Ashima Ganguli is nearly nine months pregnant with her first child. She is in her apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her husband, Ashoke, is studying for his doctorate in engineering in the next room. Ashima’s labor begins, and the couple takes a taxi to the hospital. After Ashima has checked in, Ashoke leaves her there and promises to return. Ashima has been in the United States for a year and a half, leaving Calcutta immediately following her arranged marriage to Ashoke. Alone at the hospital, Ashima is afraid to raise her child in America. By four o’clock the following morning, Ashima has reached the final stages of her labor, and Ashoke returns to the hospital, where he sits in the waiting room.
He paces and thinks of the fateful train accident that has brought him to this moment. As an undergraduate student in India, Ashoke had been on a train on his way to visit his grandfather. There, he met a businessman who had traveled the world, returning to India only because his wife was homesick. The man told Ashoke that returning was his greatest regret, and he urged Ashoke to travel. Shortly afterward, while Ashoke was rereading Nikolai Gogol’s ‘‘The Overcoat,’’ a favorite short story by his favorite author, the train crashed. The businessman beside him was killed, and Ashoke lay immobile in the wreckage with the torn and crumpled pages of his book. When the rescuers arrived, they noticed him only because the pages were moving in the breeze. It was a year before he was able to walk again, and during his long recovery, Ashoke thought constantly of the businessman’s advice. Seven years have passed and he still credits Nikolai Gogol for saving his life.
The baby is a boy. All of the Bengali friends Ashima and Ashoke have made gather at the hospital to greet him. The baby has not been named because the Gangulis are waiting for a letter from Ashima’s grandmother. The letter contains the names she has picked for her grandchild, one for a boy and one for a girl. The letter was sent over a month ago, but it still has not arrived. After three days in the hospital, Ashima and the baby are ready to go home, but they must fill out the birth certificate and choose a name before leaving. They name the baby Gogol as an homage to Ashoke’s life-changing accident. The name will be a pet name, they decide, a practice common in India. Both Ashoke and Ashima have pet names. In school, at work, and in public, they are addressed by their formal names, but at home, family members call one another by their pet names. Unfortunately, the letter never arrives. Ashima’s grandmother has had a stroke, and Gogol’s intended formal name has been irrevocably lost.
At first, Ashima struggles with motherhood. She is tired, sad, and homesick. However, she soon adjusts to her new routine, enjoying her renewed purpose and the attention of strangers who stop to talk to her and admire the baby. When Gogol is six months old, the Gangulis invite their Bengali friends over for his annaprasan, a ceremony in which Gogol is fed his first solid food. In addition, he is presented with a dollar, a pen, and soil. Whichever the baby chooses will foretell his career as either a businessman, a scholar, or a landowner. Gogol refuses all three.
The Gangulis have moved to a suburb just outside Boston, Massachusetts. Ashoke is working as an assistant professor at a nearby university. Although Ashoke loves his job, Ashima hates their suburban surroundings. In fact, the move from Cambridge to the suburbs was harder on her than the move from Calcutta to Cambridge. Now that Gogol is almost four years old, he is going to day care a few days a week. Without Gogol to care for, Ashima once again finds herself bored. Two years later, the family buys its first home, a newly built ranch in Pemberton, Massachusetts. The house has not yet been landscaped, and Gogol’s earliest memories are of playing in the dirt.
When Gogol is five, Ashima learns she is pregnant. Now that Gogol is about to begin kindergarten, his parents finally choose a formal name for him, Nikhil. This name, too, is chosen in honor of Nikolai Gogol, the author of the short story Ashoke was reading during the accident. Gogol, however, has become accustomed to his pet name, and he does not wish to be called Nikhil. His American teachers do not understand the Indian tradition of pet and formal names; his birth certificate lists his name as Gogol and the boy refuses to answer to Nikhil. Thus, his teachers call him Gogol despite his parents’ wishes.
Gogol’s sister is born the following May. His parents name her Sonali, forgoing the pet and formal names because of the confusion they have caused for Gogol. Her name eventually becomes shortened to the more Americanized ‘‘Sonia.’’ At her annaprasan, Sonia chooses the dirt and tries to eat the dollar bill. A guest at the party laughs and says, ‘‘This one is the true American.’’
