Kaitlyn Medina, University of Bayreuth,
MA, Intercultural Anglophone Studies
Kaitlyn Medina is currently pursuing her M.A. in intercultural anglophone studies in literature from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Her research focus is on space, place, and movement in postcolonial and diaspora literature. She completed her B.A. in English literature at Regis University, during which she presented at multiple National Undergraduate Literature Conferences and the Metro State Literature Conference. She graduated summa cum laude in 2013 before traveling to Ghana, where she established a nonprofit organization called Untold International, which is focused on development and empowerment through literacy, literature, and language. She lives with her husband, Brady, and a stuffed mammoth named Martha in Bayreuth, Germany.
Nebulous and abstract, the concepts of both ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ exist somewhat elusively, always somehow limited when put to a definition. Yet for those at home in their belonging, the need to categorically define their status exists somewhere between the hypothetical and the absurd. Perhaps this is why these concepts resonate so centrally for writers of diasporic fiction and their hybrid characters – like Mukherjee’s titular Jasmine and Lahiri’s Gogol Ganguli. Indeed, rather than defining home as a delineated place and belonging as inclusivity, diasporic literatures question the very fabric of what it means to be at home, where home is, and who gets to belong.
Through a multifaceted comparative analysis of these two migratory novels, it’s clear that both The Namesake and Jasmine resist easy definitions of home and belonging, preferring instead to take a critical look at the way spaces and places arbitrate constructions of identity and belonging for the hybridized navigators of diasporic experience. While Gogol is legally an American citizen, as much a native of New England as the US itself, his unwieldy identity simultaneously constricts and enables him; he is an architect un-homed by his own interstitial self. Jasmine, on the other hand, presents a paradoxically unimpeachable identity to a vast and ambivalent world, constructing a home within herself that withstands the violent whims of fate, of movement, of multiplicities of belonging. I argue that it is exactly the often uncomfortable navigation evinced by these protagonists that must be entered into if true homes are to be built, belonging to all, and all belonging within.
Broken Pitchers and Lake Houses: Constructions of Home and Belonging in the Diasporic Narratives of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake
1. Defining Home & Belonging
Arguably two of the most widely-understood universal concepts, both home and belonging nevertheless evade precise definitions. Nebulous and abstract, they exist somewhat elusively, illusory in their lexical concreteness, always somehow limited when put to a definition. Ask a colleague or stranger if they know what home means and they’ll answer “of course.” A question about belonging, though slightly less defined, would elicit a similar response. However, when pressed for specifics, these definitions quickly lose some of the depth and breadth of the feelings they evoke; home, for example, may be defined as the specific building or place where one belongs, and belonging may be defined circularly as the place where one feels at home. For many, it seems the feedback loop of these loose interpretations is sufficient, and after all why shouldn’t it be? The necessity of defining these terms seems tenuous or downright absent for those who never confront the mutability of their abstraction; in other words, for those who are at home in their belonging, the need to categorically define their status exists somewhere between the hypothetical and the absurd. To go a step further, it seems that those for whom the questions of home and belonging are most potent are precisely those who find themselves always outside the conventional definitions.
Perhaps this is why these questions resonate so centrally for writers of diasporic fiction and their hybrid characters – particularly those characters who straddle not only their plural identities, but who also often bridge the blurred boundaries between fiction and biography. After all, as noted socio-spatial scholar David Sibley suggests, “the boundaries of society are continually redrawn to distinguish between those who belong and those who, because of some perceived cultural difference, are deemed to be out of place” (qtd. in Schröder 31). This “out of place” aspect of diaspora literatures is key to the spatial remapping that must be done both in and outside the literature; that is, the reconceptualization and construction of home and belonging is important work both for the characters and their real-world counterparts. To some extent, even the novels themselves function as defined spaces in which this construction can take place. This meta-boundary transgression helps to deconstruct conceptions of home as a delineated place, and belonging as inclusivity; rather, diasporic literatures call into question the very fabric of what it means to be at home, where home is, and who gets to belong.
For the sake of this essay, I will use Nicole Schröder’s ideal conceptualization of home, established in her dissertation on Spaces and Places in Motion, which pairs distinction with exchange between interior and exterior spaces, and necessarily maintains porous borders and thresholds:
Such a place would be protective but not necessarily exclusive, as the ‘threshold between [its] interior and exterior, between self and other’ remains open and furthers exchange and dialogue rather than separation and division. It would not only be the ideal place for thinking openly, it would also be a place to leave, a place that has the potential to lead elsewhere to different perspectives and different ways of thinking. Homecoming would then be as much about oneself coming home as about inviting the other, the outside world coming there, too. (35-6)
Significantly, Schröder also avoids characterizing this notion of home as being the “one true place” of the self, thereby allowing for a multiplicity of spatial negotiations for a single conceptualization of self, as well as leaving room for a plurality of truths that can (and often do) contribute to a construction of home. While even this comprehensive understanding of home is still incomplete, it represents a good foundational definition from which to explore the concept of belonging.
