It is now 1984, Gogol’s fourteenth birthday party. As usual the family is hosting a group of Bengali friends. Ashima has cooked for days—a prospect she finds easier than when she had hosted a few of Gogol’s American friends for a low-key party, with half claiming to be allergic to milk and all refusing to eat their crusts. Forty guests come, wives in dazzling saris, husbands in pants and polo shirts. Gogol is older than most of the kids, but too young to be with the adults. The closest to his age is a girl named Moushumi, recently arrived from England, but they have nothing in common. She rubs “7 Up”-flavored balm on her lips and reads Pride and Prejudice while the others watch television. The children pester her to speak in her British accent, so she says “I detest American television,” to their delight, and then wanders away.
The contrast between Gogol’s low-key American birthday party – still innately stressful to Ashima, for whom these small foreigners are inexplicable – and the giant celebration of their Bengali friends, which Gogol himself slightly resents, is indicative of how much, by this point in his development, the gap between Gogol’s home culture and his life in the outside world has grown to frustrate him. He is further isolated by his in-between age – not yet an adult, but older than most children. The significant introduction of Moushumi, in its careful detail, foreshadows her role much later in the novel.
After the guests leave, Gogol opens their presents—dictionaries, calculators, sweaters, and a card made with Magic Markers from Sonia that reads “Happy Birthday Goggles,” her nickname for him. Most of the gifts, which do not interest him, are set aside by his mother to give to cousins back in India. He retreats to his room to listen to the Beatles, an album he received from one of his American friends. Ashoke then enters with a gift, which is unusual—he has never bought Gogol a present other than the ones Ashima gives him.
These gifts from the Bengali “relatives” feel anonymous, and are uninteresting to Gogol – but of course they are perfect for their family back in India. Sonia’s nickname for Gogol is a sign of their close relationship, as pet names had also been in his parents’ generation. Gogol isolates himself with the Beatles, an emblem of his immersion in Western culture, before being interrupted by Ashoke.
When he opens it, Gogol finds The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol, a special copy ordered from a small press in England. Ashoke waits expectantly, but Gogol is unimpressed—he does not know the story of his father’s train accident. He flips through, relieved to find no resemblance between himself and the author’s picture in the front. By now he has begun to hate his name, resenting its odd origins and always having to explain it. He wishes he could change or erase it, but finds it everywhere he goes. He cannot imagine asking out a girl, saying “Hi, it’s Gogol.” He blames his parents, but also himself, since he had the chance to be called Nikhil in kindergarten.
This book, written by Gogol’s namesake, is very important to Ashoke, but means nothing to his son, who has never understood the true origins of his name. Gogol’s change in feelings towards his name—foreshadowed earlier in the novel—has now come to pass. As he struggles to form his identity in these early teenage years, the name feels like an obstacle to his development, even impeding his ability to talk to girls – an important developmental step.
Ashoke notices the ways in which his son is growing up and beginning to resemble him and his wife. Ashoke begins to explain to Gogol why he feels a “special kinship” for Gogol (the writer), telling his son that the author spent most of his adult life outside his homeland, just like him. He considers telling Gogol about the train accident, but his son has grown impatient and turned up the Beatles, and as he looks around the room Ashoke notices a cassette of traditional Indian music he bought for Gogol still in its wrapper. The memory of the train is distant for him now, and this is a day to celebrate life, not death—so he says good night. Gogol locks the door behind him, slotting the book up onto a shelf, and reflecting that since Gogol is actually the author’s last name, no one in the world really shares his name—not even his namesake.
Physically, Gogol is growing into a copy of Ashoke and Ashima, but culturally they are by now quite different, a fact that Gogol’s music choice drives home for Ashoke. That Ashoke’s connection to Gogol is partly based in their shared immigrant experience fails to resonate with Gogol, who does not want to think of himself as an immigrant – for him, America is his home country. Ashoke’s decision not to reveal the story of the train accident only increases the divide between father and son, as well as the sense of isolation Gogol comes to feel more and more regarding his name. It seems that no one in the world, not even his namesake himself, has the first name Gogol – an intensely lonely thought.
The next year, Ashoke is up for a sabbatical, and so he and Ashima decide that the family will spend eight months in Calcutta. Gogol is dismayed—he doesn’t want to miss school, even though his parents point out he has never had trouble catching up in the past. His guidance counselor suggests that he stay in the U.S. with a relative until the school year has ended, but Ashima points out that they have no relatives in America. So they leave, textbooks packed and shipped away to an address—his father’s home in Calcutta—that makes Gogol uneasy.
This decision to go abroad – natural for Ashoke and Ashima, who are going “home” – is world-shattering for Gogol, whose home is in America. Against the objections of his guidance counselor, the family persists in their decision, shipping away Gogol’s textbooks to his father’s home in Calcutta. This new address unsettles Gogol because it is a reminder that Pemberton Road is not their only (or perhaps, true) home.
It is Christmas Day when they take the plane, and Sonia still expects to see the tree when she comes downstairs, but there are only suitcases. At the airport, Ashoke hands in their two U.S. passports and two American ones, asking for two Hindu meals. Gogol is seated away from his family and orders a Bloody Mary secretly, tasting alcohol for the first time. Usually excited by the many countries they traverse, he feels frustrated now that Calcutta is their only destination. He feels he has already seen everything there is to see there, but has never been to Disneyland or the Grand Canyon. He relishes the final meal on the plane as Bengali conversation begins to take over on the final leg of their journey, knowing that for the next eight months the food will not be quite the same.