The years go by. Ashoke is tenured and both sets of parents in India pass away one by one. Although the family visits Calcutta every few years, they have become more and more Americanized, even celebrating Easter and Christmas. The children prefer American food to Indian food. Gogol even resents taking classes in Bengali language and culture because he would rather be at his drawing class.
It is Gogol’s fourteenth birthday. His family throws an American birthday party for him and his school friends and then a Bengali party for the family’s friends. After the second party, Ashoke gives Gogol a book of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories. It is the first gift the boy has ever received directly from his father (all the others having been picked by Ashima and given in Ashoke’s name). Gogol feigns interest, but he has long since grown to hate his name and namesake. He resents its oddity, neither Bengali nor American. He does not know the story behind his name. In fact, Ashoke is about to tell his son the story, but something about Gogol’s reticence makes him hesitate. After Ashoke leaves the room, Gogol sets the book on a shelf without even opening it.
A year later, Ashoke is up for sabbatical from his university position, and the family decides to take an extended trip to India, a trip both Gogol and Sonia resent. For them, America is their home, not Calcutta. For their parents, it is the reverse. After they return, Gogol’s junior year of high school commences and he studies his namesake in English class. Though he is supposed to read ‘‘The Overcoat,’’ Gogol does not do so. ‘‘To read the story, he believes, would mean paying tribute to his namesake, accepting it somehow.’’ As high school wears on, Gogol does well, though he occasionally sneaks out with his friends to go to concerts in Boston. On one such outing, he attends a college party. He meets a girl there but dreads telling her his name; once again having to face the usual questions that arise from its telling. This time, he says his name is Nikhil. She comments that Nikhil is a beautiful name, and the two kiss before the night is out.
Gogol is now eighteen and about to attend Yale University, a prestigious school in New Haven, Connecticut. Before doing so, he goes to the courthouse alone and has his name legally changed to Nikhil. His parents begrudgingly accept their son’s decision. Gogol tells the judge that he hates his current name, that he’s ‘‘always hated it.’’ Despite his name change, everyone he knows continues to call him Gogol. It is not until he begins his new semester at Yale that he truly comes into his own as Nikhil. Nevertheless, it takes a long time for him to ‘‘feel like Nikhil.’’ His dual names—one at school, one at home—make him feel as if ‘‘he’s cast himself in a play acting the part of twins.’’ Stranger still is when his parents visit him at school and call him Nikhil. However, when his mother forgets and calls him Gogol, her mistake also feels strange. Gogol ‘‘feels helpless, annoyed . . . caught in the mess he’s made.’’
Gogol begins to feel more at home at school than in Pemberton. He continues to draw and begins sketching buildings, ultimately majoring in architecture. Headed home for Thanksgiving on the train during his sophomore year, Gogol meets Ruth, another Yale student. They fall in love, but Gogol does not mention her to his parents. After a year has gone by, Gogol has met Ruth’s parents and been accepted by them. Ruth has not met Ashoke and Ashima. Even though Gogol’s parents have since become aware of the relationship, they disapprove of it. Later, Ruth spends a year studying in England. Although the couple maintains a long-distance relationship, they ultimately grow apart and break up soon after Ruth returns.
For Thanksgiving break of his senior year, Gogol heads home on the train once more. Ashima and Sonia are in India attending a cousin’s wedding, so Ashoke will pick Gogol up from the station alone. In Rhode Island, someone commits suicide by jumping in front of the train, and thus Gogol is late arriving home. Ashoke has been waiting and worrying at the station for several hours. On the drive home, Ashoke finally tells Gogol about the train accident he was in as a young man, about the true meaning of his son’s name. Gogol is shocked but relieved to know the truth. When Gogol asks his father if he is a reminder of the accident, Ashoke replies, ‘‘You remind me of everything that followed.’’
Since graduating from Yale, Gogol has moved to New York City and earned his graduate degree from Columbia University. He has begun working at an architectural firm. One night at a party, he meets Maxine Ratliff. She lives with her parents in a mansion in Chelsea, a neighborhood in New York City (though she has an entire floor of the house to herself). On their first date, they have dinner at the house with Maxine’s parents. The family regularly dines on fine food and wine. Their lifestyle embodies an effortless, distinctly American gentility that Gogol aspires to. As he falls in love with Maxine, he also falls in love with her family and their lifestyle.
