Summary and Analysis
The summer before he begins college at Yale, Gogol tells his parents that he wants to change his name to “Nikhil”; they object that it is too late. He blames them for giving him a pet name instead of a real name, a name that is Russian instead of Bengali, a name that he thinks cannot be taken seriously. His father agrees to allow him to change his name, signing the appropriate form, and Gogol goes before a judge to make the name change official. When the judge asks him why he wants to change his name, he says, “I hate the name Gogol. I’ve always hated it.”
At college, Gogol introduces himself as “Nikhil.” When his parents visit him, they call him “Nikhil” but sometimes forget his name change and call him “Gogol.” Although he visits his parents’ home every few weeks, he feels more at home in his Yale dorm room. During a train ride to Boston, he meets Ruth, a fellow student at Yale. They talk for hours, and when they return to Yale, they begin dating. Gogol keeps the relationship a secret from his parents. Ashoke and Ashima don’t approve when they finally learn about Ruth, and Gogol suspects they are secretly pleased when she leaves for a semester to study abroad in England.
Gogol attends a panel on Indian novels because his distant cousin Amit is a panelist. The panel discusses the challenges that American-born Indians face in developing a sense of identity. After the panel, Amit calls Gogol “Gogol,” and Gogol reminds him that his name is now “Nikhil.” After Ruth returns from England, she and Gogol break up.
On one train trip home to Pemberton Road, an accident delays Gogol’s train. When Gogol finally arrives home, Ashoke tells him about the train accident many years earlier that was the catalyst for Gogol’s name.
Gogol’s legal name change to “Nikhil” marks an important turning point in his identity. Changing his name is his first open act of rebellion against the Bengali American identity he grew up with. (Although he doesn’t realize it at the time, his rejection of this name is also a rejection of a key part of his father’s history, a fact which makes the change of name even harder for Ashoke and Ashima to accept.) Clearly Gogol wants to remake himself in college, to be something other than what his parents wish he would be: He attends Yale rather than MIT, his parents’ preference, and pursues architecture rather than engineering or medicine. Gogol longs for a fresh start, a space in which he can distance himself from his heritage, and college seems like the perfect time to perform this erasure of his past.
However, Gogol soon discovers that his past isn’t easily erased. He constantly polices his identity in order to keep his new friends from discovering his old name and his old self. He is uncomfortable when his parents come to visit him at college, and he tries to keep his relationship with Ruth completely separate from his life as a Ganguli. In order to “pass” as “Nikhil,” Gogol finds himself withdrawing more and more from the family who still know him as “Gogol.” He visits them less and less, increasingly feeling unattached to their world in Boston. On campus, he avoids spending time with fellow Bengalis: They remind him too much of the Bengali traditions his parents tried to force onto him, the parts of his childhood he would rather forget. Being “Nikhil” comes at the cost of losing “Gogol.”
The panel on Indian novels that Gogol attends offers a subtle commentary on Gogol’s own experiences as a Bengali American. The panelists use the acronym ABCD, “American-born confused deshi,” to refer to people like Gogol, people with an Indian heritage who also claim an American identity. Although Gogol realizes that his situation is exactly what the panelists are focusing on, he doesn’t like admitting to himself that he inhabits this difficult middle ground of identity. His conflicted world places him in a margin where he feels neither fully American nor fully Bengali, but he resists acknowledging this marginalized position because even that confession seems like an admission of defeat. Instead, he mocks the way the panelists “keep referring to something called ‘marginality,’ as if it were some kind of medical condition.”
Having invested so much effort in abandoning his identity as “Gogol,” Gogol feels both startled and betrayed when he finally learns the complete history behind his name. Not only is the name “Gogol” far more important to Ashoke than Gogol realized, but it also represents a painful memory, one that Gogol is convinced his father should want to be rid of. This is why Gogol asks his father in horror, “Do I remind you of that night?” But Ashoke, unlike Gogol, has no interest in erasing parts of his past. Ashoke views his history as having led him to his current place, and he celebrates even the difficult parts of his past. Thus, he tells Gogol, “You remind me of everything that followed.”