As with the concept of home, belonging is necessarily ambiguous, functioning as a barometer of how connected an individual is with the space through which they move. The interplay between space and belonging is difficult to overstate, as both spaces and the people in those spaces exert an influence over each other, simultaneously constructing and challenging meaning, belonging, and identity. Schröder suggests that “people do not simply and passively live ‘in’ a place or ‘in’ a culture – it is people and their various practices that create and maintain places as well as cultures” (28-9). Similarly, the ways in which people create and maintain places (and the social spaces that constitute cultures) help to construct the meaning of belonging in those places. Despite the fluidity of identity construction and the adaptability of people to modify themselves in different spaces, or otherwise influence the dynamics of the spaces they move through, there is no denying the fact that different spaces belong differently to different groups of people or individuals, as Schröder discusses in her exploration of the exclusionary conceptualization of nations. However, as I will show in my analysis of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, nationality and citizenship are not the gatekeepers to belonging; nor, as I will show through my analysis of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, does immigrant status prohibit individuals by default from taking ownership over the spaces they inhabit, molding them(selves) into belonging.
2. Gogol and the Burden of Belonging in The Namesake
Despite being a natural-born American citizen, Gogol Ganguli nonetheless struggles in creating a meaningful space in which he belongs. While this may be attributed partially to his fractured identity (‘Gogol’ to his family and, significantly, the reader; ‘Nikhil’ to the rest of the world), it can also reasonably be connected to his plurality of potential homes. Gogol moves through spaces tentatively, not fully believing in the legitimacy of his claim on his own self-creation. Occupying the liminal space between his parents’ Bengali heritage and his younger sister Sonia’s “true American”-ness, Gogol constantly negotiates his place in the world, slowly and often uncomfortably carving a niche for himself into the narrative of diasporic experience.
Critical theorist and South Asian diaspora scholar Aparajita De calls the process “polygenesis,” or the “continual refashioning that characterizes diasporic identity” (De 183). She goes on to assert that “identity is inflected by multiple socio-cultural and political forces that shape and reshape it. Thus, identity is always in a state of flux; it is a continual birthing process resulting in the evolution of the self under diverse contexts” (183). This multiplicity and fluctuation of contexts influencing the creation of the self only further compounds the complexity of creating a space of belonging, or home. Indeed, Gogol’s identities dissect his spaces of belonging from an early age. Early in the novel, a young Gogol veers sharply toward the “Americanness” of his school peers, an inclination shown in his meal tastes: after all, it is at Gogol’s insistence that his mother “makes him an American dinner once a week as a treat, Shake ‘n Bake chicken or Hamburger Helper prepared with ground lamb” (Lahiri 65). Later, during his long deliberation over whether or not to legally change his name, Gogol reminds himself “that it was a right belonging to every American citizen,” and that “tens of thousands of Americans had their names changed each year” (99). Teetering on the cusp of adulthood, Gogol nevertheless must reassure himself that it is his right – a right belonging to him, in fact – and that he is not alone in wanting to change his identity. From the foods he chooses to consume to exerting his own will over his identity, Gogol finds himself constantly negotiating the world of his American nationality and the world of his parents’ firm, if slightly foreign, Bengali customs.
This early struggle to feel at home in either of his identities foregrounds Gogol’s later listlessness in the spaces he occupies. During his relationship with Maxine, for example, he acts as observer and performer, though he is simultaneously desirous of the easy inclusion the Ratliffs enjoy together and hyper aware of the differences in his own family. He notes, with some guilt, “that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own,” partially because “Gerald and Lydia are secure in a way his parents will never be” (141). Although the affluent New York family appeals to him because of their ease of opportunity and appreciation of the sensuousness of experiences (the sumptuousness of their meals and wine, as well as the historic rootedness of their brownstone house all hearken back to Gogol’s earlier predilection for choosing pleasure the way Americans do), there is also an element of belonging underscoring his time with Maxine.
During their trip to the Ratliffs’ cabin, for instance, Gogol observes that “[t]he family seems to possess every piece of the landscape, not only the house itself but every tree and blade of grass” (154-5), later going so far as to assert that “[t]he Ratliffs own the moon that floats over the lake, and the sun and the clouds” (155). This heady praise stems not from idolatry, but rather from a wistful desire to be as closely tied to certain spaces as the people with whom he finds himself in company. Although a member of their party, Gogol nevertheless retains something of a visitor status, never fully integrating into the lush world the Ratliffs present him. Perhaps this is because each time he falls into a moment of wishful reverie about the various spaces the family occupies, Gogol immediately draws comparisons to his own family, his own upbringing, thinking “of the alarm system now installed in his parents’ house, [he] wonders why they cannot relax about their physical surroundings in the same way” (155). Although he doesn’t name it, the disappointment Gogol feels at his own family’s insecurity in their own space stems from a deeper awareness of their un-belonging, being outsiders in a strange land despite occupying a space that, “to a casual observer, […] appear[s] no different from their neighbors” (64). Having inherited the shadows and echoes of the immigrant experience without the personal context needed to anchor them into meaning, Gogol drifts through his own spaces begrudgingly carrying the weight of a history for which “[h]e feels no nostalgia” (155). Indeed, even in moments of borrowed disconnection in which he plays at the life which comes so naturally to his hosts, Gogol cannot help but feel the tug of familial obligation, memories encroaching at the periphery of the perfect spaces through which he is only ever passing, influenced without influencing, waiting to belong.
