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Ashima as an Odd Woman Out in the Midst of Indian Women Conformists to American Cultural Habits during her Immigrant Life: A Study of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Name Sake

Prof. D. Amalraj

            The life of Indian native women from the stage of their maturity to the attainment of their motherhood is strictly controlled by traditional patriarchy and matriarchy. Though they attain empowerment through education and profession before marriage, their life continues to be very hard because they have to abide by the Indian cultural values of life both inside and outside their homes. Their life becomes harder still when they are not allowed to assert their empowerment in the choice of life partners of their own. Their life turns to be the hardest when they enter into marital life without asserting their individuality against their parents’ decision. The parents also feel their responsibility to provide their daughters with well settled marital life. Till then, they live with mental tension. It is their Indian traditional belief that they will find themselves placed in heaven after their death only when they provide their daughters with the marital life for their contentment and happiness. Only when their married daughters go to the houses of their husbands, they feel relieved of having done their parental duty with satisfaction. But the in-laws in the houses of their husbands begin considering them as unnecessary intruders but not as additional and permanent members of their families. In spite of this hard reality, Indian native women silently accept all that happens to them before and after their marriage without expressing their agony and discontent openly. There are many empowered married women who never hesitate to strike back in words and actions to any kind of unpleasantness meted out to them in their marital homes. However, there are women who carry on with their marital life without minding anything bitter happenings to their relationship in the houses of their husbands. If traditionally brought up empowered women get married to men living as American immigrants, they enjoy their independent and individual life without any restrictions in America. They change their cultural habits to the changing scenario in America and behave like conformist to American cultural habits. Yet, some women who find themselves in America after their marriage continue to be strong conformists to Indian cultural habits. They never change their traditional life according to changing situations in which they are placed. Ashima in Jhumpa Lakiri’s The Name Sake is a total conformist to Indian cultural habits in the midst of multi-Culturalists during her American immigrant life. In her ways of living, she stands as an odd woman out in the midst of Indian women conformists. This is the nucleus of this critical article.

Key Words:

Immigrant, Native-culture, American-culture, Conformist, Non-conformist

            Many empowered Indian women take shelter under the wings of feminism to establish their independence and individuality as per the desire of their hearts. In the guise of New Women, they do not accept their men and society to treat them as playthings as if they were bereft of any life in them. Never do they hesitate to rebel against all traditional bindings as and when they are more subjugated beyond enduring power. They assert their rights to live in dignity, equality, and respect like their men in all fields of human endeavour. They choose their own choices of life for their marital happiness and contentment. They fall in love with the men they like and marry them too even though their men do not belong to their level of social statuses and religious groups. If they cannot marry the men they love, they never hesitate to lead a single and independent life. If they are single, some women among them remain completely traditional without violating their cultural habits. Some women even assert their individuality and establish relationship either with some unmarried or married men stealthily. But at the same time, all married women are neither completely good nor completely bad in their attitudes and behaviour. There are a few women who violate all their traditional brought up because of their wrong conception of feminism. Just because of a few violators among them, it is patriarchal thought that all empowered women are sailing in the same boat. In such situations and patriarchal assumptions, many modern women dare assert their individuality without minding the bad consequences, misunderstanding, and strained relationship in their familial and marital life.
            If the empowered women get married to Indian men living as immigrants in alien countries through arranged marriage, and if they go and live with their husbands, they forget their Indian culture and live like the native women of their countries of immigration. They give up wearing their Indian traditional dresses, start wearing modern dresses and change their eating habits so that they can be one with the natives of their adopted country. They also mingle with native and other immigrant men and women freely during their alien life. If they find themselves placed in America after their marriage, they entertain the thought that as they are in America, they should be Americans in their ways of life lest they should be alienated as the strangers by the Americans as well as immigrants of other nationalities. There are a few Indian women immigrants who continue to remain diehard even in America and follow their Indian cultural habits. Such women not only refuse to accept the changing situations during their immigrant life but also they refrain from following American cultural habits. This kind of their attitudes keeps them naturally separated from the natives and other American immigrants. Such diehard Indian women are considered to be square pegs in round holes of multicultural American society. Ashima in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is one such an Indian married woman in America, and she becomes an odd one out even among the Indian women immigrants who have changed their life style to that of America. She is thus every inch a conformist to Indian cultural ways of life as an Indian immigrant in America. 

