It is Christmas eve in the year 2000, and Ashima is sitting at the kitchen table, preparing her signature croquettes for an upcoming party—the first since her husband’s death, and the last before she moves from the house at Pemberton Road, which has been sold to a young American family. Hearing their plans for renovation, she had hesitated, but in the end went through with the sale. She has decided to spend six months in India and six in America for the rest of her life. In Calcutta she will live with her brother Rana and his family, in America she will split her time between her children and Bengali friends.
Leaping ahead in time again, we find that Ashima has made a choice to live half of the year in India, and half in America. This illustrates the divided identity she has come to inhabit comfortably, after many years of difficulty. Ashima cooking is an image that mirrors the first page of the novel. The house that has been home to the Gangulis in America will soon be relinquished to another young family, acquiring a new identity separate from them.
One reason for moving is the marriage of Sonia to Ben, which is scheduled to take place in Calcutta next year. Ashima looks kindly on this marriage—Ben makes Sonia happy in a way that Moushumi never did with Gogol, a match she still feels guilty for encouraging. They are divorced now, not having felt constrained, as the previous generation would have, to stay together, to settle.
Sonia and Ben offer hope that a happy multicultural marriage can exist, in a novel that has witnessed the disintegration of many romantic relationships – including, we now learn, that of Moushumi and Gogol. Ashima’s perspective emphasizes the difference in point of view that still separates her from her children.
Now, for these last few hours, Ashima is alone in her home, a state of existence she has grown used to. She is no longer the same Ashima she once was, and will be returning to Calcutta with an American passport. Still, she looks forward to a world where she does not have to make her own croquettes, or cobble together homemade yogurt from half-and-half. She finishes the last croquette and looks at the food she has prepared with anticipation. She has enjoyed cleaning and preparing for this last gathering, a welcome relief from the slow task of packing up her life room by room.
Ashima, who for much of the novel has seemed to be the unchanging core of the Ganguli family, the one least willing to adapt herself to life in America, has changed in spite of her stubbornness. In a way, her growing acceptance of this part of her identity mirrors her son’s growing acceptance of his Indian heritage. Still, Ashima looks forward to the comforts of those Indian tastes she has been trying to recreate for her whole life in America.
Upstairs in the bathroom before showering, imagining life as a grandmother, Ashima suddenly starts sobbing in memory of her husband and fear for what is to come, this journey to a place she has missed for so long, and which is now in its own way foreign. She will miss parts of her life in America, like her children, the library, throwing parties, and the memories of her husband. Steeling herself, Ashima puts on a thick pink robe, a gift from her husband, no doubt picked out by one of her children. She does not fault Ashoke for this fact, which could seem like a lack of care. She no longer wonders what it would have been like to fall in love before being married, instead of afterward. Now the robe is a reminder of the life they built together here.
Ashima, adapted at last to this American environment in a few important ways, is now caught between two cultures just as her children have been. The most important things connecting her to America are her children and the memories of the life she built in this country with Ashoke. She reflects on the difference between her marriage and her children’s romantic relationships. Her embrace of the robe feels like an acknowledgment of the loving familiarity that grew between her and Ashoke over the years, until each depended on the other.
No one greets Gogol at the train, so he waits at the station, reflecting on his mother’s upcoming move, and the loss of his childhood home. Soon there will be no more reminder of his past here, and his mother will be far away. For the first time, Gogol feels he understands what it must have been like for Ashima and Ashoke to leave their past life in India, and he wonders if he has the same strength. He has never lived more than a four-hour journey from home, he realizes, a journey he has made again and again. It was on the train that he first discovered Moushumi’s affair, when she slipped up and mentioned Dimitri. He had felt the same betrayal as when Ashoke told him about the train accident, but none of the accompanying tenderness, only anger.
Once again, it is on a train that an event that will shape Gogol’s future takes place. It is Dimitri’s name, slipped accidentally into conversation, that alerts him—the name makes Dimitri present at last. In the aftermath of that moment, however, Gogol seems mature in a new way – he is able to reflect on his links to this vanishing childhood home, relating it to his parents’ experience of leaving India. With all of the effort he has put in to escaping, he has never actually gone very far from this home, and is not sure how he will cope with its loss.
Gogol and Moushumi were then trapped together on the train, and then at the Christmas celebration at his home. Moushumi revealed the whole story, and for the first time Gogol found himself more upset at another man’s name than his own. Moushumi left the apartment after that weekend, and Gogol removed the rest of her things from their home, just as he had done after his father’s death. Gogol went alone on the trip to Venice that he had planned for them to take together, and he sketched its buildings. A year later, the shock is gone, but sometimes the shame persists—although he cannot blame Moushumi. He knows they both acted out of the same mistaken impulse, looking for comfort in a world they feared was dying out. His time with her now feels empty of meaning, “like a name he’d ceased to use.”