It is into this oddly pure liminal space that a particular memory crowds to the front of Gogol’s subconscious – of vacations spent with his own family and faceless other Bengali families, the chaotic banality of which he mistakenly feels cheated him of the peaceful play to which, under the Ratliffs’ WASP-y influence, he begins to feel entitled. He recalls how
Some summers there had been road trips with one or two Bengali families, in rented vans, going to Toronto or Atlanta or Chicago, places where they had other Bengali friends. The fathers would be huddled at the front, taking turns at the wheel, consulting maps highlighted by AAA. All the children would sit in the back with plastic tubs of aloo dum and cold flattened luchis wrapped in foil, fried the day before, which they would stop in state parks to eat on picnic tables. They had stayed in motels, slept whole families to a single room, swum in pools that could be seen from the road. (155)
Understood in the context of his reflections on the way the Ratliffs’ have ownership over every aspect of their space, Gogol’s memories offer something of a foil to his present experience. As opposed to the Ratliffs, the Gangulis were forced to travel in “rented” vehicles, sharing cold (Bengali) lunches in the vast land of state parks owned by the nation with whom Gogol shares a tenuous legalistic link. Perhaps these memories act as a kind of synecdoche – or perhaps the synecdoche is Gogol himself – once again squished into the backseat of vans they didn’t own, sleeping on beds and floors that weren’t theirs, sharing their swimming bodies with other nameless strangers. Gogol’s past is crowded with the memory of being a part of a larger whole, but a whole to which he never felt a sense of belonging or of ownership.
While Maxine’s world ultimately also offers no real space for him, it still offers a key insight into the ostensible “other” in The Namesake, namely (somewhat ironically) the Americans who belong. While De argues that cultural dislocation in the dominant culture results in a “sense of alienation” leading to “inner conflicts and uncertainty about belonging to any one space of cultural identity,” the Ratliffs seem to feel no qualms about their place in the world (185). Gogol notes, after visiting the small family graveyard that “this is a place that will always be here for her” (Lahiri 156). Maxine is completely at home in her life, in herself, and in the spaces she inhabits with her parents. Lahiri never explains the story of how the Ratliffs acquired the spaces they’ve taken such effortless ownership of, and to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. In keeping with the mythos of the nation itself, Americans belong in uniquely American spaces simply by the self-fulfilling fact of belonging, since time immemorial, and forever as far as one can imagine. However, Gogol, still a little unsure of himself in an American identity that doesn’t quite fit him (or that he doesn’t quite fit into – the novel is unspecific), can’t help but look for the cracks in the spaces where there might be a place for him, or perhaps searching for a blurred boundary that offers entry as well as exit.
After all, when Maxine offers Gogol a way out from the “all this” that characterizes the disjointed displacement of his life, rather than move with her into the clean, uncomplicated space of New Hampshires, brownstones, and lake houses, Gogol significantly rejects the opportunity: “I don’t want to get away” (182). It’s a significant choice. By refusing to cross the threshold Maxine presents him, Gogol begins the process of reconciling his disparate halves that he rejected earlier. De suggests that “[b]y rejecting the interpellation ‘Gogol,’ we may say that Gogol resists from the beginning the realization of his self within any culture” (De 187). Indeed, his departure from the world of the Ratliffs simultaneously signals his reentry into his “home” world, understood here to mean simply the world of his family, and a closer proximity to the house in which he grew up. Shortly after this return, he embarks on his next relationship, this time a short-lived marriage to fellow Bengali-American Moushumi, wherein Gogol cleaves somewhat to his Bengali heritage and finds that, too, lacking.
In Gogol’s failed marriage, Lahiri seems to be anticipating the criticism The Namesake would eventually receive from Indian academics, and resists the temptation to polemicize either Maxine or Moushumi. And indeed, the temptation exists to neatly wrap Gogol’s experiences up by proffering, as do Shipra Malik and Anupriya Singh, that while “[f]or diasporic people home is a very fluid concept which changes its meaning along with the prevailing mindset of the person, […] in any case they should not forget their real identity and culture which are the base and foundation of [their] being, [their] true self” (Malik and Singh 354). The temptation is so great, in fact, that Gogol himself seems drawn to remember his “real culture” by entering into a quasi-traditional marriage to Moushumi.
However, like Gogol, Moushumi exists in the interstitial zone of the diaspora; unlike Gogol, she faces gender-specific expectations that color her experiences of both Indian and European/American hemispheres of her identity. For Moushumi, the return to her “roots” (if they can be called that) represents a kind of self-betrayal, while for Gogol the return represents making amends for earlier betrayals. On the subject of marriage their similarities noticeably diverge: “She had always been admonished not to marry an American, as had he, but he gathers that in her case the warnings had been relentless, and had therefore plagued her far more than they had him” (Lahiri 213). This becomes clear when Moushumi remembers how “[b]y the time she was twelve she had made a pact, with two other Bengali girls she knew, never to marry a Bengali man” (213). This act of rebellion, remembered to Gogol decades later, suggests the impact gender can have on otherwise remarkably similar lives. Within the small community of Bengali immigrants in which both Gogol and Moushumi grew up, there was a smaller, more secret sect of girls banding together to overthrow the gendered expectations foisted upon them by relatives. Lahiri’s subtle nods throughout the novel to the gender divide within diasporic communities like Gogol’s suggests the complexities of looking for a place to belong among shared immigrant experiences. In her comparative analysis of the novel, Sue Brennan argues that “[i]n creating a spatiotemporal context for the articulation of model minority-hood, Lahiri does specify gendered modes of subjectification through which Ashima and Ashoke are assimilated into the nation” (Brennan 7). Although Brennan’s focus is on Gogol’s parents, the gendered subjectification she discusses also applies to the different ways in which Gogol and Moushumi navigate the interstitial zones of their identities, and the ways in which they come to belong in their spaces.