Eventually, Maxine invites Gogol to move in with her. Gogol often thinks of the vast differences between his family and hers; ‘‘he is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own.’’ As with Ruth, Gogol waits as long as possible before mentioning Maxine to his parents. He eventually introduces her, and despite Gogol’s fears, the visit goes well. Maxine likes his parents and is not embarrassed by their Indian-ness, although Gogol is.
Maxine, her parents, and Gogol enjoy a summer vacation at the Ratliff’s lake house in New Hampshire. Again Gogol thinks of how his parents would never fit into the genteel Ratliff family. They celebrate Gogol’s twenty-seventh birthday at the lake, inviting the other families who live around the lake. One partygoer makes an ignorant remark about Gogol’s heritage. He is forced to remind her and, to his surprise, Maxine’s mother that he was born and raised in America. That night, Gogol is surprised that his parents have not called him to wish him a happy birthday, but later he realizes he never gave them the phone number at the lake house and that the number is not listed. Gogol feels relieved by the realization that his family cannot reach him, and that relief makes him think ‘‘that here at Maxine’s side, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free.’’
Ashoke is working as a visiting professor in Cleveland, Ohio, but Ashima has chosen to remain in Pemberton. With Sonia having long since moved to California, Ashima, for the first time in her life, is living alone. She does not like it, and she begins working part-time at the library to fill her days. Ashoke flies home for short visits every third weekend. One Sunday afternoon, Ashima is alone preparing the family Christmas cards. Ashoke calls her and says that he has driven himself to the emergency room with a stomachache; his regular doctor’s office is closed. He tells her not to worry and says he will call her later.
The hours pass and Ashima grows increasingly worried. She finally calls the hospital and is told that Ashoke has died of a heart attack. Ashima is shocked. In New York, Gogol learns that his mother called while he was out but decides to call her back tomorrow. Then Sonia calls and tells him the news. Gogol flies to Cleveland the next day to retrieve his father’s body, and although Maxine offers to go with him, he prefers to go alone. In Cleveland, Gogol also wraps up his father’s affairs. He returns to the house in Pemberton a day later.
The surviving Gangulis are often surrounded by their Bengali friends, but they eat a mourner’s diet when they are alone. That diet consists of blandly cooked vegetables and lentils. Gogol remembers being annoyed by this ritual when he was younger, but now he clings to it. This marks a major change in Gogol’s outlook. On the eleventh day following Ashoke’s death, a ceremony is held to mark the end of the mourning period. Maxine also attends. This time, Gogol is not embarrassed by his family or their customs. In fact, her presence there seems odd to him. Maxine wants to know when Gogol will return to the city, and she asks about a vacation they had planned. She says they need to get away, but Gogol says he does not want to escape. This also marks a major change in his outlook.
Throughout that December, Gogol, Sonia, and Ashima live together in the house in Pemberton. Sonia decides to move back from California and attend law school in Boston. Gogol returns to New York on the train, though now he returns home to visit every weekend.
A year after Ashoke’s death, Gogol is no longer seeing Maxine; she eventually tired of his growing attachment to his family and her exclusion from that part of his life and is engaged to another man. Gogol continues to visit Pemberton regularly, and Sonia is living with Ashima. Ashima has always been the family chef, but now Sonia now does all the cooking. Ashima has grown frail and listless. Gogol begins taking classes to prepare for his architectural licensing exam. He meets and begins an affair with Bridget, a married woman. It is a cold liaison that does not last long, ending when Gogol begins to feel guilty about the affair.
As time goes by, Ashima nags Gogol about settling down and starting a family. She finally convinces him to go on a date with Moushumi Mazoomdar, the daughter of old family friends. In fact, Gogol and Moushumi attended the same sprawling Bengali parties as children, though they never interacted. She is a doctoral student at New York University. Both are surprised by how well their first date goes, and they agree to meet again. Again to their mutual surprise, they fall in love. Their similar backgrounds bond them; both rejected their heritage, and yet they resented their American lovers for doing the same.
