Transnational Identities in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake

The collection of human communities united by a desire to work for common political destiny is termed as a nation. Ernest Renan believes that nation is a ‘spiritual principle’ which perpetually affirms a common life (19). The word nation alludes to people with common racial, religious, linguistic, cultural and historical ties. The main defining feature of a nation is homogeneity but fusion of diverse groups can also occur within a geographical space. Nations are not only simple entities but also social constructions (Ashcroft 150). Many nations across the globe are the products of dynasty and empire but numerous countries are an amalgam of diverse ethnic groups. This diversity leads to the emergence of transculturalism, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. Migrant populations, whether during the colonial rule or in the postcolonial times, create a hybrid space. Their dispersal cut across the geographic, cultural and political borders to build “transnational social fields” (Nanda 2). The development of technologies and the demand for high skilled migrants in the present times create a hybrid society. Such hybrid societies are built on a willingness to abide by the duties and responsibilities. This fusion of cultures also results in a social regeneration. practices, exchanges, connections and activities that transcend the national space are labelled as transnationalism. The contemporary neoliberal globalization brings cultures in conversation. Immigrant transnational activities integrate diverse cultures and promote multiculturalism. The emergence of global economy and capitalist expansion lead to more immigration and the phenomena of transnationalism. Overpopulation and poverty in a country pressurize people to explore new avenues. When immigrants (low or high skilled) engage in transnational activities, they create social fields. These fields link them to their country of origin as well as the country of residence. The social fields are also a product of the interconnectedness of the economic, political and cultural activities. Transnationalism integrates diverse cultures to bring about assimilation – conformity with the dominant culture. It also impacts the policy making framework of a nation.

Disciplines and discourses emerge in a historical and cultural context of nations. Transnationalism creates greater degree of connection between individuals, communities and societies across borders. It brings change in the social, cultural, economic and political landscapes of societies of origin as well as residence. It is a process by which migrants create social fields that cross national boundaries. Migrants, refugees, ethnic diasporas, corporation networks, low and high-skilled people form a transnational group. The migrant ethnic groups identify with both cultures. This identification gives rise to hyphenated identities. The immigrant gets entangled between two cultures. A comparative study on adaptive and assimilative patterns of the Indian immigrants reveals variance in the adjustment patterns, lifestyles and attitudes. It shows that ethnic groups evolve in the receiving countries to facilitate cultural conformity. According to the Collins Dictionary of Sociology, ethnic group shares an identity which arises from a collective sense of a distinct history. An ethnic group shares a defined tradition and language. Ethnic communities form when members of a different way of life find themselves as guests of a complex community. Despite the adaptation to new society, immigrant ethnic groups maintain their particular identity and cultural diversity. Indian immigrants living overseas recreate an Indian socio-culture wherever they live. Though they face the challenges to identity formation in a new environment, Indian immigrant retain the native culture. They get assimilated in the host culture. The immigrants/ ethnic groups are delocalized physically and geographically but remain attached to the old memories of the culture.Stuart Hall defines cultural identity in two different ways. The first one is in terms of a shared culture, ” a sort of collective ‘ one true self,’ hiding inside many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘ selves’ “(223). This “oneness” underlying superficial differences is the essence of identity that is
excavated and represented in literature/cinema. The second one is a matter “of becoming as well as of being” (225). This cultural identity, according to Hall, belongs to the future as well as the past. He observes that cultural identities have histories and “undergo constant transformation” (225). These are not eternally fixed in some past but are subject to rupture and discontinuity due to the continuous play of history, culture and power. The past continues to speak to the present and is constructed through memory, myth, fantasy and narrative. Cultural identities thus become those unstable points of identification which make the discourses of history and culture (226). Cultures define the range and focus of behavioural variation in individuals. Behavioural potentialities are enormously wide in range in broad cultures like America. The limits of socialization are restricted in narrow cultures like India. Family practices reflect and transmit values of a culture. Parents do not simply create parenting practices but conform to the learned practices that meet the expectations of the community. While the children of broad cultures modify the cultural pattern and assert their preferences, immigrants from narrow cultures are under greater normative pressure (as the parents demand conformity and obedience) (Arnett 618-620).

