The baby is born! After Ashima recovers from the intensity of childbirth, Ashoke enters to find her and the baby, whose name card reads only “Baby Boy Ganguli.” As Ashoke takes the baby from Ashima’s arms into his own, the baby cries out, and both parents react with alarm, but Patty laughingly reassures them. She leaves them alone, and Ashoke gently explores the strangely tiny body of his child, initially “more perplexed than moved,” as Ashima watches proudly. She falls asleep, and Ashoke is struck by the beautiful miracle of his son—a second miracle to match his own rescue from the train.
The anonymous name card is a first indication of the long search for a suitable name that will haunt his child. This is a pivotal moment in the married life of Ashoke and Ashima—the opening of a new chapter for them—and Lahiri brings out the slightly comical naivety of a new parent. This will be another in a series of important events that change the family forever.
Three others visit the new family in the hospital, all Bengali friends whom Ashima and Ashoke have met in Cambridge. Dr. Gupta, a post-doc at M.I.T., gives the baby an illustrated book of Mother Goose rhymes, which Ashoke appreciates, marveling at how different this boy’s childhood will be from his own. Ashima is having the same thought as her husband, but instead of considering her child to be blessed, she pities him. She feels deeply lonely without her family there at his birth, and is heartbroken that he will grow up without them.
Here is the clearest illustration of the different immigrant experiences of Ashoke and Ashima – the optimism of Ashoke in their new country alongside Ashima’s longing for their old one. Both perspectives carry weight – while it may be true that Gogol will have access to opportunities unique to America, there is also a sense of loss of the culture that formed his parents.
Neither of their families back in India has a working telephone, so they send a telegram with the news. In accordance with the Indian tradition, Ashima’s grandmother is entrusted with the naming of their child, and she has sent a letter with two names, one for a boy, and one for a girl. The letter has not yet arrived, but they are happy to wait. In the meantime, they can use a pet name—a daknam—which is the name that every Bengali is called within their family. Unlike the “good names” or bhalonam, which carry important meanings, these pet names are chosen randomly.
The concept of the traditional Indian “pet name” and “good name” is vital to the story’s development. The split between public and private personas created by these two names foreshadows the cultural split between life at home and life in the world that Sonia and Gogol will experience. The idea that names are given life by the people who use them is also important, since it means that identity is, at least in part, determined by one's family.
Patty reenters the room as they are calling the baby by one of these potential pet names—Buro, meaning old man—and asks if this is their name for him. Ashima—whom the nurses have now nicknamed “Jell-O-and-Ice-Cream Lady,” since she doesn’t eat the chicken in its skin that is provided by the hospital—explains that her grandmother will be choosing the real name. When Patty asks if she will be arriving soon, Ashima laughs, struck by the absurdity of this thought. For the next three days, Ashima is cared for in the hospital, and shown how to care for the baby.
This introduction of nicknames is used to highlight the difference between the Indian visitors and Patty. The nurses have their own nickname for Ashima, based on their misunderstanding of her eating habits, which are driven by her cultural preference for skinless chicken. Patty also misunderstands the difference between pet names and the still-to-be-determined “good name”—a problem that Gogol will also face later on.
On the fourth day, Ashima and the baby are to be discharged, but the hospital’s compiler of birth certificates, Mr. Wilcox, explains that before they can leave they must choose a name. They try to explain the situation, but Mr. Wilcox presses them to choose, asking whether they have any “backups”—a word that Ashima does not recognize. They have never thought of an alternative, and are unmoved by Mr. Wilcox’s suggestion that they name their son after a relative in accordance with European tradition (he reveals that his true name is Howard Wilcox III). In India, individual names are sacred.
Confronted now by Mr. Wilcox, a representative of American bureaucracy, Ashima and Ashoke are caught off guard. Naming means something very different for the Gangulis—it is tied to identity in a way that would make reusing someone else’s name comical. They have absolute faith in the eventual arrival of Ashima’s grandmother’s letter—in family and traditions—and are unused to the accelerated pace of naming in America.
Mr. Wilcox suggests they name their son after someone of importance to them, and then he leaves the room. Suddenly, Ashoke has an idea, and reaches out to his son, calling him Gogol for the first time. Ashima approves of the choice, aware of its importance for her husband, and thinking of it only as a temporary, pet name. The name now set, Patty wishes them well, and Dr. Gupta takes a photo of the new family as they exit the hospital, headed home.
Here, then, is the fateful selection of a name that will cause the protagonist much angst later in the novel: Gogol, a name that is neither Indian nor American, but Russian. The reassurances that this will be only a temporary name already ring false – now that the deed is done, their son’s name is somehow outside of their control.
The Ganguli home at this moment is an apartment on the first story of a slightly run-down, salmon-colored house near Harvard. This is the house to which Ashoke first brought Ashima, on a street of similarly pastel homes, although it was not until morning that she first saw it clearly, when she emerged into the freezing February air to glimpse dog excrement in the snow and not a soul in sight. She is disappointed by the house, which is not at all like what she had seen in American movies—it is drafty, dreary, and contains cockroaches—but she hides her disappointment, writing home about the gas-burning stove and the water clean enough to drink from the tap.
