The year is 1968. Ashima Ganguli, nearly nine months pregnant, is preparing a makeshift version of a popular Indian snack, for which she has an insatiable craving. She uses onion, spices, Rice Krispies, and Planters peanuts, but cannot quite manage to recreate the taste she so misses. As she reaches for another onion, she begins to go into the very early stages of labor, and calls out for her husband, Ashoke, although according to her custom she does not use his first name.
Ashima is desperate to find something familiar to lean on in this unknown land. The strange mix of American ingredients approximates the taste she craves, but also emphasizes just how far away she is from her native culture. Her call to Ashoke is the first sign of the kind of love that is present in their marriage, which is more traditional than the relationships their children will have. It also brings up the importance of names in the novel.
Together they take a taxi to the hospital, where the nurses replace Ashima’s traditional sari with a hospital gown that she feels is too short. Her doctor informs them that the labor will take some time, and Ashoke leaves Ashima alone with the other women in the room. She hears one of the other women’s husbands saying that he loves his wife, and Ashima reflects that this kind of affection will never appear in her relationship to Ashoke. She wonders if she is the only Indian present in this hospital filled with American strangers, until a twitch from the baby inside her reminds her that she is not alone after all.
Ashima is now further isolated within the hospital, and the switch from sari to immodest hospital gown amplifies her discomfort. Lahiri also uses the interactions between openly affectionate American husbands and wives to provide a contrast with the restrained, but deeply loyal relationship shared by Ashoke and Ashima.
The watch on Ashima’s wrist, a wedding gift from her family, fills her with thoughts of home as she calculates on her fingers what time it is in India right now. If she were there, this baby would be born in the home, not a hospital. She pictures what each member of her family is doing at this hour, immersing herself in the memory of her house until a view of the Charles River outside jolts her back to her reality in America.
Lahiri uses the watch to remind the reader of the immense physical distance that separates the recently immigrated Ashima from her home in India, as she also reflects on the cultural distance dividing herself from the Americans around her. She finds comfort in the memory of home, even as she feels alienated by her present.
Throughout the day in the hospital, Ashima is reassured by Dr. Ashley and her nurse, Patty, that everything is expected to be normal. But to Ashima, nothing feels normal about raising a child in a strange country, without her family. She rereads a Bengali magazine containing an illustration by her father, and then drifts into her memories of him. She is then interrupted by Patty, who accompanies her on a brief walk. Ashima makes a grammatical mistake in telling Patty that she hopes her baby will have only “ten finger and ten toe,” and is embarrassed by Patty’s smiling reaction, especially since Ashima had been a student of English back in Calcutta.
The kind and professional hospital staff cannot bridge the gap that divides them from Ashima. As she has for the past several months in her isolation at home, Ashima finds comfort in the physical remnants of her past life in India. The mistake that Ashima makes in translating an idiom from her native Bengali into English heightens her sense of embarrassment and loneliness.
Drifting back, again, to her memories of Calcutta, Ashima recalls the first time she met her husband Ashoke. The meeting had been arranged by their families, and as she stood outside the room listening to her parents sing her praises, Ashima gave in to a strange urge to slip her feet into the shoes that the visiting Ashoke had removed in the entryway, as per Bengali tradition—exotic, leather specimens from the U.S.A. Later, in the room with Ashoke and their two families, she is asked whether she can imagine living in snowy Boston, alone. “Won’t he be there?” she responds, pointing to Ashoke. They become betrothed.
The mechanics of an arranged marriage may seem foreign to an American reader, but they reveal the particular foundation of Ashoke and Ashima’s marriage. Ashima’s urge to put on Ashoke’s shoes in secret indicates a romantic curiosity and boldness that ultimately drives her decision to accept this marriage proposal, one which will take her far from home, and which she may later regret. She accepts before she even knows her husband’s name, showing deep trust in tradition.
Ashima continues to reminisce, recalling her elaborate wedding preparations with joy and describing her new life in America with Ashoke. She has learned about his special fondness for potatoes, his careful approach to clothing, and his loyalty to his family back in India, to whom he sends a portion of his paycheck. In the evenings, when he returns from work, Ashima tells him about her daily adventures in the strange world of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with its unblemished rice and pistachio ice cream.
This is a first glimpse of Ashima’s love of ritual and tradition, and a window into her process of falling in love with Ashoke after their arranged marriage. As she learns more about him, their intimacy deepens. His support for his family endears him to her, and he becomes her trusted companion in the strange adventure of living in America.