Traveling on Christmas Day is something that the children – like most average Americans – would never consider, and Sonia is particularly disturbed by this disruption of her holiday. Their separate passports and meal preferences illustrate the basic break between generations. Gogol is old enough now to question this trip, resenting that they have never traveled inside America, or elsewhere in the world – India somehow feels both foreign and boring to him now. The Bloody Mary that Gogol orders foreshadows a rebellious, independent streak.
When they arrive, they are swallowed by the embraces of their relatives, whose special names Gogol and Sonia must take care to remember. Ashoke and Ashima feel emotional at the reunion, but their children are unmoved. While their parents become more confident, the children are ill at ease, even frightened. They stand out in their bright American sneakers, and take time to readjust to sleeping in mosquito nets and bathing with tin cups of water. Gogol watches his aunt, who runs the household, and sees the room in which his family would have lived, all together on the same four-poster bed.
The distance between the children and their parents is again made clear by this struggle to remember Ashoke and Ashima’s pet names, which for Ashoke and Ashima are second nature. While Ashoke and Ashima acquire the confidence that comes from being home and away from the unfamiliar, often unfriendly America, Gogol and Sonia feel like foreigners in this place. It is strange to see the world they might have lived in, in an alternate version of their lives.
The family moves among the houses of various relatives, the parents fitting in with their old lives while the children feel like outcasts. Sonia has read the books she brought dozens of times by the end of their stay. Gogol brought his sneakers, hoping to run, but finds it impossible in the streets of the city—the one time he tries, his aunt sends a servant to follow him so that he doesn’t get lost. He sketches the skyline through their window, feeling close only to Sonia, the only other one who shares his craving for American food and music.
Here it is the second generation who are isolated, and therefore bond with one another, just as the first-generation Bengali immigrants in America find one another. Like her father once did, Sonia relies on her books to “travel” back to America. Gogol is such a foreigner that a servant must help him find his way through the streets—streets that might have been his home if his parents hadn’t left.
In the summer they go on a trip around India, the children’s first. They take the train, and experience Agra almost as if they are tourists from the West. They are all particularly struck by the Taj Mahal, which Gogol attempts to sketch, but cannot recreate to his satisfaction. He immerses himself in the guidebook, learning the history of Mughal architecture as they visit a succession of tombs. Later, on their way back to Calcutta, Sonia has an allergic reaction to jackfruit. In another compartment of the train, a man is stabbed in his sleep and robbed, reminding Ashoke of the fateful accident from his past.
This early episode sparks an interest in architecture that will follow Gogol all the way through the novel, and it is notable that his interest comes from a monument that represents a link to his Indian past. In many ways, though, this trip around India reinforces the sense that the Gangulis are now tourists in what was once their native land—their child is allergic to a common food, and they visit monuments with white travelers.
When they return to Calcutta, both Gogol and Sonia fall terribly ill. Their relatives blame their discomfort on the air, the wind, the rice—these children were not made to live in a poor country. By the time both are recovered it is nearly time to leave. Presents are bought, goodbyes are said, and the family departs before dawn. Gogol sees Ashima’s sadness as the plane leaves, but he mostly feels relieved, eagerly eating his in-flight breakfast and listening to top-forty songs.
The illness of the children is a physical rejection of the environment that to them is foreign – as their relatives conclude, these are children of a rich nation. Even though he can see his mother’s sadness at their departure, Gogol himself is anxious to return to the comforts of his American lifestyle, further highlighting the distance that separates one generation from another.
In the first few days the lack of noise in their large home feels odd, but quickly Gogol and Sonia return to normal, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, taking hot showers, and quarreling as they please. In September Gogol returns to school to start junior year, immersed in the usual American classes, with a particularly charismatic English teacher named Mr. Lawson. He is the first teacher Gogol has had who recognizes his name for what it is without asking questions. When he announces that they will spend a quarter on the short story, Gogol dreads the inevitable discussion of “The Overcoat,” feeling deeply embarrassed.
The quickness with which Gogol and Sonia fall back into their old habits upon returning to America stands out in stark contrast to the slow, drawn out period of adaptation that their parents endured when they first arrived – and continue to experience now. Gogol returns to his education, and his angst over his name intensifies. He never read the book his father gave him on his fourteenth birthday, and is now horrified that it is intruding into his life once again.
When the day of the lecture comes, Gogol reluctantly copies down the biographical notes Mr. Lawson provides. When he goes into details of the author’s depression, revealing that many believe he died a virgin, and giving the gory details of his suicide by starvation, Gogol burns with embarrassment, even though his classmates seem not to care. Gogol has refused to read the assigned short story, and he never opened the book his father gave him on his birthday.
Gogol’s rejection of his namesake is instinctual. It’s true that he is now learning of several reasons why the author is, perhaps, an embarrassing choice – but he hated the name before this lecture, and without ever having made an effort to read Nikolai Gogol’s stories. Gogol’s rejection is based, therefore, in the name’s lack of connection to the world he wants to live in.
Gogol does not date in high school, a fact that his parents never question—they have never been on a date in their lives—but he does experiment in other ways, occasionally smoking pot or sneaking away to a movie. One weekend, when his parents are away overnight, he accompanies friends to a college party, The friends slowly drift apart after finding a beer, and Gogol meets a girl named Kim. He doesn’t reveal his name when they shake hands. When she presses him, he tells her that his name is Nikhil, using that name for the first time. Kim says it is a lovely name, and he kisses her—his first kiss.
This is another pivotal moment in Gogol’s development—the first time he kisses a girl, coinciding with the first time he uses the name Nikhil. Both are gestures of independence, and mark an attempt to take control over his own growth and identity. The scene is a rebellious one, of which Gogol’s parents would never approve – normal enough for an American teenager, but weighty for Gogol. Romance will continue to be a driver of Gogol’s identity.