Gogol has become convinced that he should change his name, as so many—immigrants, revolutionaries, actors, even Nikolai Gogol himself—have done before him. And so in the summer of 1986, before leaving for Yale, he rides the train on his own into Boston, wearing a tie. At the courthouse, with its grand marbled interior, he practices writing his new name in the margins of the newspaper.
This is the next step in Gogol’s assertion of control over his identity, a rebellious gesture that is key in his development. The image of a young, formal Gogol, making his way alone to Boston, represents the end of his obedient existence under his parents’ roof.
Gogol had decided to change his name a few months before, when he saw a quiz about famous people whose real names were forgotten. He asked his parents over dinner, but they tell him that it would be too much hassle to arrange the change, and that Gogol has become his good name now. He tries to convince them that his name should be Bengali, not Russian, and that no one takes him seriously. When Ashoke asks whom he is referring to, he offers a vague reply, secretly aware that it is only he himself who feels embarrassed by this name. Eventually Ashoke consents, telling him to do as he wishes, because in America “anything is possible.”
A name, reasons Gogol, is not something that is set in stone. His appeal to his parents, that his name should be Bengali, is more an attempt to persuade and mollify them than it is a genuine desire to identify with his Indian heritage. He is just instinctually opposed to the uniqueness of “Gogol,” which he believes to be the source of all of the frustration and embarrassment he feels—feelings that are a result of his divided sense of identity, created by the split in his cultural background.
Now, form in hand, Gogol appears before a judge to legalize the change. He is nervous, but carries his project through. When the judge asks for the reason behind his decision, he considers telling him the whole saga of his life, but instead responds simply that he has always hated the name Gogol. Within ten minutes it is done, and Gogol feels like a new man. He is still Gogol to everyone who knows him, however, for the next three weeks until he leaves for college, as he will be at home and on holidays forever. When he leaves for Yale, though, his life as Nikhil truly begins. He diligently changes his name in the university’s register, and his new friends never know him as Gogol. His name is only one of the new things in the whole new world of college life.
Earlier representatives of American bureaucracy had thwarted his parents requests, but the culturally American Gogol is able to come away with the result he had desired – even if he was unable to express the true reason for that desire. Despite the legal change, Gogol begins to realize that names are also created and given meaning by the people who use them. The division between his life at home and in public will now be marked by which name is used to refer to him.
As Nikhil, he finds independence from his family—exploring new music, getting a fake ID, and taking classes outside of the majors—pre-med, engineering, law—that he is expected to pursue. He loses his virginity one night to a girl from a party whose name he cannot remember. He cannot shed the memory of his old name, though. At times he feels as though he were acting a part, and he lives in fear that his old name will be discovered. When his parents, at his request, refer to him as Nikhil to his friends, it sounds wrong, like when they speak to him in English instead of Bengali.
This newfound identity is one that Gogol works independently to create for himself, and one that allows him to experiment in ways that he had not at home. The name Gogol still haunts him, though. His relationship to the name Nikhil is in some ways forced, an inorganic shift in his identity that feels strange when placed in the context of his family. Although Nikhil is the more Bengali of his two names, it comes to represent his American identity.
Every other weekend he takes the train home to his family, morphing back into Gogol. When he is home, however, he is distracted, and misses his life at school. He watches as Sonia dies her jeans black, and sees her becoming a true American teenager, arguing with Ashima over her hairstyle choices. Sometimes the two are dragged along to a gathering of Bengalis. Once Gogol refers to Yale as home by accident, and his mother is outraged. She still does not feel that Pemberton Road is her home, and she has been in America for nearly twenty years now. But Gogol feels most at home at Yale now —he has fallen in love with its Gothic architecture, sketching buildings for the introductory architecture class he takes in the spring semester.
Gogol’s life continues to be divided between these two spheres – physically, culturally, and in terms of his name, a basic component of his identity whose confusion causes him frustration. He is searching for a single home, and in some ways finds it at Yale – a fact that mystifies Ashima. This brief glimpse of Sonia’s development hints at some of the differences in the lives of second-generation immigrant women versus men, an idea that will recur later in the story of Moushumi. Gogol’s continued love for architecture foreshadows his future career.