Interestingly, when Gogol and Moushumi marry, she refuses to change her last name, signifying how, unlike Gogol, her reclamation of her identity comes not through choosing to change her name, but rather not to change it. In keeping her maiden name, Moushumi interlinks her identity with the spaces she occupies:
Her own last name, Mazoomdar, is already a mouthful. With a hyphenated surname, she would no longer fit into the window of a business envelope. Besides, by now she has begun to publish under Moushumi Mazoomdar, the name printed at the top of footnoted articles on French feminist theory in a number of prestigious academic journals that always manage to give Gogol a paper cut when he tries to read them. (Lahiri 227)
Moushumi’s surname, then, functions as a synecdoche for herself, and by preserving its prominence in the realm of business envelope windows and academic articles, she also draws a border between herself and her new husband, a protective territory into which (on pain of papercut) Gogol cannot enter. These spaces represent a hard-won victory in the battle Moushumi privately wages between the two hemispheres of her being, and, to an extent, represent the way she maintains the home-space she has created within the irreconcilability of her identities. Perhaps it is too tender to suggest that Gogol is merely a victim of Moushumi’s war with her own pluralism, as he is certainly not immune to the same gendered subjectification that plagues his wife; however, the end result remains the same. Gogol again finds himself a visitor in a place that he had intended to be a home, once again rendered observer to a space whose borders are impregnable.
This becomes uncomfortably apparent when, at one of the dinner parties they attend at friends’ houses, both Gogol and Moushumi commit acts of betrayal against each other – or, rather, against the identities they both project. The first betrayal comes when a friend asks Moushumi what her name means and Gogol “realizes that it’s something he’d never thought to ask about her, something he hadn’t known” (240). He notes that “[i]t bothers him, though he’s not quite sure why,” and leaves the room to explore the renovations the friends are midway through upstairs, remembering how he and Moushumi had once tried to design their ideal house: “He’d argued for something modernist, full of glass and light, but she’d wanted a brownstone like this one. In the end they’d designed something implausible […]” (240). As Gogol moves through the unfinished space of his friends’ apartment, he simultaneously moves through the spatiotemporal plane of memory, beginning subconsciously to understand the impassable thresholds by which he is currently contained. Moushumi is, in many ways, a kind of no-man’s land for Gogol, a space he suddenly understands he doesn’t recognize or know how to navigate. Both her names are foreign to him, symbolizing the cracks in the “implausible” space they’ve created together.
Interestingly, their ideal spaces also suggest what home and belonging mean to them. Moushumi values the safety and protection of closer spaces, aligning herself with the Euro-American spaces of not only New York, but also London and Paris – the places about which she “speaks with nostalgia” (212). As Schröder suggests, “nostalgia is one significant part of the notion of home” (Schröder 35). Here again we see a clear distinction between Moushumi and Gogol: she thinks of her childhood with nostalgia, while his childhood memories are devoid of the rose-tinted longing. Rather, Gogol stakes his hopes for home on the future, in his “modernist” house design, which challenges the conceptualization of walls, borders, and the boundaries of the home itself. Focusing as he does on incorporating plenty of glass into his design, he hints simultaneously at the desire to replace opacity with transparency and the recognition that even transparent walls are still walls. However, his design swings closer to Schröder’s progressive conceptualization of home, wherein there is a possibility for exchange between inside and outside.
The second betrayal, to return to an earlier point, comes when Moushumi “outs” Gogol for changing his name to Nikhil to all those present. “[U]naware of what she’s done,” Moushumi announces that Gogol changed his name when he was younger, leading Gogol to feel that his name and all it represents has “become a joke to her,” which “is what upsets him the most” (243-4). This initial faux pas foreshadows Moushumi’s later affair by establishing that aspects of the space she and Gogol share in intimacy (such as their various identities and their marriage bed) have little real weight in her eyes, and that they can be readily discarded on a whim. To some extent, this initial disclosure is a more serious infidelity than Moushumi’s affair with Dimitri, as in the covenant of their semi-arranged marriage, it is not love that is lost but rather the belonging and home they were supposed to build in each other.
After his marriage falls apart and his mother decides to return to Calcutta, Gogol, still nursing the wounds of his many bereavements, returns to the house where he grew up for a final Christmas (a custom borrowed from the America in which he grew up). At the behest of Ashima, he goes looking for his father’s camera and ends up in his old room, “with a bed he’s never shared with Moushumi, or with anyone” (287). The bed itself becomes the space to which he returns, alone, to commune with the identities he at times feels he has been loaned, perhaps because the bed is one of the few spaces he’s never had to share with anyone. Even when his father gave him the book which will become, at least for a moment, a home in which Gogol does not need to wrestle with his multiple identities, he “had stood in the doorway, just there, an arm’s reach from where he sits now” (288-9). For Gogol, the spatiotemporality of memory is always simultaneously ever-present and always just out of reach, as with his memory of his father who, precipitously, stands perched on the threshold, offering to Gogol not only a link to himself through the book, but also a link to Gogol’s own identity, and explanations that transgress the borders of time, of culture, and of self. The book, The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol, does not share its secrets with the reader; these belong exclusively to Gogol. This is particularly significant narratologically, as Gogol has been the primary narrative focalizer since his childhood. Yet at the moment when he reconnects with the book his father left him, notably inscribed “The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name,” Gogol “gets up, shuts the door to his room, […] [and] sits cross-legged on the bed” (288-9). The act of shutting the door creates a kind of enclosed space where he can enter into a conversation with the book that transcends time and place – something that is key in understanding himself and creating his own belonging. It is this act of enclosure that somehow allows Gogol to project himself into the future, anticipating his mother’s later admonitions, previewing the rest of the night in his head, before allowing himself to enter the space of the book that is his namesake.