            Ashima is an Indian Bengali married woman, living as an immigrant in America with her husband Ashoke. She remains completely traditional in her thoughts, words and deeds as per her cultural brought up even in America. She does not entertain any thought of changing her Bengali life style to that of American multicultural life. She tries to move only with other Bengali immigrant women because she feels at home only with them. She is not only a total stranger but also a nonentity to other Indian immigrants as well as to those American immigrants of other nationalities. However, she does not mind the thoughts of others about her way of Bengali life in America. Mahesh Bharatkumar Bhatt has endorsed Ashima’s identification with her Bengali immigrants in America:

            Ashima is not like any other Indian immigrant women in America who move with all the natives, other Indian immigrants and those from other nationalities. She loves only Indian Bengali families in America and establishes her close and intimate relationship with them. All other Indian immigrants from other Indian states are total strangers to her as she is to them. This particular Bengali group like her practises only Indian custom, speaks Bengali language, and in many respects, becomes only a substitute family for the vast collection of relatives back in India. But Ashima’s attitude against her close relationship with other Indian immigrants but only with the Bengali immigrants is nothing but an excuse for her to avoid following the customs of        American life. (Struggle to Acculturate 44)

            Being faithful to her Bengali cultural habits, Ashima does not make any attempt to establish her relationship with her neighbours because they are not only non-Bengali Indian immigrants but also the other immigrants from different continents. As and when she likes to go out and mingles with the Indian immigrants, she always chooses only the immigrants from Bengal in India because she feels at home with them. Moreover, she makes visits regularly only to their houses. In doing so, she does not mind whether they are nearby or living far away from her residence. During her weekly visits, she shares her feelings with them and theirs with her. She always talks to them about her happy and peaceful days that she has spent in Bengal. In doing so, she feels as if she were still living in Bengal with her Bengali people but not in America:

            Every week end [for Ashima], there is a new Bengali home in America to go to, or a new Bengali couple or young Bengali family to meet [because] they all have come from Calcutta, [her native state in India], and for this reason alone, they are her   friends. Most of them live within walking distance of one another in Cambridge . . .The [married women who are] homesick and bewildered at the eating habits in America turn to Ashima for [Indian] recipes . . .They sit in circles on the floor, singing songs of Nazrul and Tagore [and enjoy their togetherness]. (38) 
            Besides meeting her Bengali people in America, Ashima continues to be in touch with her own Bengali relatives in India. Her talks to them are only about some important Bengali functions and their important dates. As she has been far away from Bengal for a quite a long time, she sometimes forgets the days and the dates on which she has to observe her Bengali religious days in America. Hence, she used to be in contact with them and she gets from them the most needed instructions for her religious observations during her immigrant life. Thus, she tries to preserve Indian style of living in an American multicultural environment. Unlike other Indian immigrants, she is actually a non-conformist to the style of American life.  As a traditional Bengali wife, she never calls her husband by name as Americans, non-Bengali Indian and other immigrants from other countries do. She never calls her husband by his name because she feels:

            Calling her husband by name is not the type of thing, [which traditional] Bengali [married women] do wherever they are. [Being a Bengali, she remains truthful to the   tradition] She will [also] never kiss or caress her husband [as and when she is with him all alone] at home like the actresses she has seen doing when they are with the actors in a Hindi movie; a husband’s name is something intimate, and therefore unspoken, clearly patched over. (2)

            Ashima cooks only Indian food items and serves them to her husband for all the three times in a day. She also prepares only Bengali special eatable items on all festive seasons and religious functions at home itself. She regularly makes hot and soft drinks for all at home. Even during her pregnant period, she prepares only homemade drinks for her to drink:

            [Whenever she needs something to take or drink] Ashima combines rice krispies and      planter peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin   slices of green chilli pepper, wishing [that] there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. She has been consuming the concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of a snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. (1) 