Indian English fiction and much of the Indian diasporic literature pertains to the subject of migration, adaptation and assimilation in the host societies. It is an imaginative representation of the cultural identities. Such fiction gives an expression to the intimate experiences and consciousness of the Indian immigrants. These immigrants constantly produce and reproduce themselves “anew, through transformation and difference” (Hall 235). Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) deals with the processes that either create or deny culture among generations settled in America. These processes reflect on the degree of assimilation and the formation of new identity in the new culture. The institution of parenthood and marriage within the Bengali immigrant family in The Namesake reflect these variations in the cultures. Living in an environment of cultural diversity offers a new cosmopolitan way of life to the immigrants. The meeting of an existing culture and a migrant culture transforms both to create a neo-culture which is also subject to transculturation. This cultural interpenetration incorporates openness towards the other. It also promotes harmonious cultural interaction. The exploration of the life of the first and the second generation characters in The Namesake does not simply reveal the diversity of cultures. It also studies the transnational identity that results from the dynamics of cultural integration. The narrative delineates the processes by which the fragmented identities of the immigrants get reconstructed. An effective cultural exchange interweaves different ethnicities to build a blended culture and a cosmopolitan citizenship in the transnationals.

Cosmopolitanism or transculturalism, hence, redefines the transnationals. The movement from ethnicity to transnationalism envisions the world through a cultural prism (Cuccioletta 9). Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, observes : I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. (Quote)The concern voiced by Gandhi in the context of colonized India holds ground even in the postcolonial globalized times. The synthesis of cultures has two phases – deculturalization of the past and an intermingling in the new for the reinvention of the new identities (Grosu-108). Identity and culture are the building blocks of ethnicity. When individuals and groups address the problematics of ethnic boundaries, they reconstruct identity. The dialectics of ethnic group and new culture keeps evolving to reshape selves and culture. Ethnicity is not simply an historical legacy of migration but a redefinition of the ethnic process and transformation (Nagel 152-153). Identity, in case of the transmigrants, is the result of internal and external opinions. The socially defined array of ethnic choices open to the transmigrants produces a layering of
identities through negotiations. This combination reconstructs identities (154-55). Culture, which provides meaning of ethnicity, authenticates ethnic boundaries. Culture is not simply an historical legacy but is also a construct due to the ‘picking’ and ‘choosing’ of items from the shelves of the past and the present (162). These cultural construction techniques define the boundaries of collective identity in case of the transmigrants (163). Revival and restoration of historical cultural practices along with revision and innovation of culture revitalizes the cultural repertoires. The transmigrants thus invent the present by reinventing the past/tradition.

These traditions establish social cohesion. The reinvention of traditions includes construction or reconstruction of rituals, practices, customs and beliefs (Nagel 163). The processes of globalization and the phenomenon of transnationalism have dislocated/decentred the cultural as well as national identity. Stuart Hall conceptualization of identity as a subject is distinguished into three – enlightenment subject, sociological subject and post-modern subject. He considers the enlightenment subject to be individualistic. In the sociological subject there is a continuous dialogue between self and society. Identity, according to Hall, stitches the subject into the structure. He believes post modernity transforms the subject into a shifting and fragmented self (Modernity 597-598). In the absence of a sense of national identification, the transmigrants suffer a deep subjective loss. National identities get eroded in the global post modern through cultural homogenization. New identities of hybridity which arise in the contemporary times are in direct contrast to the local identities which resist the onslaughts of the processes of globalization (619). Jhumpa Lahiri portrays the problems engendered by migrancy such as displacement, fragmentation, crisis in identity and cultural dilemma in her novel The Namesake. With a masterly touch Lahiri negotiates the dilemma of cultural spaces lying across the continents. She narrates the predicament of the Indians settled in America. The novel brings out Lahiri’s personal experiences as an immigrant and her connections with Kolkata. The “author’s own real homeland” forms the ‘organizing centre’ to understand the dialogics of two cultures in the discourse of the novel (Bakhtin 105). Lahiri makes the following observation in one of her interviews to Elizabeth Farnsworth :I think that, in part, it’s a reflection of what I observed my parents experiencing and their friends, their circle of fellow Indian immigrant friends. It’s also, in part, drawn from my own experiences . . . I’ve inherited a sense of that loss from my parents because it was so palpable all the time while I was growing up, the sense of what my parents had sacrificed in moving to the United States
. . . . (Interview)