Indeed, “[t]he in-between space that the diasporic individual occupies decentralizes specificities of the location of nationhood, culture, identity, and the construction of identity” (De 183). This liminal space also seems to decentralize time at the close of the novel, offering Gogol a peaceful glimpse into his near future – a future whose predictability he no longer resents. De suggests that “[i]t is the reconciliation with his cultural hybridity that eventually helps Gogol to comprehend his complex position within cultures,” which is what lends the final scene a sense of closure (185). The borders of time become porous, as Gogol moves simultaneously through past, present, and future, centering himself on the book which has waited for him, and on which he now hinges his hopes:
As the hours of the evening pass he will grow distracted, anxious to return to his room, to be alone, to read the book he had once forsaken, has abandoned until now. Until moments ago it was destined to disappear from his life altogether, but he has salvaged it by chance, as his father was pulled from a crushed train forty years ago. (Lahiri 290-1)
In finally accepting the book – and its indirect influence on his identity and life – Gogol begins to reconcile not only the “structural-ideological processes of (re)negotiation with the diaspora, but also […] movements and tensions within and outside the diaspora” (De 185). As Lahiri resists resorting to overly-simplistic resolutions, I will also resist suggesting that in Gogol’s return to his childhood home he finds a sense of belonging that solves the interior struggle between his identities. As De suggests, it is not only the outside spaces Gogol, as a diasporic character, must negotiate, but also the interior spaces within his own identity and constructions of home. Gogol’s final claim to belonging at the end of the novel seems particularly tenuous; his prospects, although promising of professional ownership through his new architecture firm, nevertheless emphasize his continued preoccupation with creating the perfect space. And as he continues to seek his ideal, the question remains unanswered whether Gogol’s momentary peace is sustainable.
Perhaps, however, the question ought not to be whether his equilibrium is sustainable, but rather why it should be. If home is created through exchange, as Schröder posits, then belonging must also be mobile, a constant conversation between space and identity, simultaneously interior and exterior, challenging always whether one is really “in place,” and if not, why not. And, of course, there is another aspect of home yet to discuss, which is key both to Schröder’s exploration of the concept and to the understanding of diasporic literatures: that of leaving home.
3. Belonging in Flux, and the Mobile ‘Home’ in Jasmine
As Schröder reminds us, homes are not only spaces to enter, but also to leave: “It is not so much fixity as movement that is characteristic of spatial productions, structured as they are by connections between inside and outside, by transformations and trajectories which lead elsewhere” (Schröder 25). One of the privileges of feeling a sense of belonging in a space which one has constructed to be a home is the ability to leave, and Bharati Mukherjee’s titular Jasmine does exactly that. From Hasnapur to Jullundhar to Florida to New York to Idaho and then to California, Jasmine thwarts conventional conceptualizations of home simply by remaining mobile. However, to some extent, Jasmine seems secure in a way that Gogol is not, namely in the indelible identity that transcends the names she calls herself.
From the first pages of the novel, Jasmine challenges the notion that the “old world” and the cultural identity it promised is
something people simply had as an undisturbed existential possession, an inheritance, a benefit of traditional long dwelling, of continuity with the past. Identity, then, like language, was not just a description of cultural belonging; it was a sort of collective treasure of local communities. It was fragile and something which needed to be protected and preserved. (Malik and Singh 350)
Rather, for Jasmine, the “old world” is represented by the thing she doesn’t want to become, particularly in her opening memory of the astrologer assuring her young, disbelieving self that “Fate is Fate. […] A magic snake will penetrate solid walls when necessary” (Mukherjee 4). This early encounter is striking, partially because the astrologer’s prediction of Jasmine’s “widowhood and exile” really does come to pass (3), though his anecdotal magic snake also resonates through the rest of Jasmine’s life. She, like the snake, penetrates walls, drifts ghostlike through national borders, remains uncontained. There is something a little off-putting about Jasmine’s complete adaptability, as if she carries the secret of identity hidden somewhere in her various incarnations. Perhaps there is something a little predatory about her mobility as, shark-like, she continuously moves through spaces (and people) with an ethereal resoluteness that simultaneously charms and hides. Perhaps she, like the snake, is simply doing what is necessary to carry out the “assignment from God” that constitutes Jasmine’s notion of fate (61). When Jasmine suggests to Taylor that “[i]f the universe is one room known only to God, then God alone knows how to furnish it, how to populate it,” Taylor is “despondent,” but for Jasmine the possibility offers infinite possibility (61). In considering her role in the universe potentially miniscule and potentially infinite, Jasmine manages to inhabit all spaces simultaneously, thereby giving herself permission for multiple incarnations of herself based on the different spaces she moves through.
Schröder offers that “places are never only local, completely separate from ‘the rest’ but always ‘translocal,’” which seems particularly evident for Jasmine (Schröder 27). Moving from the Hasnapur of her girlhood to the Jullundhar of her teenage marriage also changes her identity from Jyoti to Jasmine, and this first reincarnation leads her to feel “suspended between worlds” (Mukherjee 76). Despite this, she accepts the adopted name and integrates it into herself without mourning the version of herself she has presumably lost, perhaps because she doesn’t actually lose anything. Remarkably, Jasmine seems to be unattached to the various names she adopts, and with this detachment comes a willingness to define herself in relation to her husband. Still a child when she marries Prakash, Jasmine clings to him, fitting herself into his ideologies while still negotiating her own beliefs (e.g. her desire for children, her hesitation in calling him by his first name, her squirreled stash of commission money from selling detergent with her neighbor). Nevertheless, when Prakash first raises the possibility of moving to the United States, it is not only for his sake that Jasmine adopts his fervor; as she considers the prospect of a new country, she remembers “the old man under the banyan tree,” hoping that “[i]f we could just get away from India, then all fates would be canceled,” because “[w]e’d be on the other side of the earth, out of God’s sight” (85). Her preoccupation with the horoscope from so many years ago belies her initial expression of doubt at the astrologer’s prediction, and suggests that she believes there are boundaries that fate cannot cross. Although she has been renamed and reborn into the life of a wife in a new city, Jasmine still believes that there exists some aspect of life that transcends these largely ceremonial or nominative thresholds through which she has passed. For Jasmine, the indelible is also the inescapable, and no amount of shuffling between identities can throw off the scent of that fate.
