The Namesake covers five primary periods in the life of the Ganguli family:
1. From India to America
Chapters 1 and 2 narrate the story of the Gangulis’ early days in America. Ashoke decided to move to Boston and begin graduate school after barely surviving a catastrophic train accident in India. A few years later, his parents and Ashima’s parents arranged their marriage, and Ashima left Calcutta to join Ashoke in Boston. As the novel begins, the two of them are going to a Boston hospital because Ashima is in labor with their first child.
Ashima’s grandmother has sent a letter from India indicating what the child’s name should be, but her letter is lost in the mail. Because their newborn son needs a name on his birth certificate in order to be released from the hospital, the Gangulis decide to give him the pet name “Gogol,” after the Russian author whose short stories Ashoke was reading when his life nearly ended on the train. Although they plan to give Gogol a formal name to put on his passport before their trip to Calcutta, Ashima’s father’s sudden death forces them to leave for Calcutta in a rush, and the name “Gogol” is put on his passport.
2. Gogol’s Childhood
In Chapters 3 and 4, Gogol grows up as a Bengali American child with a name that is neither Bengali nor American. Although his parents decide to give him the formal Bengali name “Nikhil” when he begins kindergarten, Gogol refuses to respond to the name so his school teachers call him by his legal name, “Gogol.” Gogol’s younger sister is born, a girl named Sonali and called “Sonia.” Although Ashoke and Ashima try to raise their children according to Bengali cultural practices, they often find themselves competing with Gogol and Sonia’s desires to live like their American friends.
One of the Gangulis’ Bengali customs is hosting house parties for all of their Bengali American friends. Gogol’s fourteenth birthday is such a party, and he meets a shy girl his own age named Moushumi, who becomes his wife years later. During Gogol’s tenth grade year, the Ganguli family travels to India for eight months; Gogol and Sonia feel out of place and can’t wait to return to America. During Gogol’s senior year in high school, he pretends to be a college student and kisses a college girl at a party; just before the kiss, he tells her that his name is “Nikhil.”
3. Nikhil the American
Gogol’s identity change to “Nikhil” becomes official in Chapters 5 and 6. Deciding that he wants to begin college as “Nikhil,” Gogol legally changes his name before starting his undergraduate study at Yale University. He tries to keep his past completely separate from his new life and persona in college; no one from Yale knows that his legal name was once “Gogol.” Gogol dates a fellow Yale student named Ruth, but they break up before the end of college. Gogol takes regular trips home to visit his family in Boston, and on one of these trips Ashoke tells Gogol the story of the train crash that influenced his choice of Gogol’s name.
After college, Gogol completes a graduate degree at Columbia University and works as an architect in New York City. There, he begins dating a woman named Maxine Ratliff. Although he meets her parents on their very first date, he doesn’t want to bring her to meet his parents. His relationship with Maxine progresses to the point where he moves in with the Ratliffs. When Ashoke accepts a nine-month research appointment in Ohio, Ashima persuades Gogol to visit before his father leaves, and Gogol and Maxine stop by to have lunch with his parents on their way to New Hampshire for a vacation with Maxine’s parents.
4. Ashoke’s Death, Gogol’s Marriage
In Chapters 7–9, Ashoke’s sudden death transforms Gogol’s world. Ashoke calls his wife from Ohio to tell her he has checked himself into the emergency room with a stomachache, and a few hours later he dies of a heart attack. Gogol travels to Ohio to collect his father’s remains and empty his apartment, then he returns to Boston to grieve with his family. Maxine is sympathetic about Ashoke’s death, but she doesn’t understand why Gogol grieves with his family for so long and why he refuses to include her in the family’s mourning. They break up.
A year later, after a brief affair with a married woman named Bridget, Gogol begins dating Moushumi, a fellow Bengali American. Moushumi recently broke off her engagement with a non-Bengali named Graham, and Gogol and Moushumi are eager to be with someone who understands Bengali culture. To their parents’ delight, they fall in love and marry. However, their marriage quickly becomes strained for several reasons. First, Moushumi decides not to change her last name to Ganguli. Second, during the trip they take to Paris together, Moushumi expresses her longing to live there, but Gogol feels out of place the entire time. Third, at a dinner party, Moushumi tells her friends about Gogol’s name change, and Gogol feels that she has betrayed his trust.
5. Failure and Future Hope
After turning down a dissertation fellowship in Paris, Moushumi begins feeling stifled by her relationship with Gogol. By chance, she finds the contact information of her old friend Dmitri, whom she had fallen in love with in high school. They begin having an affair. Guilt racks Moushumi. Gogol suspects nothing, not even when he sees his wife packing a bathing suit for a weekend “conference” that is actually a romantic getaway with Dmitri. It isn’t until Moushumi accidentally speaks Dmitri’s name to Gogol and immediately looks guilty that he guesses the truth. They divorce.
A year after the divorce, Ashima hosts one last Christmas party at the Ganguli house on Pemberton Road. Ashima has decided to sell the house and spend six months of each year living in Calcutta, the other six months living in America. Gogol returns home for the party and finds a copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol, an earlier gift from his father. He begins to read it.