fully on anyone else. It also prepares the Ganguli’s, and at the birth of Gogol’s new baby sister, both Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli are ready with lists of good names—not pet names—to avoid that situation completely.

With a pet name turned official name, Gogol starts to exhibit characteristics that are not just specific to him and his name, but to any one with his same cross-cultural background. Many people who emigrate from different parts of the world, especially South Asia, have the wonderful struggle of dealing with their names in a society that they aren’t used to. Gogol claims that he “doesn’t mind his name” (Lahiri, 66) and doesn’t mind that “his name is never an option on key chains or refrigerator magnets” (Lahiri, 66) and doesn’t mind when “substitute teachers at school always pause, looking apologetic when they arrive at his name on the roster, forcing Gogol to call out his name before being summoned” (Lahiri, 66).

A major development happens in the book around high school in Gogol’s life. His teacher begins a lesson on his namesake, Nikolai Gogol, an author, who, although had written many amazing books throughout out his life, died in a very tragic way, wanting nothing more to do with himself and starved to death. With this kind of backstory, Gogol’s attitude towards his own name shifts dramatically from being fairly indifferent to extremely self-conscious and careful when introducing himself. It’s at a college party that Gogol attends where he finally acts on the feelings that’d been quietly festering all on their own and introducing himself not as his developed name Gogol, but as the Nikhil he almost could have been. He lived from that point on wanting to be something other than Gogol, and started to act proactively about his feelings. He was “the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and inflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who questioned it and wished it were otherwise.” (Lahiri, 100) And in the courtroom where he presents himself to change his name, he finally admits that he hates the name Gogol and “always hated it.” (Lahiri, 102) But Gogol, despite changing his name legally, still saw himself as Gogol Ganguli, and the thoughts and ideas he had about himself as Gogol would always be separate from him as Nikhil.

Being the first in his family to grow up and be able to experience all of Western culture, Gogol’s college years are spent tentatively, as he had to learn to live in a new lifestyle with new people, new experiences, and a new name—but his old culture and ideals definitely come into play as he gets a girlfriend. All of the girls in Gogol’s life have lived differently from him, obviously, with a their western parents in a western culture. They serve as symbols of thins that Gogol deeply wants to be but knows he can never come close. His relationship symbolizes a pivotal point in Gogol’s life when he is faced with what he has, what he wants, and what he cane possibly acquire though his relationships. When with Ruth and her family, Gogol sees the normalcy that he had wanted all along, that typical all-American family attitude without troubles and exotic difference. But when coming back to his own house with Ruth to introduce her to his parents, he is faced with the world and customs he has, with ideas about dating and marriage and love that are completely different from western culture. In the relationship he has later with another girl, Maxine, Gogol is fully separated from culture and his family, living on his own and being able to become his own person and showing Maxine only the parts of him that he wants her to see. Gogol starts to change from his tentative and cautious ways to a confident Nikhil, and Maxine helps with the process of separation from his culture. The restrictions and ideas that the Ganguli’s have are “amusing [to] her” as she “sees them as a single afternoon’s challenge, and anomaly never to be repeated,” and never “associating him with his parent’s beliefs” (Lahiri, 146). Maxine helps Gogol objectify what his culture is and dilutes the importance that the intrinsic impact it has on him. Due to this and due to Maxine, things take a drastic change in Gogol’s life for the more western, and when Gogol is suddenly pulled back into the midst of his culture, its hard for him to go back to the way he was before.

It’s Moshumi, a childhood friend that Gogol never initially found interest in, that changes him back to his roots. Moshumi symbolizes everything that Gogol had been pushing away since Maxine and after their break up, from the customs and traditions of the family to the remembrance of Gogol’s name itself. It is with her that Gogol realizes what he has been missing, what he has been turning his back on, and it is with her and in the act of marrying her that he tries to bring back those customs. However, Moshumi only serves to show that what Gogol has become isn’t fully as easy to change as he believes, and as their marriage falls out and the two eventually divorce, Gogol is now presented with the same lesson he’s had with all of his girfriends—a confusion and indecisiveness between what he wants and what he has.

The story ends with Ashima alone, her husband passing away a long time ago and both of her children living independently in their new lives, almost parabolic to the way the story began. At the start of her journey in America, she had people around her, but they were either busy or dependent on her, making her feel lonely at the loss of the kinship and family she had left behind. Now, years later, Ashima wants to go back to her homeland, a place that “was once home but is now foreign in its own way” (Lahiri, 278). Though she had adapted to the culture she was put in, Ashima is a symbol of unwavering devotion to one’s roots, as she constantly thinks back to Bengali customs and wonders if she had done a good enough job with her children. She was a quiet figure, but stronger than seems at first glance. She had devoted her life, as custom, to her husband and family and moving and living with them wherever they went and wherever they needed her. And as the book comes to a close, Ashima finally gets the chance to do something for herself. Ashima finally gets the chance to return to her customs.

 

 

Analysis of Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, was taken with an extremely different approach than the Namesake. With Maladies, Lahiri writes extremely short stories about a variety of different people and ideas. However, a majority of her stories have recurring emphasis on South Asian culture. Whether it’s the two characters themselves, a taxi driver, or a neighbor, Lahiri’s shorts have a connection to culture that also drives along the plots and ideas of the stories.

