Gauri, now five months pregnant, arrives at the airport in Boston to find Subhash waiting for her. She is struck by how similar he looks to Udayan, but thinks he is a “milder version” of her husband with “weakness” in his eyes. Subhash brings Gauri to his car, and the two begin the drive towards Rhode Island. Gauri is disoriented and nauseated by the continuous movement of the car, different from the stop-and-start travel she is used to in Calcutta.
Gauri, still adjusting to life without Udayan, senses his presence despite his absence every time she sees Subhash. The arduous journey to America, made more difficult by her pregnancy, is not one she could have completed without that link—however tenuous—to Udayan’s memory.
Throughout the car ride, the baby kicks, and Gauri cannot shake the feeling that she “contain[s] a ghost.” As the couple arrives in Providence, Gauri considers the meaning of the word “foresight,” or the ability to hold the future before it has been experienced.
Lahiri chooses Providence for the setting of the novel both because of personal biographical reasons and the connection to the mystical its name bears. Ironically, none of the characters—Gauri or Subhash especially—seem to have much useful foresight when it comes to the choices they make and the predicaments they insert themselves into.
Gauri and Subhash arrive at Subhash’s apartment building. Gauri is shocked by the loose security—the flimsy locks on the apartment doors, and the fact that the main doors are held wide open by rocks. Inside, Subhash shows Gauri to the bedroom, which he tells her will be hers alone—he will sleep on the sofa bed in the living room. During their first few days living together, Gauri is surprised by but grateful for the independent nature of their days. Subhash prepares breakfast each morning, then goes off to work, leaving Gauri with a few dollars, keys to the door and the mailbox, and the phone number of his department.
Subhash gives Gauri space, knowing that the adjustment to America will be difficult for her. He himself, after all, had many moments of discomfort and uncertainty during his first several years in America, and he came without the baggage of a recent emotional and psychological trauma—and without the burden of a pregnancy.
Gauri reflects on the days leading up to her marriage to Subhash. Her in-laws had accused her of “disgracing their family.” Gauri herself knew that the marriage was a bad choice—she was marrying Subhash as a means of staying connected to Udayan, but knew even as she was going through with it that it was as useless an act as saving one earring when the other half of the pair is lost.
The choice Subhash and Gauri have made to marry one another is one which will come to define the structure of their lives—and indeed the novel. They both know the marriage is an unhappy solution to a deep emotional problem.
One weekend, Subhash takes Gauri shopping for cold-weather clothes, but she hardly uses them; she does not leave the house. Subhash suggests Gauri take in a film on campus, attend a lecture, or make friends with some of the wives of other Indian graduate students, but Gauri declines. Gauri settles into a quiet, easy routine with Subhash, whose comings and goings, unlike Udayan’s, are predictable and regular. When the two of them watch the news in the evening, Gauri is surprised to find that there is nothing about Calcutta or Naxalbari on the broadcast—the things that tore her city apart and “shattered” her life are not reported here.
Gauri is surprised but relieved to find that Subhash was telling the truth—in America, the violent goings-on in India are insignificant. The cultural amnesia this has the potential to engender in both Gauri and Subhash evokes the novel’s theme of presence in absence. If the strife in India is absent from their current cultural climate, will its presence in their minds remain sharp over time? Lahiri is posing questions about the relationship between heritage, cultural memory, and trauma that will unfold as the novel progresses.
One afternoon, Gauri decides to go out and explore. She goes to a little grocery store near campus and browses the shelves. She finds cream cheese and, not knowing what it is, purchases it, opens it in the parking lot, and eats every last bite, savoring it and licking the paper clean.
This scene is symbolic of Gauri’s burgeoning desire to “devour” life in America despite not knowing anything about it—it externalizes the relief she feels at being away from the political violence of India, with a clean slate in front of her.
Gauri at last begins exploring campus a little more. One day, she enters a lecture hall in the philosophy department and sits down. She peers at another student’s syllabus and sees that the course is an undergraduate one in ancient Western philosophy. Gauri goes back twice a week, every week, to take the class, intending to sit in the back and remain anonymous—but after a while, she cannot help herself, and begins vocally participating in the class. Gauri begins spending more and more time on campus, enjoying the feeling of being surrounded by people. She longs to blend in—she is still wearing saris every day but wants to begin looking like the other women on campus.
As Gauri explores her surroundings and begins to adjust a little more, she longs to fully assimilate into her new environment. Gauri’s motivations seem to stem both from her relief at being away from the violence of Calcutta, and her desire to forget the person she was there—to remove all ties to the version of herself who fell in love with, married, and lost Udayan.
Subhash and Gauri attend an appointment with a local obstetrician, who tells Gauri that the baby is healthy and developing well. After the appointment, Subhash stops at the supermarket, and Gauri waits in the car. Exploring his glove box, she finds a woman’s hair elastic, and feels relieved that she is not the only woman in Subhash’s life—that she, too, is a replacement.
When Gauri finds the hair tie, Lahiri is injecting yet another moment of presence in absence. Subhash, too, has had lovers who remain “present” in his consciousness, and in the story of his life, despite their physical absence. Gauri is relieved to know they are equal in this way.
Gauri and Subhash take a walk on the beach one day and discuss baby names. Subhash asks if being in America is helpful to Gauri, and she admits that it is indeed helpful to be away from Calcutta. She is overwhelmed, though, by the burden she has placed on Subhash. Subhash reminds Gauri that he promised to raise the child with her. Gauri wishes she could express the magnitude of her gratitude to Subhash, or tell him that he is a better man than Udayan, but she cannot. She looks at their footprints in the sand and sees that, unlike Udayan’s footprints in the courtyard, they are already washing away.
This scene symbolizes the fact that Gauri and Subhash—for better or worse—have struck out on their own path, independent of Udayan. As both of them had spent time following in his footsteps and attempting to please him, this is a major moment for them. They have both found themselves in a strange new country, with only each other to cling to—and without Udayan’s example to guide them.