Ashima sits at her kitchen table, addressing Christmas cards to her Bengali friends, the names spread across three different address books that chronicle their life in America. While she usually buys discounted, secular holiday cards, this year she was inspired by a book at the library to make her own, with a bejeweled elephant on the front that is copied from one of her father’s letters. Now that she is alone, with Ashoke teaching in Ohio, she has time for such crafts.
Here are two perfect illustrations of Ashima’s experience in America: first, books of names and addresses that contain the names of her real family and of the second family of Bengali immigrants she has formed, and second, this handmade Christmas card, which avoids the imagery of Christmas in favor of an elephant from her father—even while reluctantly accepting the holiday itself.
Ashima feels lonely in the dark house, and is frightened by small sounds. She has started a part-time position at the library, her first job, and is now friendly with the other women who work there, many of whom have grown children also and are divorced—they gossip about the perils of middle-age dating. Ashoke visits every three weekends, paying the bills, raking the leaves, and putting gas in the car. While he is away they speak on the phone every night at 8 p.m.
Without Ashoke, Ashima is truly alone for the first time, and is beginning to adapt to the situation. Her job and her new American friends are both signs that the unchanging Ashima is, in fact, starting to shift in subtle ways to find her place in America. Her love for Ashoke is ritualized, regular, and familiar: a deep part of her.
One afternoon, Ashoke calls earlier than usual, from a hospital in Ohio. Ashima is frightened, but he reassures her it is just a stomach pain, probably from food the night before. He asks her to arrange an appointment with their doctor at home for the next week. She returns to the cards, signing them with the names of each of her children, her husband, and her own. She writes Gogol instead of Nikhil, even though she knows he would object. She addresses a card to each of her children, reflecting on her inability to accept Maxine as a potential daughter-in-law. She passes two pages of addresses for Sonia and Gogol, amazed by how many homes each has already had, but for them it is normal. Ashima is looking forward to the family being together at Christmas, and hurt that no one had returned for Thanksgiving this year.
This seemingly harmless pain alarms Ashima, as well as the reader, who might suspect that there is more to the story. We can witness now, from Ashima’s perspective, her stubborn refusal to call Gogol by his chosen name, or to accept Maxine. She is amazed by the vagabond children she has raised, with the many addresses each has had now living only in the pages of this book, of which she is the keeper. Christmas, a holiday that once meant nothing to her, is now an important marker in the calendar of her life in America, and with her children.
Ashima’s thoughts are interrupted by a call from what she thinks is a telemarketer, mispronouncing her last name as usual. She hangs up and returns to work. Later, worried about Ashoke, she tries to contact the hospital, spelling her name out letter by letter for the operator. When she is finally connected, she is annoyed with the intern who answers, and when the young woman tells her that her husband has “expired,” a word she associates with library cards, it takes her several seconds to understand. The intern explains that Ashoke has died from a heart attack, and Ashima hangs up the phone, shaking violently. She stares at the cards, each with her husband’s name, and then finds her son’s number in the address book—under G for Ganguli and for Gogol.
The small series of battles that must be fought daily regarding her foreign-sounding name is something that Ashima is now numb to, as she pushes her way through to the hospital. The news of Ashoke’s death is sudden and impossible to comprehend – especially as it is delivered with a word—“expired”—that seems totally dehumanizing. The cards, which Ashima has carefully signed on behalf of her family, are now a shocking reminder of the way that family has been irreparably changed. Her first thought is of her son, whom she will always know as Gogol.
Sonia flies back from San Francisco to be with Ashima, while Gogol flies to Cleveland. Maxine had offered to accompany him, but he refused. He had not heard the news for hours, as he was out at a party and then at dinner with Maxine. When they returned, Gerald, calling him “Nick,” told him that his mother had called. Now Gogol is at the hospital where his father died, identifying the strange, dead body. He is given the clothes his father had been wearing, and a small used novel with someone else’s name written in the cover. Gogol tells the hospital to send his father’s ashes home, and is shown the bed where he died.
The family shifts into action, all of their lives now changed forever. Gogol is called away from the fantasy he had built for himself with Maxine, where he is now “Nick” – a further sign of the new, Americanized identity he has built himself there. He is shell-shocked by the experience of identifying his father’s body, and by all of these small, familiar items that belonged to him. It is his turn, now, to tell the hospital bureaucrat his father’s name.
Gogol drives his father’s abandoned rental car back to his empty apartment, saddened by the uniformity of the complex. The apartment is sparse and simple, with a single picture of Gogol, Ashima, and Sonia on the refrigerator. He begins to dispose of the few items that are there, feeling some guilt when he throws away the food, as he knows his father would disapprove. He takes everything salvageable downstairs to a table for donations, saving only a few photos. For the rest of that day, he makes the necessary phone calls—to the rental car company, the university, the utilities. Everyone is sympathetic. By the time he has finished and ordered a pizza to eat for the first time that day, it is already nighttime.