The Namesake reveals the details of Bengali customs in Kolkata vis-à-vis their adaptations into a different culture in America. Though the novel deals with life in the United States, Bengal continues to form an important part in the fictional landscape. The novel foregrounds the tradition/practice of Bengali nomenclature (naming or christening) as a marker of cultural identity. The Namesake is the story of two generations of Bengalis in the United States. Ashoke Ganguli and Ashima Bhaduri immigrate to the US in the late 1960s. Ashoke comes to Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a graduate student in engineering. He returns to Kolkata after two years for an arranged marriage with Ashima. Both leave Indian and settle in Cambridge “with a continuous feeling of out of sorts” (Lahiri 49). Ashoke does his best to adapt while Ashima pines for home. Ashima holds traditional values in the midst of materialistic realities of American life. She remains immune to the multicultural milieu of America. She clings to the words of her parents – “not to eat beef or wear skirts or cut off her hair or forget her family” (37). Her personal space represents the feeling of the first generation and is filled with her concern for her family. Ashima’s life is quite similar to Nina (protagonist of Manju Kapur’s The Immigrant). She is in the role of :The immigrant who comes as wife has a more difficult time. If work exists for her, it is in the future, and after much finding of feet. At present all she is, is a wife and a wife alone for many, many hours. There will come a day when even books are powerless to distract. When the house and its conveniences can no longer completely charm or compensate. Then she realises, she is an immigrant for life. (Kapur 124)She looks after her family members. Though her loneliness decreases with the coming of her children, Ashima is unable to overcome her nostalgia for home. She keeps rereading her parent’s letters and cries on finding “no letters from Calcutta” (Lahiri 34). She preserves the “tattered copy of Desh magazine ” and “printed pages of Bengali type” (6). She does not want to raise her son Gogol alone in an alien country (33).

Ashima learns to cope gradually. In order to overcome her distress and nostalgia, Ashima goes to Calcutta for a six weeks trip. But soon realizes that being a foreigner “is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait” and “a constant burden” (Lahiri 49). Ashima chooses to stick to traditional way of dressing because any transition in clothing would imply disintegration/rupture of self. She celebrates Gogol’s annaprasan (consumption of solid food/rice ceremony). Dilip Nandi plays part of Ashima’s brother to hold the child and feed him rice, the “Bengali stuff of life” (39). She sends him to Bengali language and culture lesson, goes to Kathakali dance performance or sitar recital and visits Calcutta regularly. Ashima wants to make (house) Calcutta a marker in her expatriate experience in America. Ashima makes Gogol memorize poems written by Tagore. Every Saturday she sends Gogol (in the third grade) to Bengali classes to learn his “ancestral alphabet” (66). She lets him watch the TV show Sesame Street in order to keep with the use of English in school. Though Ashima is rigid in her conventions, she learns to make sandwiches. She celebrates American festivals like Christmas and Thanksgiving for the happiness of her children. The newly arrived wives of doctors, teachers and engineers in Cambridge turn to Ashima for recipes and advice. They become friends as they all “come from Calcutta” (38).Ashoke and Ashima befriend so many Bengalis that at Sonia’s (their daughter’s) rice ceremony (annaprasan) they have to rent a building. These Bengalis get together not only on weekends but also on Bengali festivals and special occasions – name ceremonies, birthdays, pujas. They wear their best traditional attires on these occasions to revive their traditions in an alien land. The first generation Bengali immigrants construct a sense of community in America and perceive themselves as different (by their cultural and historical legacies). They refer to Bengal as desh. The first generation immigrant strike a balance between the past and the present by keeping the traditions and culture alive. The homing desire shapes their cultural identity in an adopted land (America).

920x920The practice of Bengali nomenclature (naming) is also a marker of cultural identity. Every Indian, reveals Lahiri in The Namesake, has two names – public and private, good name and pet name, Bhalonam and Daknam. She narrates Gogol’s experience of growing up with a pet name and a good name in a place (America) where such distinctions do not exist. Gogol calls this “emblematic of the greatest confusion of all” (Lahiri 118). The name becomes a metaphor for divided identity of the child of the immigrants. As Gogol grows, he begins to feel that his name is absurd and irrelevant. He believes it to be the weirdest namesake which is neither Indian nor American “but of all things Russian” (76). He wants to cast off his awkard name. This reflects his longing to abandon the inherited values of his Bengali parents. Gogol is given the good name Nikhil Ganguli for school. Whenever the teacher calls him Nikhil, Gogol feels scared. Therefore, he remains ‘Gogol’ in school. After Gogol’s instance, Ashoke and Ashima do away with the pet name for their daughter Sonali. Her good name and pet name remain same. Another child of Bengali immigrant, Moushumi also dislikes her name.