The first story of Lahiri’s collection depicts a married couple living together, both extremely busy and distant with each other. Their buildings’ lights go out for a week for maintenance, and so Shoba and Shukumar sit together for dinner like they do every night, but this time by candlelight. Shoba mentions that power failures reminded her of her grandmother’s house in India, where all of her family would sit around and tell stories or a joke or something to each other to pass the time. That mention of culture and tradition sparks something between her and Shukumar and creates a common ground for the two of them that couldn’t be reached before, and they slowly start to do the same tradition as they eat dinner by candlelight. The lights going out are ironic in that it seems to symbolize a coming back to roots for the couple, but that isn’t the case. Shukumar thinks “for hours” about what to say to Shoba while she continues unhappily and desires a new life away from the sadness and loneliness of her current relationship and its past (Lahiri, Interpreter Of Maladies 18). As the lights come back on, it lifts away the darkness and confusion and distrust between Shoba and Shukumar as the confessions they made in the candlelight finally come to light as well, showing them that it is indeed time to part ways.

The story for which the title of the book is based off of, The Interpreter of Maladies, features a tour guide known as Mr. Kapasi. Mr. Kapasi’ qualifications are interesting, as he not only works as a tour guide on the weekends, but also serves as a interpreter at a local doctor’s office—known to many as the interpreter of maladies and sicknesses of patients. The beginning of the story foreshadows something curious with Mrs. Das, one of the women on the tour with her family, as she takes a liking to Mr. Kapasi when he mentions that he interprets people’s pain. Trips to a homeland are fulfilling and valued in Bengali culture because of the extreme sense of community within the families have and the never faltering desire to want to be with one’s family and community. However, with Mrs. Das, things just seem sad and pained. Her lack of excitement emphasizes her detachment from her culture and how westernized she is. The mood of the passage and Mrs. Das’ reactions do a wonderful job in foreshadowing a sense of lonlieness and disinterest on Mrs. Das’ part as we learn later on that she does have a huge secret that she has been hiding from her husband and her kids. Mrs. Das’ really doesn’t value the beauty of her culture and her land when she goes to visit it because she feels guilty about her life and that her second-born child isn’t her husband’s child at all. She desperately desires Mr. Kapasi’s help “to use his use his gift” (64) of explaining what and how she is feeling, giving Mrs. Das’ a sense of relatablity context to her not having herself figured out. Mr. Kapasi contrasts the confusion that Mrs. Das has and symbolizes a wake-up call in that from him, she understands the pain that she feels for her mistake isn’t really pain at all, but an extreme guilt that she cannot fix lightheartedly, and because of this, Mrs. Das has to continue on with her life, as though someone had interpreted her malady with no cure.

Lahiri’s short story titled Sexy is one of the most unique in the Interpreter of Maladies because for once, the character with the heavy Bengali culture doesn’t have an overbearing presence in the story. Miranda is a young girl who met a man named Dev at a store and made a connection, their initial attraction quickly turning into something more as the days went by and they got to know each other more intimately, despite the fact that Dev was a married man. Miranda’s initial interest is sparked in Dev because of his ethnicity and throughout their affair, she looks over facts and articles about Bangladesh, “hoping to find the city where Dev was born” but only finding “graphs and maps” (Lahiri, 85). Culture doesn’t play an overwhelming effect as a literary device that adds to meaning but rather helps the plot drive forward and provide a sense of parallelism. Dev’s interesting and unique culture is something that evokes interest in Miranda, and now, even when she knows that what she’s doing with his is wrong, she cant resist. Dev’s culture is just another thing about him that makes him so different from other men, on top of the things that he tells her and the way that he treats her. The unknown that she feels in her relationship with him parallels the unknown she feels about Bengali culture itself, and although she tries to learn more by attempting to learn the language or tries to get closer to Dev and make sense of things, there’s some kind of barrier that inhibits her that, in the end, helps her realize to the full extent the wrong-doings of their actions.

Another story in the book tells the tale of a boy and his babysitter, his Indian neighbor. With his mother busy, Mrs. Sen is all that Elliot really has, and is the only one Elliot really spends time with. Mrs. Sen had just moved to America recently, dealing with the culture shock and having to learn all new things, like driving. Although she’s an immigrant and although unsure of her surroundings and her new culture, Mrs. Sen had a recurring theme throughout her story that even though things were new and had changed, she should not stop learning as well. Though she was nervous to learn to operate an auto-vehicle, she kept trying and testing herself out in the open road, the exact attitude that is need to survive in a new western world with new customs. Mrs. Sen comes across many bumps in her journey to learning how to drive, from fear when pushed into the driver’s seat and even an accident. But despite it all, she perseveres on.

One of the few similarities I noticed between The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies was the settings that Lahiri chose for each of the stories. There was recurring imagery of an apartment near M.I.T and Harvard, top name schools that many top Indian scholars came to study emphasizing the idea of coming to become more educated or enlightened in not just education but also in many real world applications. Lahiri mentions these places with almost the same imagery of a cozy place to live for 2 people with a kitchen and a single bedroom. The mention of these apartments near a college campus served to paint the picture that the characters were young in America, either just immigrating and starting off or actually beginning their journey into knowledge and the real world. The setting that she constantly chooses is almost like a window into the eyes of Lahiri herself. As the child of an immigrant, and having dealt with many of the problems that she write about, Lahiri uses this technique to almost tie herself into the story as well, allowing for her to constantly bring in the emotions that she had herself and further develop the intensity and beauty of these books.

Conclusion

Taking a look into the depths of literary features and cultures in Jhumpa Lahiri’s works show a lot about how the two are very intertwined and important in the development of her stories. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Bengali culture helps create grabbing stories that immediately connect the reader to what she’s feeling and the experiences that are happening, despite the reader ever having those moments before. As an exceptional writer, her creative use of culture is unique and plays an extremely crucial role when analyzing many of her stories and plots. Everything that she creates and ties together with Bengali culture creates a whole and complete picture for the reader on what Lahiri truly means. She uses her culture as a background clue for things happening throughout her story, and the understanding of it all makes her work all the more amazing.

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