Summary and Analysis
Ashima gives birth to a son. She and Ashoke don’t immediately name him because they are waiting for a letter from Ashima’s grandmother, in which she will divulge his name. However, they are told that in order for the child to leave the hospital, his birth certificate must have a name on it. They decide to give their son the pet name “Gogol” in honor of Nikolai Gogol until they receive Ashima’s grandmother’s letter to determine his formal name.
Back at home from the hospital with Gogol, Ashima hates living in an unfamiliar culture with a newborn. She tells Ashoke that he must finish his degree quickly because she refuses to raise Gogol in a foreign country away from her family. Ashoke, however, remembers Ghosh saying that returning to India was his greatest regret.
After a few miserable days at home with Gogol, Ashima ventures out to the grocery store with Gogol. Her newfound independence makes her feel less alone. She corresponds constantly with her family but still hasn’t received her grandmother’s letter with Gogol’s good name; she and Ashoke conclude it has been lost in the mail, and they write Ashima’s grandmother asking her to send it again. The next day they learn that Ashima’s grandmother has had a stroke.
The Gangulis begin preparing to visit Calcutta, trying to think of a good name for Gogol to put on his passport. One day Ashima goes shopping for gifts for her relatives in India and accidentally leaves her shopping bags on the train. She miraculously recovers them the next day. Not long afterward, she and Ashoke get a phone call in the middle of the night from Ashima’s brother Rana. Although he doesn’t tell Ashima his reason for calling, she later learns from Ashoke that her father has died. Ashima takes all the gifts she bought her father and leaves them on a train intentionally. They leave for India in a hurry, putting the name “Gogol” on a passport since there is no time to think of a better name.
Part of Bengali culture is to give every child two names: a daknam, or pet name, and a bhalonam, or good name. The pet name is reserved for family and close friends; the good name is used for all interactions with the outside world. Ashoke and Ashima see “Gogol” as a pet name: They have no problem calling their son by that name themselves, but they don’t intend for it to be the name by which he is known to the rest of the world.
However, a string of accidents repeatedly turns this pet name into a public name. When the letter from Ashima’s grandmother doesn’t arrive, they are forced to put “Gogol” on his birth certificate in order to leave the hospital. Later, when Ashima’s father’s death forces a hurried trip to India, they put the pet name onto a passport. Each of these incidents occurs only because the Ganguli family is in America. If they had been in Calcutta, no birth certificate or passport would have been necessary. They could have left Gogol’s name undetermined for years. Nor would they have needed to wait for a letter that was fated never to come; Ashima’s grandmother could have been there in person to deliver the name. Thus, the haphazard journey of Gogol’s name is a consequence of life in America.
The clash between Bengali and American cultures is evident not only in the saga of Gogol’s name but also in the company the Gangulis keep after Gogol’s birth. Their nearest neighbors in terms of sheer physical proximity are their landlords, Alan and Judy Montgomery, but these Americans live lives totally foreign to Ashima. One example of this foreignness occurs when Ashima tries to borrow rice from Judy: Although Judy is happy to share, her rice is brown, and Ashima throws the rice out and ventures into the city to buy rice of her own.
Ashima feels far more at home with her Calcutta family, aunts and cousins and siblings who call and send letters in the wake of Gogol’s birth. Her family is emotionally and culturally near to her, but they are physically distant. As common ground between the nearby-but-foreign Americans and their familiar-but-distant Bengali family, Ashoke and Ashima make friends with other Bengalis living in America. These are the friends who attend Gogol’s annaprasan, his rice ceremony, when he is 6 months old. Even though these new friends’ only connection to the Gangulis is their former home in Calcutta, they function as an extended family throughout Gogol’s life.