Nikhil and Sonali try to create their own lives in America. Gogol (Nikhil) begins having relationships with white/American women. He keeps his private life secret. Nikhil’s parents never suspect of him being an American teenager. Gogol’s sister Sonia knows everything but does not tell her parents. Gogol and Sonali act as each other’s confidants. They help each other hide their social relations from their parents in order to avoid confrontation. They discuss things among themselves. This reflects a gap in communication between parents and children. The bond between the siblings strengthens because they share the similar sense of confusion and sense of being fellow sufferers. Sonali abbreviates her name to Sona and eventually changes it to Sonia. She gets trendy haircuts, goes to dances and has boyfriends in high school. While his parents wanted Gogol to be an engineer, doctor or lawyer, he likes architecture. Nikhil begins to live with Maxine in her parents’ “beautiful Greek Revival house” (Lahiri 188). He moves far away from his parents’ world. He avoids the group ABCD (American Born Confused Desis – acronym for US immigrants) as they remind him of the ways of his parents. He is reluctant to visit home on weekends and does not like to accompany his parents for Bengali parties (119). For the second generation immigrant, Gogol, the American way of life is normal. Therefore, eating beef, drinking, live-in partnerships and girl friends come naturally to Gogol. Both Gogol and Sonia dislike going to Calcutta to visit relatives. They yearn to get back to their western ways whenever they are in Kolkata. Moushumi also suffers the same lack of belongingness like Gogol and Sonia. She tries to find her roots in the third language and culture of France.The generation gap between father and son becomes more visible on Gogol’s fourteenth birthday. Gogol is fond of American music which is in sharp contrast to his father’s inclination to classical Indian music. Gogol’s aversion to Indian music shows the second generation’s indifference to Indian culture and tradition. Ashoke and Ashima discourage Gogol’s courtship with Ruth, an American girl. They distrust this relationship because they have witnessed marital disharmony and divorces in the lives of Bengali men married to American women. After the termination of his affair with Ruth, Gogol dates Maxine. He shifts to Maxine’s home to forget painful memories of his affair with Ruth. He detaches himself from his parents and gets disoriented. He becomes Nikhil for the entire world and remains Gogol only for the family.

It is the death of his father that reconciles Gogol to his culture. The death of Ashoke shakes Gogol and brings in him consciousness of his filial duties. Gogol flies to Cleveland to get his father’s dead body. Ashoke’s death and the ceremony of mourning with the extended community of Bengalis reorients Gogol. Gogol acknowledges the relevance of funeral rites. He recalls his father’s shaving off his hair after the death of his grandparents. He learns the significance of shaving head in wake of a parent’s death. As a young boy Gogol is disappointed with “meatless meal” for ten days after his grandparents death (Lahiri 180). But Gogol gives up meat and fish and eats a mourner’s diet (only rice, dal and vegetables) during the ten days mourning after his father’s death. He returns to his family. He tries to support his mother. He realises the cultural distance between himself and Maxine. Maxine is not the least affected by his father’s death. Gogol notices her self-centred attitude when she asks about his plan for New Year’s Eve during the mourning period of his father’s death. Maxine dislikes Ashima and Sonia. She wants Gogol to move away from them. This makes Gogol break his relationship with Maxine. After Ashok’s death, Sonia’s behaviour alters. Her relationship with Ashima undergoes a change. She starts staying at home to give her mother company.

