Summary and Analysis
Ashoke goes to Cleveland for a nine-month research appointment, leaving Ashima alone in the Pemberton Road house. She works a part-time job at a local library. Ashoke calls every evening, but she still hates living alone. One afternoon while she is writing Christmas cards, Ashoke calls unexpectedly to tell her that he is in the hospital with a stomachache and will call her again when he gets back to his Cleveland apartment. Several hours later, he still hasn’t called her back. She calls the hospital and learns that he has died from a heart attack.
Gogol returns home to the Ratliffs’ house that night to learn that his mother has called twice for him but left no message. Then Sonia calls with the news of their father’s death. Gogol immediately flies to Cleveland to identify his father’s body and authorize his cremation. Afterward, he goes to Ashoke’s apartment to clean it out. He spends an emotional, sleepless night in his father’s apartment before going to Boston to be with Ashima and Sonia.
Gogol spends the next few weeks in Boston. After a ten-day mourning period, the Gangulis host a ceremony in Ashoke’s honor, attended mostly by Bengali friends. Maxine attends the ceremony but seems out of place, and Gogol no longer feels concerned with making her at ease. She tries to convince Gogol that he should go on the vacation the two of them had planned for New Year’s Eve, saying that it might do him good to “get away from all this.” Gogol responds, “I don’t want to get away,” and cancels their vacation plans, staying in Boston with his mother and sister instead.
In January, Gogol takes a train back to New York, thinking of Ashoke’s near-fatal train ride many years earlier. Gogol remembers a time when he was a child and he and his father had gone exploring. Ashoke had forgotten to bring his camera, but he told Gogol to remember the moment forever.
Although Ashoke’s death shocks Ashima, it is not meant to shock readers. His death is foreshadowed, first by Ashima’s insistence that Gogol say farewell to his father before Ashoke’s departure to Cleveland, then by Gogol’s realization that no one can reach him in New Hampshire, and finally by Ashoke’s phone call from the emergency room and Ashima’s wait for a return call. Ashoke’s death is a logical way for the story to progress: It will force Gogol to come face-to-face with his past.
Whereas Ashoke’s death is intensely personal for Ashima and Gogol, not everyone experiences it so personally. The hospital intern who tells Ashima about Ashoke’s death says that Ashoke “expired.” Ashima notices the impersonal nature of the word, thinking that it is “a word used for library cards, for magazine subscriptions.” When Gogol travels to Cleveland to take care of his father’s body and clean out the apartment, he is repeatedly forced to tell strangers about Ashoke’s death, and though they say they are sorry to hear the news, he knows that Ashoke’s death will not impact them. Even Maxine, who is sad on Gogol’s behalf, cannot really mourn for Ashoke and tries to convince Gogol to leave his mourning mother.
Gogol begins to grapple with how distant he has grown from his family roots. After resisting his parents’ company for so long in favor of Maxine and her parents, Gogol now finds himself lingering in his father’s empty apartment in Cleveland, spending weeks with his mother and sister in the house on Pemberton Road. Even though Gogol has spent years trying to erase memories of his past, he is now lost in memories of his father, wanting to remember his past forever just as Ashoke once told him to do. When Maxine asks Gogol to come on vacation with her in order to escape, he realizes that he no longer wants to use the Ratliffs as an escape from his Bengali heritage or an escape from being “Gogol.”
As a result of Ashoke’s death, Gogol begins taking comfort in Bengali traditions that had formerly felt meaningless to him. After his grandparents’ deaths, Gogol had to eat a vegetarian diet for ten days and was irritated by the restriction forced on him by his parents. Now, as he mourns his father, he finds himself understanding and appreciating the Bengali practice of avoiding meat during mourning. Even though he used to hate Bengali ceremonies as a child, he now takes part in a Hindu religious ceremony commemorating his father.
Maxine’s alienation due to this change in Gogol and his lack of explanation and consideration for her comfort are significant. Having ignored his Bengali heritage for so long, Gogol takes Maxine by surprise with his sudden change of attitude. Because of his sudden desire to return to his roots, he doesn’t have the patience to transition slowly back into Bengali culture or help Maxine understand this change. He simply reverts to another side of himself that has always been there, a side he has kept hidden from Maxine, and this makes her feel like he is becoming a stranger to her.