Summary and Analysis
The Gangulis move to a Boston suburb, and Ashoke begins a new teaching job at a university. Ashoke loves his job, but Ashima hates the suburbs, feeling even more isolated and out of place than she had in the heart of the city. After two years renting a home, the Gangulis buy a house on Pemberton Road. Ashima becomes pregnant a second time.
Before Gogol begins kindergarten, Ashoke and Ashima decide on a good name for him: Nikhil. This is the name they want him to be called at school even though Gogol doesn’t understand why his name is changed. At school, Gogol refuses to answer to “Nikhil,” and the principal, realizing that Gogol’s legal name is “Gogol” and that this is the name he prefers, insists that he be called “Gogol” at school despite Ashoke’s objections.
Ashima gives birth to a daughter. After the trouble with Gogol’s name, they give her only a good name, Sonali, shortened to Sonia. Over the next few years, Ashima’s mother and both of Ashoke’s parents die in India—but Gogol and Sonia don’t feel the same sorrow their parents do over this news. Despite their parents’ efforts, they feel more American than Bengali.
Gogol becomes more aware of his name, learning that he is named for Nikolai Gogol but not understanding why. A class field trip to a cemetery reminds Gogol what an unusual name he has. Whereas the other students can find their own names on tombstones, Gogol realizes that his name will be like one of the obscure names in the graveyard, dying with him. He does charcoal rubbings of several tombstones for his art class and brings them home to Ashima, but she refuses to hang the rubbings on the kitchen refrigerator with his other artwork.
Even years after giving birth to Gogol, Ashima continues craving the same makeshift Indian snack she craved during her pregnancy, the combination of Rice Krispies and peanuts and spices. Ashima thinks to herself that being a foreigner “is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.” The Gangulis’ move from the city to the suburbs exacerbates this angst, as does Ashima’s second pregnancy with Sonia. But even when life is settled and “ordinary,” nothing in America feels completely ordinary to Ashima. She is permanently out of place.
Because Ashima feels this sense of displacement, she finds it strange that her children are growing up like Americans: They speak English with the accents of native speakers, something Ashoke and Ashima cannot do; they insist on celebrating Christmas, begging until their parents agree to put up a tree and exchange gifts. Ashoke and Ashima do their best to continue Bengali traditions as well. They send Gogol to special classes teaching Bengali language and customs, and they celebrate Bengali holidays. But despite their best efforts, their children identify far more with American traditions than with Bengali ones.
This tension between cultures raises one of the questions that is central throughout the novel: Who, at his core, is Gogol? Is he an American by virtue of his upbringing, or a Bengali by virtue of his blood? Is it possible to be both at once?
The episode of Gogol’s first day at school shows Gogol siding with American culture, subtly defying his parents and their Bengali traditions. By refusing to answer to the name “Nikhil,” the good name he has been given, Gogol embodies an American tradition that sees no difference between pet names and public names. Ashoke and Ashima bemoan the loss of Gogol’s good name, asking, “What about the parents’ preference?” But they are discovering that it is impossible to raise a child in America according to Bengali cultural practices exclusively.
On his class field trip to the cemetery, Gogol begins realizing what his unique name will mean for his sense of identity. Unlike his classmates, who easily find gravestones that share their first names, Gogol is unique—alone—in his name. As he finds other strange names that have died out with their owners, it occurs to him for the first time that names can come and go. When he dies, his name will die with him. This is a burden that the other children in his class do not carry. Although the burden does not seem a weighty one to Gogol right now, he will soon resent the weight of identity that comes with having an uncommon name.