This offhand comment – that for the first time Gogol is more upset at another man’s name than his own – carries more significance than it seems to at first. Gogol does not feel that the blame for his failed marriage falls primarily on his shoulders, and the self-loathing that has accompanied his relationship to the name “Gogol” does not resurface here—showing his growth and self-confidence. His process of mourning, involving a trip to Italy, is much more positive and based in a sense of independent growth than any of his other breakups have been. Gogol understands the mistake that drew him and Moushumi together: an attempt to use one another to form an identity.
Sonia and Ben arrive, and Sonia greets Gogol, saying, “Welcome home, Goggles.” They go to the house and assemble the artificial Christmas tree, decorated with ornaments they made as children. They put up the stockings and drink champagne from Styrofoam cups. That night Ashima will fill their stockings, according to the rules of Christmas her children have taught her—rules that Sonia rejected one year after taking a Hinduism class in college, a fact they tease her for now.
Sonia’s nickname for her brother immediately evokes their close relationship, recalling the Indian tradition of pet names, but with an Americanized twist. The champagne, which even Ashima sips, is a sign of celebration, and the Styrofoam is typical of their lifestyle here – so different from the world of Maxine or Moushumi, but so comfortable and familiar. This glimpse of Sonia’s own struggle with her heritage suggests that she has gone through similar identity crises to what we have seen Gogol face throughout the novel.
The guests begin to arrive, chattering in Bengali and expressing their regret at Ashima’s departure. Gogol realizes that Ashima has been the force that gathers them all together for these occasions, and it is Ashima they have relied on to translate American customs, customs that she only knows because of Gogol and Sonia. Ben is overwhelmed by all of the new names, but Gogol reassures him that he will never need to know them all—he refers to them all as meshos and mashis, uncles and aunts.
Ashima’s importance in the community shows the purpose she found for herself in America, as a sort of matriarch who fought to maintain their ties to Bengali culture. The newcomer, Ben, is introduced to the crowd in a way that Maxine never was – suggesting that Sonia is allowing him to see every side of her identity. Gogol’s comment about the names shows that, in the end, the relationships matter more.
Gogol reflects that their life has been formed by a series of accidents—first Ashoke’s train accident, inspiring him to move to America, then the disappearance of the letter containing his good name and the accident of his being named Gogol. His marriage feels like an accident as well, and worst of all is the death of his father—but it is these things that endure, that have brought them here today. Ashima interrupts Gogol’s thoughts to ask him to fetch the camera, and he goes upstairs to find his father’s Nikon. He is distressed by how empty all the rooms are.
The reader has a privileged view of this series of accidents to which Gogol is referring – in many ways, Lahiri’s novel has presented these accidents and asked the reader to string them together into a narrative, a process that Gogol is now starting to undertake himself. Gogol’s mature reflection is somber, but he doesn’t seem to regret the negative things that have brought him to this point. He is only now beginning to accept that the things that have formed him are outside of his control.
Gogol takes the camera into his old room to load a new battery, and is struck by how much is the same here, as he has yet to clean out the room. Ashima has warned him that all of his books will be donated to the library where she works. Gogol pokes through a box of them, and one book catches his eye. It is the copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol that his father had given him years before, still unread. He finds the inscription, and reflects that soon there will be no one left to call him Gogol. His father is dead, and his mother is leaving. The thought is an unhappy one.
The rediscovery of this book, so important to Ashoke and ignored for so long by the rebellious Gogol, spurs an important reflection: soon, no one in America will think of him as Gogol. He will have finally escaped this name – but the loss of that part of him is no longer his dearest wish, and he will even miss it.
Gogol closes the door and sits down with the book, which has been saved as if by chance from being lost, just as Ashoke had been saved from the train accident years ago. Gogol reads the author’s bio—in ten years he will be 43, the age Nikolai Gogol died. Gogol wonders if he will remarry, and have children. There is a chance that the new architecture firm he is about to start working for will someday take on his name—Nikhil Ganguli—but the name Gogol will not live on.
This book’s survival is another in the series of accidents that, Gogol reflects, have formed his life. He is growing older, but has still not yet found the stable identity he has been seeking. While the architecture firm will grant his new name some permanence, his links to the name Gogol, and its connection to his father, will eventually be lost.
Gogol opens to the first story in the book, “The Overcoat.” Soon Ashima will come to find him, wondering where he has been, scolding him, urging him to come and take his photos. He will descend the staircase and help to serve the food, and then to clean the plates, watching his mother give away leftovers in the cooking pots themselves. But for now, Gogol settles against the headboard and begins to read.
Finally Gogol overcomes his instinctual rejection of his namesake, beginning the process of accepting this part of his identity. At the same time, reading the book (in his childhood room, no less) is like following in Ashoke’s footsteps, and so Gogol finds that connection to his heritage and his lost father in his own unique way, after a long path of avoiding that heritage. The house will still be sold, and this physical link to Gogol’s past is falling away, but on a deeper level, in this moment Gogol is opening himself up to every part of his identity for the very first time.