Thus, she never touches American dishes and drinks, which all other Indian immigrants take as they are in America. She also wears only Bengali traditional dresses. In her way of living like a Bengali even in America, she looks like someone totally different from Indian immigrants and their ways of cultural habits. She thus completely attaches herself only to anything that is Bengali even in her American immigrant life.                     
             Ashima goes through another anxiety as a pregnant woman in an alien land for her non-conformist attitudes. She feels lonely and isolated without anyone coming to her help in her pregnant status as she is not friendly to her neighbours. If she were in India before and after delivery, she would not have looked much worried about her motherhood. If she had given birth to a child in India, she would not have faced any difficulty too in raising her child because her mother and other Indian native Bengali women would have been always with her. As she is in America, and she is all alone in her pregnant status, “She [feels] terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative” (5). Had she not remained a non-conformist to her immigrant multicultural life, she would not have alienated herself from moving with the American and all other immigrant women. Had she followed American cultural habits too and moved with all in America without any difference in her attitudes and behaviour besides her traditional habits, she would not have felt lonely and helpless. She would have felt at home in America too. As an Indian immigrant, she should have felt like an Indian American in America but she has not entertained such a feeling. Hence, her agony is indescribable in her self-warranted isolated life. However, she frees herself from her loneliness and homesickness by going out and visiting super-markets in order to buy groceries all alone.
            Ashima, after giving birth to a male baby, begins to feel that she is not alone at home. There is another Bengali who is always with her and it is none other than her first son Gogol. She is always happy to be with a son born to Bengali parents in America. Though things keep changing in her familial life after the birth of her first son, she remains rooted to her traditional ways as a Bengali mother. She is not able to forget her native Calcutta and the days she has spent with her friends and relatives. By thinking of them, she feels like living in Bengal. As years go by, she has the feeling that she has completely lost her touch with her home and with her relatives and friends in Bengal. Soon after the birth of a daughter Sonia as her second child, she feels happy that she has got a gender companion in her new born daughter. As the days pass and her duty as a mother keeps her very busy, and though she continues to be a non-conformist, she does not mind her children being Americans in their ways of life. 
            Ashima’s coping with her alienated American life suddenly and unexpectedly takes a back seat. She receives the news of her mother’s death in India and it saddens her heart. But the death of her husband due to heart attack in America jolts her immigrant life and makes her feel lonely even though she has two children with her:

            Ashima feels suddenly, horribly, permanently all alone . . . She feels impatient over the rest of her earthly days she has to live [without her husband in alien country]. But at the same time, something tells her [that] she will not die as unexpectedly like her husband. For thirty-three years, she has missed her life in India. Now she will miss her job at the library, and the women with whom she's worked. . . She will miss the country in which she has grown to know and love her husband. Though his ashes have been scattered into the Ganges, it is here, in this house, and in this town, that he will continue to dwell in her mind. (278)
             In spite of loss of her dependence in the death of her husband, she does not lose her heart because she has two children to bring up. Her self-alienated life and steadfastness to her Indian cultural habits in America give her self confidence and brave her immigrant life all alone. She becomes realistic when she thinks that the loss of life is a loss for ever and thinking of the unbearable loss is a kind of excruciating experience to her.

            However, Ashima sees her children having settled in America itself. She does not want to be a nuisance to their independent and individual American life. She makes up her mind and takes a decision firmly. She plans to spend six months in India and the next six months in America with her children and friends. She will be like the one “without borders, without a home of her own, [but] a resident everywhere and nowhere” (276).  B. Vidya and Kavya Purushothaman in their article titled “The Tumultuous Journey of the Diasporic Women: A Study of the Female Characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake” have expressed their views about the self alienated life of Ashima as a traditional Indian married woman immigrant:

            The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri focuses on the alienated immigrant life of Ashima Ganguli both mentally and physically. Lahiri, being a true representative of Diaspora, presents the distressing emotion of a woman living in foreign country through the existential struggle of Ashima and she has also made Ashima live to the role assigned to her truthfully as a traditional daughter, and granddaughter, and she has become successful as a wife and a mother as an exceptional Indian woman immigrant. (69)


            All those married Indian women who live as immigrants in America need not act like New Women to enjoy their individuality and independence by being one with the American multiculturalists in their ways of living. Some married Indian women still continue to follow Indian cultural habits without identifying themselves with the natives by following their own native cultural ways of living. Such women are exemplary ones for other Indian immigrant women so that they can emulate them in America. By remaining Indian and by following the traditional life even in alien countries is an individual trait. Since such women do not ape Americans, they look different from the natives and so they are the people with unique individual identity in multicultural societal life of America. Any Indian woman living like Ashima during her immigrant life is a different one and so she keeps her Indian identity intact. She need not become a drop in the ocean of multicultural sea by changing herself to that of her adopted country. She can keep her Indian identity wherever she is. Ashima in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is such a woman who keeps her identity intact through her steadfastness to Indian culture even during her alien life. All empowered women will always be tempted to go astray and behave like the natives in their ways of life when they find themselves completely independent individuals if they are away from their traditional families. But Ashima is exceptionally a unique Indian immigrant who has led her life without violating her cultural brought up. 

                                             Works Cited

Bhatt, Mahesh Bharatkumar. “Struggle to Acculturate in the Namesake: A Comment on   Jhumpa Lahiri's Work as Diaspora Literature.” IMDS Working Paper Series, 2009,    pp. 35-49.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Harper Collins Publishers.2004.

Vidya B, and Kavya Purushothaman. “The Tumultuous Journey of the Diasporic Women” A      Study of the Female Characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.”  International   Journal of English Research, vol.3, no. 4, 2017, pp. 68-69.