Less than a year after their first date, Moushumi and Gogol plan to marry. Although both would prefer a small American wedding, they give in to their families and have a large Bengali ceremony. Gogol has just turned thirty, and his wedding is another reminder of his father’s absence. The couple takes the money they receive as wedding gifts and puts it toward a new apartment.
The two postpone their honeymoon because of Moushumi’s teaching schedule, but they travel together to Paris when Moushumi is invited to attend a conference there. She is fluent in French, having lived and studied in Paris, and the inequity between her familiarity with Paris and Gogol’s unfamiliarity is starkly apparent. It seems to hint at a chasm between them.
One spring, Gogol and Moushumi are at a dinner party, one of the frequent gatherings held by Moushumi’s college friends. Most of her friends are professors, artists, or editors. Gogol does not care for these affairs but goes because Moushumi cares very deeply about them. He knows she wants her life to resemble the lives of her friends (just as Gogol used to wish his family’s life resembled the Ratliffs’). The party’s hosts are expecting their first child, and the conversation turns to baby names. This has been a recurring conversation at almost every dinner party Gogol and Moushumi have attended lately. Gogol is exceedingly bored by the topic; however, this particular night, Moushumi reveals Gogol’s given name to their friends, an act he resents. He tells the group that he believes children should be allowed to choose their own names when they are eighteen. The other partygoers, and even his wife, stare at Gogol incredulously.
Gogol and Moushumi celebrate their first anniversary. Although Moushumi still loves Gogol, she has become somewhat distant. Their dinner does not go well. Moushumi finds it to be too expensive, too fussy. She leaves hungry and sad.
On her way to teach her last class before completing her doctorate, Moushumi finds herself in the university’s mailroom. There, she comes across the resume´ of an old flame, Dimitri Desjardins. She writes down his contact information and calls him a week later. They begin an affair, and Mousshumi spends Monday and Wednesday evening with Dimitri before returning to sleep at home with Gogol. Dimitri is middle aged, balding, and unemployed; his apartment is in disarray. Gogol does not suspect a thing.
Moushumi leaves alone for a conference in Palm Beach, Florida, although Gogol would have preferred to join her. She says she will have too much work to do there, but he sees her pack a bathing suit. Gogol works through the weekend, looking forward to Moushumi’s return. But he also thinks of the previous week, when he and his wife hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Sonia brought her new boyfriend, Ben, and their love presented a disappointing contrast to Gogol and Moushumi’s relationship. Thinking of Moushumi’s growing distance, Gogol decides they need a vacation, and he plans a trip to Italy for the coming spring. The trip will be a surprise Christmas gift.
A year later, Ashima is preparing to throw a Christmas party, the last that will be held in the Pemberton house. The house has just been sold, and she plans to spend six months a year in Calcutta with relatives and the other six months in the United States visiting her children and family friends. She has grown into an independent woman, no longer afraid to live and travel alone. Though she has spent over three decades missing India, she knows that she will miss America. It has become as much a part of her as her birthplace. Sonia and Ben are engaged, and she knows that ‘‘he has brought happiness to her daughter, in a way Moushumi had never brought to her son.’’ Ashima even feels guilty for having nagged her son to date Moushumi in the first place.
Gogol arrives on the train. He thinks of his mother’s travel plans and of his parents’ bravery in living so far from their home. He thinks of how little he has seen of the world, and of how he has always lived a short train ride from Pemberton. He also thinks of the same train ride a year ago, when he discovered Moushumi’s affair. It was ‘‘the first time in his life [when] another man’s name upset him more than his own.’’ Moushumi moved out immediately, returning to Paris, and she and Gogol divorced a few months later. The following spring, Gogol traveled alone to Italy, taking the trip he had initially planned as a surprise for his wife.
Back at the party, Gogol breaks away and heads to his old room. He packs a few boxes of his old books. He discovers the volume of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, the long-forgotten gift from his father. Opening it for the first time, Gogol finds an inscription from Ashoke, and it causes Gogol to realize that ‘‘the name he had so detested . . . was the first thing his father had ever given him.’’ He also thinks that there are only a few people left in his life who know him as Gogol rather than Nikhil; ‘‘yet the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all.’’ Gogol opens the book and begins to read.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Jhumpa Lahiri, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.