The dreary description of their house in Cambridge, which fails to live up to Ashima’s expectations, is a comment on the gap between the image of America that many immigrants have before they arrive – an image formed from stories they have heard, and American media they may have encountered – and the reality that awaits them, as many struggle financially, at least initially. Cambridge is almost a wasteland in Ashima’s eyes – but she carefully hides this from her family back home.
Above them live Judy and Alan Montgomery, along with their two children. Alan is a sociology professor at Harvard, and Ashoke is confused by his flip-flops and threadbare trousers, since he himself often wears a jacket and tie to meetings with his advisor. The couple is progressive—their car covered in bumper stickers—in a way that sometimes mystifies the Gangulis. They leave their children at home unsupervised, and the one glimpse of their apartment Ashima has had horrified her with its clutter of books, bottles, and dirty plates.
Judy and Alan provide a stark contrast to Ashoke and Ashima in the way they conduct their lives. It is strange for Ashoke and Ashima, who have only ever lived in the same house as their closest families, to share a living space with such puzzling strangers. Ashima is particularly shocked by the way the Montgomery children are left alone, and by the spectacular mess in their apartment. The alcohol, too, is totally foreign for her.
Dr. Gupta gives them a ride home, and as they enter their apartment with its unmade bed, Ashima is struck by its dreariness. She misses the hospital, but most of all she misses her home in India, where a traditional servant would have had the responsibility of cleaning the house. “I can’t do this,” she tells Ashoke, and when he attempts to reassure her she makes her meaning clear: she tells him to hurry up and finish their degree so that they can return home and raise their child in India.
This is the one time in the novel that we see Ashima openly ask Ashoke to move their family back to Calcutta. The couple is divided on this point, as we have already seen, but Ashima is overwhelmed by the prospect of raising her baby here, alone, along with the responsibility of cleaning the house – a totally different kind of motherhood from what she would experience in India.
Observing his wife, Ashoke sees that their time in America has already taken a toll. He knows she is homesick, and remembers the words of Ghosh, who had been made to return home from London by his own homesick wife. They are interrupted by the arrival of the Montgomerys, who have brought some of their old baby supplies and champagne to celebrate, though Ashoke and Ashima only pretend to drink it. A box of disposable diapers takes the place of Ashima’s family photos on the dressing table.
Ashima’s reluctance to “assimilate” in America was foretold, all too accurately, by Ghosh, whose advice has been engraved in Ashoke’s mind since the accident. Again, the ritual of champagne divides the couple from their American neighbors, although they play along to fit in. The diapers replace Ashima’s family photo, as her children will come to replace her missing family.
Three days later, everyone has returned to work as usual, and Ashima is alone with Gogol for first time. She cries all day, feeling desperately alone. When she calls Ashoke to ask him to bring home rice—she has tried to borrow from Judy, but her rice is brown—there is no answer. Ashima takes Gogol out in his pram to buy some herself, and when she is out she receives compliments from American strangers on her new baby. Slowly the routine of caring for Gogol fills her day, gives a pattern to what had before been a mass of idle hours filled with homesickness. She cooks with him, sings him Bengali songs, and begins a photo album, seeing pieces of her family in his face.
This intense depression that Ashima feels is common among young mothers – and it is much more isolating for her to be experiencing it alone, far from her family and familiar culture. As Ashima begins to find some agency, however, Gogol becomes her new and constant companion in her adventures out into the world, and he starts to fill the void left by her family. The forwardness of American strangers is off-putting for Ashima, but she is also flattered by them.
Ashima eagerly awaits the mail each day, bringing letters from her family in India, written in an alphabet that is now absent from her everyday life. She responds with careful descriptions of her son’s development, telling them that she and Ashoke are planning a trip to India after Gogol turns one. She does not tell them of their pediatrician’s warning that he will need a whole new set of immunizations against tropical disease.
That something so unnoticed and ever-present as the written alphabet is transformed in Ashima’s life is a reminder to the reader of just how foreign this land must feel for her. Ashima works to keep her connection to family in India alive, investing her emotions there instead of in America. Gogol, though, is a foreigner to India, as the doctor’s warning suggests.
When Gogol has his first ear infection and they see his pet name on the prescription, Ashima and Ashoke are reminded that the letter from Ashima’s grandmother has not yet arrived. The next day, they hear from her father that her grandmother has had a stroke and is partially paralyzed. Ashima is inconsolable, remembering her last visit to her grandmother—who rightly predicted that America would never change her traditional Indian ways—when she told Ashima to enjoy her life in America.
This begins the series of events that will disrupt the parents’ plan to change Gogol’s name. Their unhurried, blind faith has persisted until now. The illness of Ashima’s grandmother only makes the pain of Ashima’s absence from India all the more acute. The grandmother had blessed her journey to the States as a welcome adventure, even as it carried her far away.