When the astrologer’s fate eventually does catch up to her in the form of Sukhwinder’s bomb, it creates a kind of catalyst that, in apparent keeping with much of Mukherjee’s oeuvre, simultaneously resists moralization and pushes Jasmine west. The immigrant journey itself is blurry and feverish, in the way that long journeys often feel. She remembers being ferried through “a shadow world of aircraft permanently aloft that share air lanes and radio frequencies with Pan Am and British Air and Air-India, portaging people who coexist with tourists and businessmen” (100). The image of two distinct worlds coinciding with each other is reminiscent of the status of the subaltern, or the diasporic individual within these spaces. As she and her sometimes compatriots move like shadows through the recognizable and stable world of airports and planes, she experiences the spaces remarkably differently. While this may seem obvious, given the nature of her travel as an undocumented immigrant, it is worth noting because these spaces constitute thresholds between well-bordered nations, between natural territories, and between temporal spaces. She recalls the simple desire of each traveler: “to be allowed to land; to pass through; to continue” (101). Unlike Gogol, Jasmine does not feel entitled to belong, merely to be allowed to continue her transcontinental migration. Also important to note is that the impetus for her mobility is not to search for home, but rather to fulfill what she sees as a duty to her husband and to the requirements of the culture she leaves behind, which, after the astrologer’s prediction comes to fruition, seem cemented in reality.
In their reading of the isolation in the novel, Amanpreet Kaur, Parveen Khanna, and Arvind Khanna suggest that “Bharati Mukherjee proposes that for survival in the present, it is harmful and damaging to pass through the deceptive network of nostalgic experience even [though] the flexibility of Jasmine is continuously helped by her past” (Kaur, Khanna, and Khanna 18). This seems particularly true of her first days and months in America, when she experiences the rape and violence that scrub her of the identity given to her by Prakash. In fact, it is precisely her nostalgic retention of the weight of her widowhood that makes her vulnerable to Half-Face’s violence; he says as much himself: “Travel light, sweetheart, always travel light. If you hadn’t been carrying this bag, you wouldn’t be in the deep shit now, you know that” (114)? Lillian Gordon, who “had a low tolerance for reminiscence, bitterness or nostalgia,” later gives Jasmine similar advice: “Let the past make you wary, by all means. But do not let it deform you” (131). Both Lillian Gordon and Half-Face ironically function in similar ways in Jasmine’s self-reformation when she arrives in America; both teach her the fundamental importance of breaking with the weight of the past in order to move forward. Mukherjee remains noticeably silent on which is more effective, trauma or empathy, in instilling these lessons, and to some extent it doesn’t matter. As Lillian Gordon pragmatically puts it, Jasmine is not alone in her experiences. This idea of being simultaneously isolated by the trauma of her violent entry into the country and part of a community of largely silent, shadowy people channeling their way into a space that never asked for them, resolute and strong, must offer some solace and healing. The idea does not excuse or minimize the pain she feels; instead it offers an untold multitude of fellow sufferers with whom to share the burden of memory, of nostalgias resisted, of identities refashioned into shields.
After all, it is under Lillian Gordon’s tutelage that Jasmine fully embodies her new Americanized persona Jazzy. Radha Devi Sharma argues that “[Lillian Gordon] not only gives Jasmine new hopes, she also teaches her how to walk and talk in American ways so that the immigration officials would not recognize her as illegal entry” (Sharma 34). Significantly, Lillian Gordon teaches Jasmine that it is not enough merely to move through a space in order to belong there; embodying the mythos of a space projects the illusion of belonging, manipulating the spaces and places through which one moves, forcing exchange to take place. Schröder argues that “[j]ust as they are produced and influenced by those who inhabit, cross, or travel through them (by way of social practices and relations), spaces and places in turn influence those inhabitants” (Schröder 25). Lillian Gordon seems to agree with this assessment, and encourages Jasmine to allow herself to be shaped by the cultural influence of the space (America) she now exists in. It is worth noting that Lillian Gordon’s “test” takes place in a mall: “In one of the department stores I saw my first revolving door. How could something be always open and at the same time always closed? She had me try out my first escalator. How could something be always moving and always still” (Mukherjee 133)? Commercialized and innocuous, the mall perfectly represents America – always open, always closed, always moving, always still. Moving through the space of the mall, as Lillian Gordon understands, represents a practice space for moving through the larger, less forgiving, space of the nation. Negotiating these complexities of space is imperative for Jasmine if she is to belong, to say nothing of building a home. Negotiating these complexities within her own identity – simultaneously mobile and frozen, vulnerable and protected – is a spatial exercise for which Jasmine eventually seems somewhat prepared, though she recognizes the strangeness of it upon hearing about the transformation of the Flamingo Court and Lillian Gordon’s house into Paradise Bay Complex:
It is by now only a passing wave of nausea, this response to the speed of transformation, the fluidity of American character and the American landscape. I feel at times like a stone hurtling through diaphanous mist, unable to grab hold, unable to slow myself, yet unwilling to abandon the ride I’m on. Down and down I go, where I’ll stop, God only knows. (138-9)
The motion sickness Jasmine purports to feel at the speed with which America reinvents itself doesn’t keep her from adopting the same speed and willingness to change, adapt, and move. From Florida, she finds the last vestige of disappointment from her life in India in Professorji’s Queens home, which seems more like a transplanted India than a diasporic space. Indeed, the “artificially maintained Indianness” of Professorji’s home irritates Jasmine and makes her impatient; she, “who had every reason to fear America, was intrigued by the city and the land beyond the rivers” (145). It makes sense; having already burnished her American identity to a shine by casting off the chains of nostalgia that the Vadheras seem unwilling to give up, Jasmine retains no ties to the “old world” of India. Like an adult forced to return to the space and role of a child, she riots internally against the space, and against her position in it. She finds herself in the peculiarly diasporic position of being both and neither, simultaneously belonging neither to this dislocated India, nor to the America beyond the horizon.
