Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2013




Searching for Roots in an Alien Land: Reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine

The Diaspora writing depicts the experience of encountering a differing mode of living and the cultural adaptation is the only solution but this brings in cultural shock. Immigrants are expected to embrace the culture and language of the host land. Yet the attempt is further complicated by the multicultural Confusion where immigrants wish to stay as permanent residents but failure lies on the emotional front. Thus the migrant caught between two or more separate cultures, lives on a borderland. They carry their essential strangeness within. They can neither forget the culture they have come from, nor can they fully assimilate into the culture they have adopted because they cannot erase their identities totally. They start searching for roots in an alien land  for existence to find meaning and belonging in their diasporic situation with the amalgamations of Indian roots. Regardless of location, ethnic origin, age or gender, immigrants in Europe and the world overall have to struggle with the tension between alien/native culture and identity.The term 'root' implies an original homeland from which the people are dispersed and to which people aspire to return.  Geographical displacement rarely makes an immigrant fail to remember emotional bonding with native land or original home. The psyche plays an ‘important role for immigrants  that reconsolidates the past into the present. The elements of  recollection reduces the distance between the host land and the homeland. Through the recollection, the past incidents of the native land are reflected in an immigrant’s mind . Salman Rushdie's comment on memory is mentionable: ...we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost … create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones,imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind ( Rushdie1991 :4).

The element of nostalgia  also plays an important role for reflections of their identity. This
clearly shows their desire to go back and celebrate their past and denotes homesickness and a yearning for home.

In The Namesake (2003), nostalgia about train accident in India helps Ashoke to decide his new born babe's name: “He remembers the page crumpled tightly in his fingers, the sudden shock of the lantern's glare in his eyes... but with gratitude”(Lahiri 2003:28). The name of Gogol is the production of nostalgic exploration. Again Ashima's aspiration to return to India in spite of permanent settlement after marriage in Massachusetts in The Namesake (2003). The meeting point of the past and the present too are flamed by the nostalgic representation of the characters’ efforts by the writers. In foreign countries, lack of adaptability, lack of assimilation, multiple identities of the immigrants make them feel lonely and unsociable.

Alienation is also one of the significant ingredients that indicate an immigrant’s transportation, exile, uprooting and sense of loneliness in a new atmosphere. The same sense of loneliness in an isolation is mirrored in the character of Ashima, Gogol, Moushumi and Sonia in The Namesake (2003). Ashima's understanding of the vast gap between the home and the host culture and the generation gap between her and her son Gogol and daughter Sonia causes Ashima's separation from the new society. On the other hand, Gogol and Sonia, who are born and brought up totally in the West, find their parents’ spiritual leanings increasing their confusions. Their self-fashioning as Westerners receives a push each time whenever they encounter themselves with aspects of their ancestry either outwardly or inwardly. Sometimes the second-generation migrants revolt against their perplexed position. The Gangulis celebrate “with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth ofChrist, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati” (Lahiri, Namesake 64). But once Sonia, in one of her growing-up years, refused her Christmas gifts after taking a Hinduism class in college, “protesting that they weren’t Christians” (Lahiri 2003: 285).

Through migration, immigrants have lost their material relationship to the land of origin, but they can still preserve their cultural or spiritual relationship through memory.

The novel opens with Ashima recalling her homeland fondly. She is in an advanced state of
pregnancy, admitted in a hospital for her delivery.

….nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. Its not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It’s the consequence: Motherhood in a foreign land. …. It was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved. (Lahiri 2003:6)

Ashima tries to settle in and adjust herself to her surroundings, but she feels strange and lost in this country and spends hours remembering her parents and family, and reading the same five Bengali novels time and again. While waiting for the child to be born, she relives the past until the point of her depature for Boston. The thought of bringing up a baby in an alien land terrifies her.     …to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little,where life seems so tentative and spare. (Lahiri 2003:6)

Gradually Ashoke and Ashima’s circle of Bengali acquaintances grow and the cultural spirit of Bengal is recreated whenever the friends meet. This is because of their shared history. The first generation wants to preserve their culture and customs in the foreign land. They are clinging to their culture through tokenism. It is significant that every other Saturday Ashoke and Ashima send Gogol for Bengali language and culture classes at the home of one of their Bengali friends. But the children in the class study without interest, wishing they could be at a ballet or softball practice instead. (Lahiri 2003:66)

They are truly caught between two worlds, one is powerfully or dimly alive, the other powerless to be born. The second generation lived a better life than parents whose roots are still not allowing them to embrace foreign land but their identity always reflects their parents past migrant history.After graduating Gogol gets a job in a firm and is posted in New York. He meets Maxine and is invited by her for dinner. While eating dinner with Maxine’s parents, he recalls his mother’s hospitable nature and how, she would never have served so few dishes to a quest. (Lahiri 2003:133). In this way, Food in the novel is an object, an encouraging fragment of the homeland which these immigrants want to stick. Spices and flavor waft through like themes in a piece of music as evidenced by the following passage. …with the samosas, there are breaded chicken, cutlets, chickpeas with tamarind sauce, lamb biriyani, chutney made them to create their native kitchen on foreign land. (Lahiri 2003: 150)
Ashoke, Ashima and all first generation settlers want their children to do well and get good jobs.

