Summary and Analysis
At his fourteenth birthday party, Gogol meets Moushumi, a Bengali British girl near his own age whose family has just moved to Boston from England. That evening, Ashoke gives Gogol a copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke is about to explain the story behind Gogol’s name but at the last moment decides not to.
When Gogol is in tenth grade, the Gangulis travel to Calcutta for eight months. Gogol and Sonia feel out of place, knowing that they don’t belong in the country their parents call home. When they return to America, Gogol and Sonia try to forget—as quickly as possible—their vacation in India, returning to a “normal” American existence.
Gogol’s eleventh-grade English teacher, upon learning Gogol’s name, assigns Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” to the class. Gogol intentionally doesn’t read it. His teacher tells the class about the author Gogol’s unhappy life, his virginity, and his self-inflicted death by starvation. Gogol, who already hates his name, now hates it more than ever.
One Saturday while his parents and Sonia are out of town, Gogol goes to a college party with his friends. He meets a girl named Kim at the party and, not wanting to tell her his name, introduces himself for the first time in his life as “Nikhil.” They kiss.
As Gogol matures, the tension between his American and Bengali identities begins to trouble him. Although Ashoke and Ashima see themselves as Bengali first, Gogol views his Bengali heritage as incidental, having no effect on his behavior or attitudes. During his tenth-grade visit to Calcutta, Gogol resents the time away from America even though his parents act as if he ought to feel a sense of belonging in Calcutta. Just like Ashima spent her early years in America cloistered inside her house, Gogol spends his time in Calcutta indoors whenever he is allowed and refuses to embrace life in India because doing so would be a betrayal of his American identity. The tension between American and Bengali identities is also physical for Gogol and Sonia: Both of them become ill while in India, and their relatives remark that the two “were not made to survive in a poor country.” Even though Calcutta is their parents’ homeland, the land itself seems to reject Gogol and Sonia as valid Bengalis.
Returning to America, then, is a relief for Gogol and Sonia because it allows them to return to the identity that feels most natural to them. Within this context, every reminder of their difference from the American majority becomes painful. Gogol doesn’t want to hear his father or his eleventh-grade English teacher talk about the roots of his name because his name is one of the things that mark him as different.
Moushumi clearly feels the same tension between cultures that Gogol and Sonia do—although Moushumi’s childhood in England further complicates her identity. She resists American culture, saying, “I detest American television” to the great amusement of the other children. But she also resists her Bengali parents’ assumption that she and these other children ought to be friends simply because of their Bengali heritage. She aligns herself most of all with her old European home, an identity that will continue to haunt her in later years.
As Gogol wrestles with the tensions of his ethnic and cultural identities, he also struggles to understand the relationship between names and their referents. At times, he tries to believe that names are powerless and unimportant. For example, when his father gives him a collection of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, Gogol acts uninterested and wants to distance himself from his Russian namesake. In his eleventh-grade English class, however, Gogol’s embarrassment is rooted in his belief that names really do matter: Everything his teacher says about Nikolai Gogol’s life feels like an indictment of Gogol Ganguli’s life as well.
Driven by this question of identity, Gogol gets his first taste of the power of renaming when he kisses Kim at a college party. Believing that the name “Gogol” would discourage a girl’s interest in him, Gogol introduces himself as “Nikhil.” As soon as he does so, he feels like a different person. Although he is in one sense identical as both “Gogol” and “Nikhil,” his public identity and self-perception change. “Nikhil” is not the same person as “Gogol,” which is why Gogol feels as though it wasn’t really he who kissed Kim: “Gogol had had nothing to do with it.”