Unable to relegate herself to the widowhood she had seared from her identity, Jasmine eventually chooses the horizon, moving herself from Queens to Manhattan to reinvent herself once again. While Jasmine states unequivocally that she “became an American in an apartment on Claremont Avenue across the street from a Barnard College dormitory,” her transformation hardly seems so definitive (165). Rather, she seems to be a constantly shifting set of words wrapped in the shell of an identity that, kaleidoscopic, defies limitation. And in abandoning Flushing and its spaces for “living defensively in the midst of documented rectitude,” Jasmine opts for the (arguably) harder work of becoming “the person [the Hayeses] thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate” (171). In so doing, Jase is eventually born.
Unlike Jyoti, Jasmine, and Kali (the death goddess she associates herself into briefly embodying when she murders Half-Face), Jase is consummate in her belonging, turning herself into a companion for Taylor and Wylie and into a “day mummy” for Duff. And unlike Prakash, Taylor does not become the catalyst for Jasmine’s transformation into Jase. For the first time, she changes herself because she wants to: “To bunker oneself inside nostalgia, to sheathe the heart in a bulletproof vest, was to be a coward” (185). And while Jasmine seems truly happy during her time in Manhattan, the question remains whether it is a home for her, and if she belongs there. Though, to an extent, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not Jasmine belongs in order to determine whether a certain place is a home for her. She, unlike Gogol, and unlike the Vadheras, doesn’t seem to define herself so much by the places and spaces she inhabits, and despite performing the projections of identity needed in order to be accepted, doesn’t seem to change whatever is innate within her. Schröder suggests that “identities, cultures, and places need to be spatialized in new ways – in order to find out ‘[t]o which places […] the hybrid cultures of postcoloniality belong’” (Schröder 29). However, perhaps what Jasmine as a character suggests is that, similarly to Gogol, the spaces where hybrid cultures of postcoloniality belong may not harbor places for the individuals who create these cultures. As both negotiate the interiority of identity and the exteriority of dissecting communities and diasporas, Jasmine and Gogol both offer few answers to the question of how diasporic spaces should be conceptualized. Home eludes both protagonists, though perhaps for Jasmine it is less of a loss, at least insofar as Jasmine does not seem to let her homelessness keep her from belonging.
Bharati Mukherjee, according to an article by Debotri Dhar, focused on the paradoxical wholeness of diaspora experience. Dhar suggests
Not for Mukherjee the Americans of hyphenated identities struggling to build a viable home among the diaspora, nor for her the shifting kaleidoscopes of past ritual and present monotony, searching for home and belonging within the recesses of one’s mind, in solitude and soliloquy, as one might associate with writers like Anita Desai. No, her home was this; it was America, a land of hope and without hyphens. (Dhar)
Jasmine seems to embody this resolute hope in the hyphen-less possibility of America, pursuing it with the stubbornness of a woman who believes, as Americans do, that if she works hard enough and wants it badly enough, she can escape the weightiness of fate. Jasmine, like Mukherjee, resists clinging to the Indianness of her heritage as a way to define herself, categorize herself in opposition to the “monotony” and ordinariness of America. Both defy the notion that to exist in hybridity, one must fracture oneself. Even through all her reincarnations, Jasmine remains somehow whole.
Early in the novel but later in her life (one of the anachronistic tropes that characterizes the simultaneity of memory throughout the novel), Jasmine watches Mother Ripplemeyer putter around her kitchen, hair in curlers, and remembers her Hasnapuri friend Vimla, who committed suicide at twenty two when her husband suddenly died: “Vimla set herself on fire because she had broken her pitcher; she saw there were no insides and outsides. We are just shells of the same Absolute” (Mukherjee 15). It is a strange moment of camaraderie stretched across time and continents, Jasmine explaining her friend’s reason for suicide to a reader who exists in a world where Jasmine, a character, does not. It also suggests the inherent absence of borders both in space and identities. Perhaps it is this absence of insides and outsides that becomes the magic by which Jasmine retains the indelible mark of her identity even as she reincarnates herself to fit into each space she passes through. Perhaps, like a turtle or a vagabond, she carries her home with her in the deep recesses of experience.