The community of Bengali friends in Cambridge is ever growing, as young PhD students like Ashoke fly back to Calcutta and return with wives to start their families in America. Ashima welcomes these bewildered young brides, sharing recipes to approximate Indian dishes and discussing Indian politics, music, and movies. When Gogol is six months old, the community is large enough for a proper gathering in honor of his annaprasan, his rice ceremony—the first time he will eat solid food. Dilip Nandi, a friend, plays the part of Ashima’s brother, and he feeds Gogol, who is dressed in a pale yellow Punjabi from his grandmother in Calcutta.
Now Ashima begins to assume a role that will follow her for years – that of hostess and advisor to newly-arrived immigrant women. Like Gogol’s, this too will give Ashima’s life some welcome purpose. The community of immigrants is bound together by the common cultural backgrounds of its members, and their shared struggle to adapt to America. They become one another’s missing family, as in this ceremony, while the missing family itself is represented by clothes and gifts.
Gogol has been decorated according to Indian tradition, with kohl and sandalwood paste. Ten traditional dishes are arranged in front of him, including a warm rice pudding called “payesh” that Ashima will prepare for him at each birthday alongside a slice of bakery cake. The guests photograph the frowning Gogol. Judy and Alan are the only non-Bengalis present. Gogol eats eagerly during the makeshift ceremony, which brings tears to Ashima’s eyes. At its conclusion, he must choose between a clump of cold Cambridge soil, a ballpoint pen, and a dollar bill, to see if he will be a landowner, scholar, or businessman. Some call for him to take the dollar, since an American must be rich, while Ashoke urges him to take the pen. Gogol frowns, taking nothing, and begins to cry.
Ashima has taken pleasure in recreating the traditions of her homeland here. The pairing of payesh with American birthday cake is symbolic of the mix (and clash) of the two cultures to which Gogol owes allegiance, a duality that will follow him all his life. The three objects, although traditional in their symbolic value, are plucked almost comically from their American environment. Ashoke has hopes that his son will be a bookworm, as he was, but already we see Gogol’s frustration in the face of indecision begin to emerge. He is a sensitive child, and will become a sensitive young adult.
Gogol continues to grow, repeating words in two languages, as his parents prepare their first trip to India over winter break at M.I.T. They search for a good name to use on his passport, having given up hope of receiving the letter. Ashima knits identical sweater vests for all of her male relatives, with one special cardigan for her father, and buys him a set of expensive paintbrushes at the Harvard COOP (he is an artist). She goes shopping downtown one day, pushing Gogol and buying dozens of small gifts in anticipation of their trip. She is so engrossed in her vision of it that she nearly misses her stop, and in her rush to exit the train she leaves all of her purchases behind. Humiliated, she is amazed when Ashoke’s call to the MBTA lost and found leads to the objects’ safe return.
This division between two languages is a sign of the division between two cultures that will later haunt Gogol. Many immigrant children grow up bilingual, and must negotiate the way that each language is a part of their life. The search for Gogol’s name continues, and the sense that it will be in vain grows. Ashima’s intense anticipation of their visit is shown in her eager preparations. She is so distracted by her anticipation that she loses all her carefully chosen gifts—but their return makes her feel connected to Cambridge for the first time.
One night a call from India wakes them, and before Ashoke tells her the news Ashima feels instinctively that her grandmother has died. She begins to comfort Gogol, who has been awakened by the phone’s ring. When the phone is handed to her, Ashima’s dread is mixed with excitement at hearing her mother call her by her pet name, Monu. However, the voice she hears is her brother Rana’s. They talk for a few minutes, but Rana’s pauses suggest to her that there is something he is not saying—and there is no reason he would call unless something is wrong. She presses Ashoke, who seems deeply tired, for more information. He holds her tightly against the bed and tells her the real reason for the call: her father is dead.
This is an enormous tragedy in Ashima’s life, as her reverence and love for her father has been emphasized in every memory of her family that we’ve seen. The excitement that she feels to be called by her pet name – even while also expecting bad news – is another sign of the intense familial bond that names can create. The “Monu” side of Ashima is only made real by her Indian family. Rana is too heartbroken to tell her the bad news over the phone, so we see in this moment how much the trust has grown between Ashima and Ashoke.
They leave for India six weeks earlier than planned to attend the funeral. With no time to find a good name, they get an express passport with the name Gogol Ganguli. Before they leave, Ashima takes the stroller and a bag with the paintbrushes and cardigan for her father on the train to Central Square, and deliberately leaves them behind. As they sit on the plane, she checks her watch, calculating the time in India, but refusing to picture her mourning family. Telling him that she no longer wants to go, Ashima turns to the window as Ashoke takes her hand and the plane takes off, Gogol screaming with the change in air pressure.
This event, too, thwarts the couple’s continued search for a “good name” for their son. Ashima’s symbolic release of her father’s presence is important – she could have returned the paintbrushes, the most expensive of the gifts she has purchased, but this gesture is instead a more tragic and poignant farewell. Now that she is returning to India at last, Ashima cannot imagine arriving to find her father gone. Gogol is pained by this journey, one that he will take many times.