The American dream looms in their eyes and they want their children to exploit the situation and derive the maximum benefit for themselves, but they must follow the Indian moral and cultural code at home. This is the only way these immigrants keep searching for their homelands through different mediums such as physical as well as material.

In Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine, Jasminetraces the story of the heroine in her American odyssey. Here starts her transformation from a village girl under the shell of her father and brothers to a wife of an American traditional husband who gives her all liberties. She is widowed and returns to India to her family. She has to now choose between the rigid traditions of her family and perform Sati, or continue to live the life of Jasmine in America. Jasmine sways between the past and the present attempting to come to terms with the two worlds, one of "nativity" and the other that of "immigrantion.”

She keeps the baggage of her past all through her life. The village girl from Hasnapur survives in America and does not sacrifice herself because after landing on the Gulf Coast of Florida she is raped, and in turn she murders her rapist. This defiles her mission and death is denied her: Lord Yama, who had wanted me, and whom I’d flirted with on the long trip over, had now deserted me (Mukherjee 1989:120).

The pain that she feels and the scar always remind her of that moment in her life, when she tried to run away from her fate. And she tells this to her sisters: "It's my third eye [...] now I'm a sage" (Mukherjee 1989: 5).

When Jasmine runs to her sisters at the river, she swims a while in it and suddenly sees a rotten dog's body. The stench she smells and the pictures follow her for the rest of her life. Later in her life she still remembers the stench whenever she drinks a glass of water: "I know what I don't want to become" ( Mukherjee 1989:5). Jasmine’s journey from Punjab, through Florida,

New York, and Iowa, to California depicts the various stages of her diasporic condition. But
these dislocations are also representation of the mental states of her mind. Jasmine assumes
different mythological avatars in her various journeys of life: She shuttles between identities:
“Jyoti [was] the Sati-Goddess, Jasmine lives for the future” (Mukherjee 1989:176). Jasmine
releases herself from being an illegal immigrant into a self-assured American woman but her
spiritual call comes from India: “I am caught between the promise of America and old-world
dutifulness” (Mukherjee 1989:240).The “old-world dutifulness” forms the mental make-up of
Indian migrants to the West. Uprooted from her native land India, Jyoti does her best to
introduce herself into the new and alien society as an immigrant; the culmination finally
indicated in Jasmine’s pregnancy with the child of a white man ,Bud. Jasmines past life played an important role in her present lifeand the inescapability of memory. Jasmine feels unable to express herself. Due to the simultaneous existence of the past and present, memories of India and her current life in America, Jasmine is forced to view herself from the perspectives of "Jasmine,"  "Jase," and "Jassy" all at once. Her past life crawls upon her once again appeared in the form of Sukhwinder, the murderer of her husband in the disguise of a Hot dog vendor.

The transformation of Jasmine from a semi-educated Punjabi rustic to an American is not psychologically convincing. It is not easy to overcome the disunity of migrants from the roots
and tradition of the culture that one comes from. No doubt the liberated Jyoti, Jasmine, Jase and Jane, who make a life time for every name, look like a possibility for every enthusiastic
immigrant. Jasmine starts her journey from India and uproots and re-roots herself and survives in all odd circumstances. Mukherjee introduces Jasmine's existence as two opposite poles: her beginnings as Jyoti, in an Indian village, and her life as Jane Ripplemeyer, in Iowa. Thus, she is caught between the two cultures of the east and west, past and present, old and new on an alien land. She explores the encounter between the mainstream American culture and the new one formed by her spirit of a migrant being. Thus Jasmine, Ashima, Ashoke , Gogol , Soniya have  lost their  Indian identities in one way or another  and they try to struggle and find a determined life to survive in an alien background in which many are at least partially successful.  Jasmine has had to reinvent herself to survive which  represents a strategy of negotiation between East and West and an approach of assimilation which neither privileges the dominant nor  a regret for the marginal. In this way the immigrants attempts to assimilate in two cultures and to find a place in the mainstream of the life of the adopted country. This is done only through different mediums. These mediums are geographical, material as well as psychological. This is the kind of attempt of the immigrants that  makes them to survive in an alien land which they have embraced in any way.




Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New Delhi : Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2007.

Mukherjee, Bharati, Jasmine. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York:Routledge, 1994.

Chaudhuri, Amit (ed.). The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, London: Picador, 2001.

Kumar, Nagendra. The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A Cultural Perspective, New Delhi: Atlantic       Publishers, 2001.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981 – 1991, London: Granta Books, 1991.

Singh, Anita, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora: Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’, The Atlantic Literary Review, Vol.7,Nov.2,2006.

Tandon, Sushma, Bharati Mukherjee’s fiction: a Perspective, New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2004.