Ashoke has returned to the hospital waiting room, having been warned that the baby could come at “any minute.” He reads the newspaper, reflecting on just how quickly the time has passed since his wife first noticed her pregnancy. He wipes his glasses with the handkerchief embroidered by his mother and begins pacing nervously with the other expectant fathers. Although they all have cigars or champagne to celebrate the announcement, Ashoke is empty-handed. He does not smoke or drink, and “it has never occurred to him to buy his wife flowers.”
Reading is a comfort to Ashoke, a carryover from his childhood as a bookworm. The small detail of his handkerchief is a reminder of the families back in India that are always present in some way for both Ashoke and Ashima. His distance from the traditions of the other fathers – with their champagne, cigars, and flowers – again emphasizes the cultural divide.
Ashoke continues to read the paper as he walks, limping slightly. This habit is carried on from his childhood, when he read voraciously everywhere he went, immune to distractions. He especially enjoyed Russian authors, which his grandfather read aloud to him in English translations as a boy. One day, when Ashoke was 22, he set out on a train journey to visit his grandfather, who, now blind, had requested that Ashoke read to him. He promised that Ashoke could take his collection of antique books home with him afterward—a treasure Ashoke had long desired.
The curiosity for exotic places that eventually led to Ashoke’s immigration to America was born within the pages of these foreign books, books which also taught him English. Ashoke’s journey is typical of the traditional Bengali respect for family. The slight limp in his walk is a hint of what is to come, foreshadowing the tragic events related in the coming pages.
On the journey to his grandparents’ home in the North, Ashoke brings only one book—a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol that his grandfather had given him upon his graduation from high school. He reads his favorite story, The Overcoat, laughing at the strange names suggested at its main character’s christening. Another passenger in his coach, Ghosh, strikes up a conversation. He has just returned from Britain after two years because his wife was too homesick for India, and urges Ashoke to travel while he is still young and free. Ashoke replies that, with the aid of his books, he can travel anywhere.
“Gogol” will become the novel’s most important name – the “namesake” of the title – and its introduction here is significant. It is purposefully blended with Ashoke’s laughter at the story’s protagonist’s strange names, a sign of the embarrassment his son will face later in the novel. Ashoke’s conversation with Ghosh is also significant to his later life, and the reader – knowing that Ashoke will in fact follow Ghosh’s advice by traveling abroad – is left to wonder what will change Ashoke’s mind.
The other passengers in his cabin go to sleep, but Ashoke stays up late into the night, reading and taking in the sounds of the train. Suddenly, the train derails, knocked off the track by what some later believe to have been deliberate sabotage, killing hundreds. The area where the accident occurred is so isolated that no rescuers arrived for over an hour. Ashoke is trapped beneath the wreckage and unable to call out. It is only when the fluttering pages of his book finally attract the attention of a rescuer that he is found, still clutching one page.
This episode changes Ashoke’s life forever, spurring him to travel abroad and make the most of a life that now seems miraculous. It is notable that nothing in the book would have been possible without Ashoke’s chance survival – the first in a series of accidents that, Gogol will later note, compose the lives of the Ganguli family. Ashoke is saved by the book, in a way, inspiring his name for his son – although Gogol won’t know the truth about his namesake until he is in college.
For the next year, Ashoke lay flat in bed, unable even to feed himself, listening to the sounds from the busy streets. When he was strong enough to avoid the nightmares that haunted his sleep, he read late at night, but he would no longer touch the novels of his childhood. Instead, he read his engineering texts, keeping up with schoolwork as best he could, remembering Ghosh’s command to travel. A year later he finished college and secretly applied to continue his studies abroad, only telling his heartbroken parents after he had been accepted on fellowship.
Ashoke abandons his books, because they remind him of the accident and of the possibilities that are closed off to him now that he is confined to bed. A fire seems to have been born within him, though, one that will drive him to create the life abroad that is recounted in Lahiri’s novel. This yearning for independence from his family is mirrored later in the novel by his son’s secret relationships and life in New York.
Although he has now left India, the memory of the train crash still haunts Ashoke at times. He feels lucky to have survived, and considers his life to be broken into three births—two in India, and one in America. He is grateful to his ancestors for this bounty, for his nearly newborn child, and to Gogol, the writer whose book saved his life. At this moment, Patty enters the room.
Ashoke is deeply conscious of his cultural roots while still optimistic about life in America. He feels a reverence for tradition and family, but also a sense of fortune in this foreign land, born from his childhood reading and his new gratitude for life. This highlights a difference between Ashoke’s outlook about America and Ashima’s.