Gogol succumbs to his mother’s pressure and gets into an arranged marriage with Moushumi. By his marriage with Moushumi, Gogol understands as well as satisfies the shared concern of the community. Unfortunately, the wayward attitude of Moushimi brings disharmony in the relationship. Moushumi’s alienation from Bengali identity and
indulgence in sexual adventures lead to the breaking up of their relationship. Though Gogol is a shattered man, he speaks to his widowed mother and sister, Sonia, every evening. He visits them on weekends. He, at times, drives to the university where his father taught. He begins visiting the homes of his parents’ Bengali friends. Gogol helps his mother dismantle her Pemberton Road house. He feels sad because Ashima leaves for Kolkata. With the death of his father and mother’s departure Gogol does not feel comfortable on the prospect that there would be no one around him to name ‘Gogol : “without the people in the world to call him Gogol, no matter how long he himself lives, Gogol Ganguli will . . . vanish from the lips of loved ones . . . Yet the thought of eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no Solace “(Lahiri 289). The narrative shows Gogol maintaining distance from his origins but is unable to erase his background (past). Gogol, in the end, plays host at Pemberton Road – on the occasion of his mother’s departure – to his family’s Bengali acquaintances.

There is a contrast in the sanctified familial traditions of the first generation immigrants and the American life style of the second generation immigrants. But this intergenerational conflict involves the process of searching identity in the country of settlement. The duality of his orientation confuses Gogol but the death of his father brings new awareness and understanding of self and community in him. The in between state ceases to vex him and Gogol accepts his ambivalence. Ashima never shows any sign of betrayal to culture. Her life in America brings certain changes in her as Ashima adapts the new culture. Her ethical and cultural mores do not change. She takes a job at public library and makes American friends. Ashima learns to do things on her own. She wears saris and puts her long hair in a bun. She is not “the same Ashima who had once lived in Calcutta” (Lahiri 276). She misses Calcutta for thirty-three years but will miss her job at the library and the time spent in America on returning to Calcutta. Ashima feels the warmth of the country to which she had earlier resisted. She decides to divide her time between two ‘homes’ after her husband’s death. The struggle and in-betweenness strengthens the comprehensibility of self in both the generations. In an effort to construct identity every character participates in multiple identities and finally gets aligned with self/specific role. The sense of displacement in the immigrants is alternatively emancipation – a freedom to assert true self. Ashima’s transformation to a transnational figure is true to the meaning of her name, “without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere” (Lahiri 276). In the age of transnationalism immigrant identities are central to the nation building projects of both home and host society. The degree of belongingness and identity reinscribes boundaries of nation state. Transnationalism plays a key role in the globalized economy and political processes. It is a silent subtext that remains undocumented (Schiller 50,59). Lahiri’s novel decentres subjectivity, juxtaposes the ethnic and the transnational to rediscover the real self. The transnational turn connotes “exchange” between nations and marks a “return to roots” (Nanda 2).

Literature encodes the “intensity of lived lives” (term used by Stephen Greenblatt) to provide a critical lens to study the emerging transnational trends. It recognizes the changes brought by time to territorial boundaries and the culture of the world (Nanda 4). Literature reveals the transnational currents by examining the effect of diasporas movement on human identity (as people migrate from one place to another). It also deals with sense of loss (of homeland, of culture, of legacy) and explores the geographical (and metaphorical) borders to usher in “new ethnic revisions and re-visions” (Sardar 184). Gogol’s actions and decisions in the present can be evaluated, discussed and dissected for their future implications. Lahiri’s narrative gives a foresight into the cultural practices of the immigrants to figure out fresh views on future possibilities of transnational identity. The Namesake explores future immigrant identities by a meaningful assessment in the present. It provides a vision through the layered analysis of identities. This could bring changes in the perception of people (transnational as well as national). The realization that past is an integral part of the present and there can be no future without a past could galvanise them for collective social action. The transnationals would thus attempt to empower their present with the past (184). Lahiri’s connection of the past to the present suggests a viable future which recognizes and appreciates the past (174).

The narrative reveals that identities get constructed in cultures. Migration juxtaposes different cultures and nationalities. This lead to a struggle for identity as the culturally displaced immigrants experience an in-between situation. They become captives of two cultures and search for alternatives. This quest envisages a desire for emancipation as well as sense of self realization to align with specific roles. This diffuses the borderline between the cultural past and the present to give rise to new transnational identities. The immigrants swing between homogenisation and diversification. While cultural identity attaches them to local context (symbols, values and language), the global context decontextualizes symbols. The process of uprooting results in loss of cultural tradition but it also enables the immigrants in redefining their identities (Hauser 1-4).

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Categories: Diaspora Criticism, Indian Writing in English, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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