The 2003 novel, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is worthy of its title. “Good name,” “pet name,” “legal name,” “nicknames”: the list goes on and on for different, distinct name categories (Lahiri 58). If that sounds confusing to distinguish, you are not alone. Using the proper name given the situation is a central problem that arises in Lahiri’s text. Ashima, Ashoke, and their Bengali relatives recognize the importance of having at least two names. One name is used in private and the other is reserved for the public sphere. However, Mrs. Lapidus, the principal of Gogol’s new school, does not understand this Indian tradition. Her inability to comprehend, or take the time to do so, results in an unique shift in power dynamics, created using dialogue.
After Ashoke leaves his son at his new elementary school, Gogol expresses his distress about his “parents want[ing him] to have another name in school” (Lahiri 59). Mrs. Lapidus asks the five year old, “And what about you, Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?” (Lahiri 59). Upon first glance, one may interpret this moment as progressive. Mrs. Lapidus notices Gogol’s unhappiness and actively creates a dialogue with and acknowledges the opinions of the child. Oftentimes, the requests of a kid are not considered because their parents dictate their actions and beliefs. However, the principal is not necessarily sympathetic to Gogol because of his age, but because of her misunderstanding. Mrs. Lapidus’ question to Gogol follows a lengthy conversation with Ashoke. When dropping Gogol off, the question of his name emerges. Given his multiple names:
Mrs. Lapidus studies the registration form. She has not had to go through this confusion with the other two Indian children… ‘There seems to be some confusion, Mr. Ganguli,’ she says. ‘According to these documents, your son’s legal name is Gogol.’
‘That is correct. But please allow me to explain—’
‘That you want us to call him Nikhil.’
‘That is correct.’
Mrs. Lapidus nods. ‘The reason being?’
‘That is our wish.’
‘I’m not sure I follow you, Mr. Ganguli…’ (Lahiri 58).
Thus, the praise once given to Mrs. Lapidus for asking Gogol his preference regarding his name should be reconsidered. Her motivations for gaining Gogol’s insight is because she does not understand his father’s rational. She admits to her “confusion” but is not interested in fully understanding or resolving this misunderstanding (Lahiri 58). Dialogue establishes an opportunity for understanding, considering it allows for clarification by questioning back and forth between participants. However, Mrs. Lapidus does not take up this opportunity. Ashoke explains, “That is our wish” to call his son Nikhil in school instead of Gogol (Lahiri 58). Rather than respecting this “wish,” Mrs. Lapidus refers to the boy as Gogol because doing so is easier than being educated about this Indian custom (Lahiri 58). Ashoke attempts to explain his name preference several times. Nevertheless, Mrs. Lapidus “does not understand a word” (Lahiri 59).
Therefore, this conversation becomes a problem because it “others” Ashoke and Ashima. Mrs. Lapidus asks Gogol his preference because he is more American than his parents. She is able to easily comprehend Gogol’s wishes because they are similar to her own. Gogol grew up with only one name, a custom traditionally American. This becomes a problem of intolerance. Mrs. Lapidus would rather practice methods of her convenience instead of educating herself about beliefs different from her own but that are incredibly important to Ashoke and Ashima. Because their “wish” was not respected, upon the birth of their daughter, Ashoke and Ashima have “learned their lesson after Gogol. They’ve learned that schools in America will ignore parents’ instructions and register a child under his pet name” (Lahiri 58, 61). The parents are forced to shift their beliefs in order to fit into a school system and nation different from their home.
Avoidance over education often takes precedence when confusion occurs. It is ironic that Mrs. Lapidus, a principal of a school, would rather ignore the requests of Indian parents than educate herself about their culture and customs. This gives more power to a child than adults because it is easier to go along with the established norm instead of taking time to learn about a new situation. As a result, Ashoke and Ashima are othered because they are not Americans. Beyond that, they are also othered from other Indians considering, Mrs. Lapidus “has not had to go through this confusion with the other two Indian children” (Lahiri 58). This mindset creates categories for discrimination. Mrs. Lapidus struggles to comprehend the different categories the Bengali culture associates with names; yet, she does not hesitate to place Ashoke and Ashima into Americanized boxes. B5.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003.