What are the ways in which The Namesake relates to the theme of cultural difference?
The Namesake depicts the coming-of-age of Gogol Ganguli and examines his relationship with his parents, Ashoke and Ashima, and by extension, his relationship with his Indian heritage and the origins of his unusual name.
When Ashima and Ashoke move to Boston together, as a newly married couple, Ashoke has a job at the university and Ashima is not working. This means Ashima has a more difficult time adjusting to the new culture. She feels homesick for her family, her traditions, and her favorite foods. She does maintain her cultural traditions, though, and soon has a circle of Bengali friends. They celebrate their traditional holidays and ceremonies. For example, when their son Gogol is born, they have a traditional rice ceremony.
As Gogol grows up as an American child with Bengali parents, he finds himself caught between two cultures. As a child, he feels he does not fit in, especially because of his name (not an Indian name, though, a Russian name). He feels increasingly uncomfortable with his parents' conservative behavior and values, which he does not relate to as an American.
When he is in college, Gogol has a long-term relationship with an American woman named Maxine. He spends time with her parents, who are much more laid-back than his own. He is won over by this liberal-minded, friendly relationship between parents and child. He also observes that Maxine's parents show affection toward each other, which his parents do not do openly. Their traditional upbringing and culture means that they keep their feelings to themselves and do not display their affection publicly.
After Ashoke passes away suddenly, Gogol reconnects with his roots. He spends more time with his mother and sister and participates in traditional funeral ceremonies for his father. He has matured and sees how essential his Bengali heritage is to his identity. He also comes to appreciate his name, given to him by his father, as possibly his greatest gesture of love. Cultural difference (between American and Bengali cultures) and differences between generations (first-generation and second-generation immigrants) are key to Gogol's evolution as a character and to the novel as a whole.
Cultural difference is vitally important to understanding the thematic relevance of Lahiri's work. The fact that cultural difference impacts Ashima and Ashoke is critical. Cultural difference is the reason why they strive to create the Bengali influence in their world when so much of their world rejects this difference. They recognize that there is need to preserve their own cultural identity in a world where cultural relevance is not as meaningful. At the same time, cultural difference impacts Gogol as he runs away from it. As he grows up, Gogol goes out of his way to not identify himself as culturally different. An example of this is how he latches himself onto Maxine's parents and absorbs a life where his own sense of being Indian is not relevant. When he marries Moushumi, there still is the reality of cultural differences playing a role in his actions and him not fully understanding either his own ethnic understanding of culture or his own personal sense of what culture is. It is here where I think that cultural differences become essential for Gogol. The ending of the novel is one in which he understands more of his own personal and ethnic conceptions of culture, so much to the point that there really is no longer the pain of cultural differences relevant. It is for this reason that he is more content with his own sense of self as a result of it.