On a final note, I’d like to propose that Darrel’s fight with his own land offers a kind of cautionary foil to Jasmine’s homeless mobility. Where Jasmine represents a shell filled with an ineradicable Absolute, Darrel represents the torturous negotiation between “commitment to the land or to the self” (228). His suicide, like Vimla’s, is a testament to the powerful grip spaces can exert over individual lives. Unable to free himself from the obligation of maintaining so much space, Darrel sees no recourse but to kill himself. His struggle suggests that the reasons not to draw concrete borders around spaces are just as important for those within said borders as those without. Dhar cedes that “[y]es, homes function as potential sites of confirmation as well as contradiction; moving along multiple axes, they do not just provide protection but have historically been organised around select inclusions and exclusions to keep the other out,” though she refrains from suggesting that these exclusions can also be a way to keep “insiders” in. Darrel’s struggle further emphasizes the vital importance of the exchange Schröder espouses in her definition of home, and Mukherjee’s focus on the privilege of being able to leave a home when necessary. Would Darrel have been beset by nostalgia for the wide open space of Iowa that had begun to feel unbearably oppressive to him? The tragedy of the novel is, perhaps, that he (and the others who could not shed their ties to the land) never found out. However, the hopefulness of the novel comes from the fact that, though Darrel remains bound to the land that killed him, an American longing to leave home, Jasmine carries on, “greedy with wants and reckless from hope” into a horizon that makes her no promises (241). Expecting only change, she charges into a future littered with belonging, repositioning her fate by sheer force of will.
Both The Namesake and Jasmine resist easy definitions of home and belonging, preferring instead to take a realistic and critical look at the way spaces and places arbitrate constructions of identity and feelings of belonging for the hybridized navigators of diasporic experience. However, in the context of Schröder’s “progressive” definition of home, in which exchange between interior and exterior is necessary, perhaps these diasporic literatures offer the perfect lens through which to analyze what makes a home. After all, it seems clear that for those outside the conventional conceptualization of home, creating an inclusive notion of home is imperative, whereas for those who have never been confronted with the paradoxes of their own belonging, home is largely an irrelevant concept. These dichotomies of perception function as key aspects of exchange – if exchange is indeed what constitutes a home – and therefore also of home-building and facilitation of belonging.
It is important that both novels take place in the United States. Although I have not discussed the setting of either novel in great detail, the mythos and ethos of the United States cannot be ignored in context of these narratives of immigrant experience. While many Western countries would have offered largely similar experiences of spaces, what makes the United States unique is that it has historically projected an image of itself into the world as a kind of Utopia, fully democratized and egalitarian, where capitalist schemes offer wealth and security to anyone who can make it there. It is a narrative that exists to this day. The hope of America is itself a kind of character that informs, pushes, and even manipulates the stories of both novels. Jasmine characterizes this manipulative transformation of America in terms of Half-Face, connecting the often traumatic and shocking reformation immigrants must submit to in order to build a home in America with her own rapist (138). It is an uncomfortable reality that many American readers have not needed to confront. Yet in the spirit of building homes that invite the “other” in, that face outward and that, like Gogol’s ideal, are full of light rather than walls, it is exactly this uncomfortable exchange that must be entered into on both sides of the narrative if true homes are to be built, belonging to all, and all belonging within.
Brennan, Sue. “Time, Space, and National Belonging in The Namesake: Redrawing South Asian American Citizenship in the Shadow of 9/11.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2011, escholarship.org/uc/item/6cm9z5ho.
De, Aparajita. “What’s In a Name? Tropes of Belonging and Identity in The Namesake.” South Asian Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 2007, pp. 182-200.
Dhar, Debotri. “Bharati Mukherjee: A Sense of Belonging.” Open Magazine, 10 Feb. 2017, openthemagazine.com/article/books/bharati-mukherjee-a-sense-of-belonging.
Kaur, Amanpreet, Parveen Khanna, and Arvind Khanna. “Physical and Psychological Isolation in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Tiger’s Daughter, Jasmine, and Desirable Daughters.” International Journal of English and Literature, vol. 5, no. 4, 2015, pp. 13-22.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. London, Harper Perennial, 2003.
Malik, Shipra and Anupriya Singh. “Abstruseness of Identities and Belongingness in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake.” International Journal of Research, vol. 1, no. 8, 2014, pp. 349-55.
Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine. New York, Grove Press, 1989.
Schröder Nicole. “Mapping Topographies.” Spaces and Places in Motion: Spatial Concepts in Contemporary American Literature. G. Narr, 2006, pp. 21–48.
Sharma, Radha Devi. “Reinventing the Self in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” Crossing the Border: International Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 29-38.
 My major concern with Schröder’s focus on inclusivity is what it means for the subaltern who, in the process of (re)constructing a home, may find the idea of firmer boundaries more appropriate. ‘Inviting the outside in’ smacks of a politics of politeness that has the potential to be used to police marginalized spaces. She had previously leveled what I interpreted as a criticism at the way “[t]he making of home seems to be a sort of mapping, the carving out of a space that is appropriated and made familiar, an act which might entail its purification from all that is deemed deviant” (34), though it could be argued that in a postcolonial context the act of carving out a home as distinct from colonial convention may be a transgressive act of deviance in itself.
 Interestingly, Jasmine later hints that Half-Face may not have been the first person to rape her when she asks herself (or perhaps the reader) “[…] which of us was raped and raped and raped in boats and cars and motel rooms” (Mukherjee 127)? This further emphasizes that there was something particularly defiling and traumatic about her encounter with Half-Face, as he was the only one who “had put on the suit, touched my sari, my photographs and Ganpati” (121). For Jasmine, her body, like her name, is “merely the shell,” something she can dislocate herself from, and it is only her purpose that remains intimate, worth killing for (121).