On one crowded train ride home, Gogol meets a girl named Ruth, and the two of them talk the whole journey, discussing their backgrounds. Ruth’s parents are divorced, and she was raised on a commune, a past that seems fascinating to Gogol. Meanwhile Ruth expresses genuine interest in his visits to Calcutta, something he has never discussed with another American. Gogol is smitten, and the following week they meet for coffee, beginning to develop a friendship that Gogol hopes will blossom into more. One afternoon they find themselves alone, and from that moment on they are inseparable, studying together every evening. A few weeks into their relationship, they have sex, and it is intimate, loving, and personal.
Ruth is the first in a series of women who will influence Gogol’s identity, and whom he will work with to shape that identity. He is attracted to her background, which is very different from his own. His crush is endearing, and when it develops into something more we see some of the frustration and angst that haunts Gogol fall away in this new relationship. He has had sex once before, but this time, with Ruth, it is a whole new experience – she affirms him as a whole, valuable person.
All too soon they are apart for the winter holidays, and Gogol thinks of Ruth constantly. She had invited him to her house in Maine, but if he went he would have to tell his parents about Ruth, which he is not prepared to do. He cannot imagine her in his home, where he is still known as Gogol. They spend one day together in Cambridge, wandering Harvard Square, kissing, and exchanging gifts. They even look at the first house where the Gangulis lived in America.
Now it is Gogol who feels what it is like to be separated from someone he loves, as his parents have been for so long. Ruth is separate from his home, and he enjoys that. She is the first person to give his new name real meaning, thus affirming that part of his identity. Their visit to Cambridge is a retracing of Gogol’s roots.
By the next year Gogol’s parents know about Ruth, but they are not interested in meeting her. Sonia, who has her own secret boyfriend, is the only member of the family who goes to see her one day in New Haven. Gogol is angered by his parents’ disapproval, pitying them for having never been young and in love as he is. That spring Ruth takes a semester abroad in Oxford, and he feels lost, longing for her as his parents once longed for their families.
This conflict around relationships with American men or women is one that is shared by many children of Indian immigrants, as we will see with Moushumi and Sonia. Ashoke and Ashima’s conception of love and dating is fundamentally different from Gogol’s. Ruth’s distance in Oxford is another echo of the separation his parents once felt.
One day Gogol attends a panel discussion about Indian novels written in English, since one of the panel members, Amit, is a distant cousin, and Ashima insists he go. The discussion centers on “ABCDs,” or “American-born confused deshis” (meaning Indians), and the audience is filled with the type—a group that Gogol has avoided at school, along with the questions of identity and conflict that the term implies. After the discussion, he must remind his cousin that his name is Nikhil now, not Gogol.
Although the novel has been addressing the fundamental experience of Gogol as an “ABCD,” he himself has never explicitly confronted that split in his identity, and he feels uncomfortable in a room full of people whose work raises questions about it – a discomfort compounded by the fact that his cousin Amit brings the name Gogol to Yale, which is the realm of Nikhil only.
For Thanksgiving of senior year, Gogol takes the train up to Boston alone. Although he and Ruth spent the first few days after her delayed return together, when they returned to campus they broke up, and now they avoid each other. On Gogol’s journey, the train suddenly slows, the lights dimmed as the conductor runs between the cabins. Later Gogol is shaken to discover there was a suicide on the track. He arrives at the station in his hometown late, where Ashoke has been waiting nervously for three hours, thinking of his own accident.
Another key development in Gogol’s life is related as he rides the train, by now a central motif in his life – he is forever moving between homes, between names, between identities. The reader, who knows about Ashoke’s accident while Gogol does not, suspects the depth of worry that his father will feel in way that Gogol cannot yet understand.
In the driveway before they enter the house, Ashoke decides to tell Gogol about that accident, and the true origins of his name. His son is stunned, and feels lied to, almost betrayed. He apologizes, asking whether his name still reminds his father of that night. After a moment of silence, Ashoke responds, telling him that Gogol reminds him of everything good that came after.
This revelation strikes Gogol deeply, since it relates to the name that has been a source of frustration for him his whole life, and which he has clearly never fully understood. Thus it feels like a piece of his identity has been hidden from him. Ashoke reassures him, but Gogol is still traumatized.