Summary and Analysis
Two weeks before her due date, pregnant Ashima Ganguli is cooking when her water breaks. Her husband, Ashoke Ganguli, takes her to the hospital by taxi, and she is placed in a room with three other women. Although Ashima is surrounded by people, she feels alone, especially because she is a newcomer to America and her entire family is in India.
Ashima remembers back to how she met her husband. She was 19 years old and in college in India when her parents arranged for her to meet a potential suitor, a fellow Bengali earning his Ph.D. in Boston. Just before meeting him, Ashima found his shoes outside the door of the living room and stepped into them briefly. Both sets of parents agreed to the marriage, and she was quickly married to Ashoke and sent to Boston to live with him.
In the waiting room, Ashoke remembers his brush with death as a young man while he was traveling by train to visit his grandfather. During the train ride, Ashoke chatted with a businessman named Ghosh, who advised Ashoke to see the world while he was still young. In the middle of the night, Ashoke was reading a collection of short stories by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol when the train was derailed, killing nearly everyone aboard. Ashoke, barely alive, was rescued because he happened to still be clutching a page of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” and a rescue party noticed him when he dropped the page. After recovering, he decided to move to America on Ghosh’s advice.
Ashoke is still pondering his gratitude for Gogol, whose short story saved his life, when a nurse enters to tell him his child has been born.
In the first moments of Chapter 1, Ashima is using American ingredients like Rice Krispies and peanuts to make an imitation of a snack she used to enjoy in India. This image, of near-Indian food being made with American ingredients, is a fitting symbol of Ashima’s early years in Boston. She retains her Bengali identity, refusing to assimilate completely into American culture. However, she also knows that being Bengali can no longer be the way it was when she lived in India. She lives in a tension between worlds—the same tension that will characterize the entire Ganguli family in this book.
The richly detailed account of Ashima’s experience in a Boston hospital draws attention to how strange she feels in this environment, how different it is from the world in which she grew up. The divergent American and Bengali attitudes toward privacy startle her. American women are comfortable showing off their bodies in ways Ashima would never dream—she hates her revealing hospital gown because it doesn’t cover her lower legs—but ironically they are also too “private” to talk to Ashima.
Inside the hospital room where she is cared for by unfamiliar doctors and nurses in front of three unknown women, Ashima feels at once surrounded by people and all alone. This, too, has been part of her early experience in America. Because the rhythms of American life are unfamiliar to her, she hides from the bustle of Boston, staying cloistered in her apartment and only leaving in Ashoke’s company. Especially now that she is giving birth to a child, a time when she knows her family members in Calcutta would be sure to surround her and support her if they could, Ashima feels their absence acutely.
Ashoke’s perception of America and the hospital is quite different from Ashima’s. After all, he is the one who chose a life in America, and he chose it because of the advice of a man on a train just before he nearly died. Because of Ashoke’s experience in the train crash and everything that followed, Nikolai Gogol and life in America are inseparable from what it means to be alive. When Ashoke thinks of India, he thinks of a place he barely survived, a place he needed to leave in order to learn how to live again. Their child’s birth makes Ashima miss India all the more; for Ashoke, it serves as a fresh reminder of why he chose to move to America.