As he witnesses the simplicity of his father’s life in Ohio, Gogol is struck by the memories contained within this space that had been home, even briefly, to Ashoke, and how his father had treasured the very family that Gogol has been trying to escape. Gogol goes automatically through the process of closing out his father’s life here, comfortably navigating the American structures that once mystified his parents. The intensity of his grief is shown in his forgetting to eat anything until the day is almost over.
Gogol calls home, but Sonia and Ashima are already asleep. He calls Maxine, who regrets not having come with him. Gogol remembers that the last time he saw Ashoke had been with her, on their way to New Hampshire. Maxine is shocked to hear that he plans to spend the night in the apartment. He agrees to get a hotel, but after he has hung up he changes his mind. He drifts in and out of sleep for the rest of the night, dreaming of his father’s life there.
That his first call is to his family is a sign of the shift his father’s death has caused within Gogol. This is followed by his decision to disobey the advice – the command – of Maxine that he not stay in the apartment overnight. There is a new, fundamental misunderstanding between them, amplified because Maxine knows nothing of this side of Gogol’s identity.
The next morning, after disposing of the last few things, Gogol boards a flight to Boston, dreading the moment when he must face his mother and sister. He remembers the grief of Ashoke and Ashima when they lost their own parents. He remembers his father shaving his head in the Bengali tradition, and how he had laughed at his father’s strange appearance, while Sonia, still a baby, had cried. Now Ashima has shampooed the vermillion from her hair’s part and removed her iron wedding bracelet. For the first week after Gogol returns home, the house is always full of Bengali visitors, there to comfort the grieving family. Calls of condolence come from friends all over the country.
Gogol begins to feel more distant from Maxine, but this mourning experience unites him to his memories of his parents’ grief at their own parents’ death. What had seemed foreign and inexplicable to him then is now painfully understandable. The Bengali community gathers around the grieving family, a source of support in their time of tragedy. The Gangulis have spread roots in America more than they knew.
They observe the traditional ten days of mourning, eating only rice and dal. Gogol remembers being annoyed by this custom as a child, but now these meals in their regularity are the only thing that makes sense to him. Although most of the day is spent with the sympathetic guests, for these meals it is only the three remaining family members who eat together. On the eleventh day there is a religious ceremony, a gathering of Bengali friends which feels like so many other gatherings that have come before. Maxine drives up from New York, but feels out of place. She asks Gogol whether he still plans to go with her to the lake over New Year’s Eve. Calling him Nikhil, she tells him that getting away could do him good. Gogol is cold and distant, feeling how different they are, and angered by her suggestion that he “get away.”
This is another example of the ways in which Ashoke’s sudden death causes Gogol to return to the comfort of his parents’ culture. The traditional mourning meal, which would have made him feel embarrassed or alienated years earlier, now becomes a cherished ritual. The religious gathering, a first funeral for Ashoke, emphasizes the foreignness of Maxine, whom Gogol never allowed access to this world. She knows him as Nikhil, but everyone here sees him only as Gogol. The differences between them—which had at first attracted Gogol to Maxine—now begin to drive a wedge between them. Gogol even rejects her offer of returning to the home that had recently been his paradise.
For the next few weeks, the family lives together on Pemberton Road, completing many small and necessary tasks—changing the name on the mortgage, driving to town to shop for groceries or to visit Bengali friends. In January, Gogol returns to New York while Sonia stays in Massachusetts with Ashima. The two women come to see Gogol off at the train station. It feels strange for him to leave, and to return to Maxine. A sharp turn in the tracks reminds him of the train accident that nearly killed his father.
Bonded by the experience of this tragedy, the Gangulis struggle to make sense of their loss. Sonia leaves behind her life in California to stay with her mother—a sign of the renewed importance that the second generation is placing on the first, now that its fragility has rendered it precious. The train’s turning emphasizes the ways that this accident of Ashoke’s death has been formative for them all.
As the train hugs the coastline, Gogol remembers a past journey to Cape Cod, and walking with his father all the way to the tip of a breakwater, despite Ashima’s worried calls. He recalls every detail, like the way his father’s footprints in the sand turned outward because of his slight limp. When they reached the end, surrounded by sea, Ashoke realized he had forgotten the camera. “We will have to remember it, then,” he says, telling the young Gogol to always remember this journey “to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”
The intensity and poignancy of this memory in some ways represents a new awareness in Gogol—that he was in fact formed by his family, and does have an identity rooted in moments like the one he is now remembering. This is an identity that he can no longer afford to reject unthinkingly, not now that its fragility has been revealed by his father’s loss.