Summary and Analysis
A few months after Ashoke’s death, Gogol and Maxine break up. A year later, Maxine is engaged to be married. Gogol now visits home regularly; Sonia has moved in to take care of Ashima.
In a review class preparing for his architecture licensing exam, Gogol meets a woman named Bridget, whose husband lives in Boston. Gogol and Bridget have a brief affair but never exchange phone numbers or become emotionally attached.
Ashima, troubled by Gogol’s being single, persuades him to call a girl named Moushumi, a fellow Bengali American whom Gogol met when they were young. Reluctantly, he asks her out. Although both of them resist the idea of a marriage arranged by their parents, they are unexpectedly drawn to each other.
On their second date, a waiter asks them if they are siblings. The weather is unexpectedly cold that day, and Moushumi insists on buying a hat for Gogol because he is shivering. At the hat shop, Moushumi tries on a very expensive hat she likes but can’t afford. After they leave the hat shop, Gogol returns alone to buy the hat for her as a future gift.
Over time, as their relationship grows more serious, Moushumi tells Gogol about her past. Their childhoods were similar, and both reminisce about how they always wanted to avoid marrying a fellow Bengali. After college, she moved to Paris and eventually became engaged to a man named Graham, a New Yorker living in Paris. Graham visited Calcutta with her, but when they returned to America, he began mocking Bengali culture, which infuriated Moushumi even though she, too, had tried to distance herself from her roots. They broke up a few weeks before the wedding, after which Moushumi stayed single until she met up with Gogol.
Like Ashoke’s death, Gogol’s breakup with Maxine is inevitable. Because Gogol has used the Ratliffs as an escape from his past for so long, he now sees them as an impediment in his journey to reconnect with his past. He excludes Maxine from his mourning process because she can’t understand it; and she can’t understand it because Gogol has never told her about it. Although they are fond of each other in an abstract way, their love lacks the intimacy that it would have needed to thrive.
Gogol and Bridget’s relationship is purely physical, which Gogol enjoys after his heartbreak with Maxine. In this relationship, hiding his past is a virtue rather than a flaw, and Bridget doesn’t mind being excluded from the Bengali part of his identity; the less they know about each other, the better. Gogol feels guilty, however, when he learns about Bridget’s husband, who lives in another city for work but still keeps mementos of Bridget in his apartment. Gogol can’t help comparing this couple to his parents: Ashoke similarly kept mementos of Ashima and remained faithful to her while they lived apart. In this sense, Gogol’s affair with Bridget feels to him like a betrayal of Ashoke. Although Ashoke and Ashima never showed the kind of physical attraction to each other that Gogol has known with his girlfriends, they had a commitment that he admires and longs for.
Moushumi seems to be the answer to all of Gogol’s romantic desires. Because she shares his Bengali American identity, he doesn’t need to fear losing her the way he lost Maxine—due to his failure to acknowledge both sides of his identity. She knew him from his early days as “Gogol,” which means that he can easily share that part of his past with her. Like Gogol, Moushumi has just left a relationship that dissolved because of cultural differences. As a result, both of them are more open than they once would have been to their parents’ advice that marrying a fellow Bengali is the best way to build a lasting relationship.
The waiter’s asking if Gogol and Moushumi are siblings is ironic not only because of their romantic interest in each other but also because they have grown up being taught by their parents to think of other Bengali Americans as relatives. If they had really taken their parents seriously in this advice, they would not only think of each other as cousins but might also find the prospect of pursuing a relationship together impossible.
Moushumi’s breakup with Graham provides her an opportunity to reflect on the implications of mocking or rejecting other people’s cultural practices. Even though Moushumi had rejected and insulted Bengali culture, hearing the same insults from Graham was intolerable to her. Gogol felt the same about Maxine’s dismissal of Bengali practices: It was one thing for him to leave behind his own cultural roots but another for her to ignore them. This difference illustrates an important principle of cultural difference: The same words or actions can take on different meanings when they are spoken or performed by different people. What may be appropriate spoken by one person can be offensive when spoken by someone else.