It has been a year since Ashoke’s death. Gogol and Maxine are no longer together—the argument that ended their unraveling relationship had to do with him opposing her desire to accompany his family to India for the funeral. He returns home now every weekend, drawn to the framed photograph of his father on the wall, the closest thing Ashoke has to a grave. Ashima’s mourning has caused her to age quickly, and Sonia now lives with and takes care of her. Gogol is enrolled in a course at Columbia again, preparing to take the registration exam that will make him a fully-licensed architect in his own right.
Maxine and Gogol separate, less as a result of her inherent distance from his family than because Gogol has himself worked to maintain this distance, and now cannot imagine bridging it. With no grave to visit, Gogol finds himself returning home, the place where the most memories of his father still live, and reconnecting to the family he had once rebelled against. He is preparing to take another step toward adulthood.
Out for drinks with his classmates one night, Gogol begins talking with an architecture student named Bridget. She is married, and her husband is a professor in Boston. They begin an affair, never seeing one another aside from the evenings of their review class. It is only when Gogol is on the train home to Boston, and a train going the opposite direction passes by, that he begins to feel guilty, wondering whether Bridget’s husband is sitting on the southbound train.
This brief affair in Gogol’s life is a means for him to release his pent-up emotion without, this time, any implication for his own identity – he is essentially anonymous and nameless for once. The moment of guilt on the train, though, foreshadows the moment when, later in the novel, he will learn (on a train) of his own wife’s secret affair.
Ashima has begun to ask questions about Gogol’s romantic situation, even suggesting that he patch things up with Maxine. Gogol knows that Ashima hopes he will settle down soon, but he tries to keep from being annoyed—as he might have been before Ashoke’s death. One day Ashima mentions a girl Gogol used to know, a Bengali named Moushumi Mazoomdar, who had broken off an engagement the year before and “could use a friend.” The first time she gives him the phone number, he only pretends to write it down, but when she persists Gogol agrees to meet with Moushumi.
This new pressure from his mother is a product of her fear that Gogol will not settle down, and that the Ganguli name will end with him. The idea of immigrant parents setting up their reluctant children is a common theme in immigrant literature, as the parents work to keep alive the fragile communities formed between immigrants of the same culture in a foreign land. Love and family are not separate in the view of Ashima’s generation, as both are rooted in tradition.
Moushumi is waiting for him in a bar in the East Village, reading a book in French. Their conversation starts with a discussion of his new name, and the fact that she was taught as a child to call him Gogol Dada, or cousin Gogol—a past link that makes them both feel a bit awkward. Moushumi remembers his house, and his family, and she apologizes for missing Ashoke’s funeral. She had been in Paris at the time, after graduating from Brown, and is now a PhD candidate in French Literature at NYU. She talks frankly of her “prenuptial disaster,” and then they change the subject to the last time they saw each other, at Gogol’s graduation party, when they didn’t speak.
Gogol is not expecting anything to come from this meeting, as he has spent his whole life trying to rebel against his mother and the culture that he shares with Moushumi. Gogol’s romantic nature, which has been a tool of rebellion and identity formation in the past, is now driving him back toward the identity he associates with his family, and with his father.
As the bar fills up, they decide to leave, and then, spontaneously, to have dinner. They walk to a small French restaurant, where Gogol insists on paying the bill, and then he walks Moushumi home, surprised at how much he is enjoying himself. On the way back to his apartment he makes the indulgent decision to take a cab, eager to reflect on the date alone. The driver is speaking in Bengali on his cell phone, and as they near his apartment, Gogol leans forward and, speaking Bengali, points out the right address. Gogol leaves a generous tip and steps out of the car.
Their date seems on the one hand spontaneous, and on the other, fated and inevitable. Their backgrounds are remarkably similar, since they share the common experiences of second-generation Indian-Americans. Gogol is becoming more reconciled to his heritage, as seen in his interactions with the driver, which in the past would have made him feel embarrassed or out of place.
In the next few days, Gogol recalls images of Moushumi from years ago that he had forgotten—the books she always brought along to the parties, her seriousness at a young age. He is secretly pleased that she has seen his house and tasted Ashima’s cooking. He remembers a Christmas spent in her home, arranging an anonymous gift exchange, and Moushumi reluctantly playing the piano at her mother’s insistence.
The things that attract Gogol to Moushumi are entirely opposite from the things that drew him to Maxine. Instead of hoping to escape his past, he is now increasingly drawn to it, reminded by his father’s death of just how fragile his links to that past are. He is now actively searching for memories that he had previously sought to forget.
A week later they have lunch, meeting at his work, where Gogol shows her around the office proudly. They go to an Italian restaurant he knows, and she orders the same meal he does, eating approvingly. They talk about her dissertation, and that Christmas party years before. Moushumi tells him that playing the piano was always a fantasy her mother had for her, never something she wanted to do. As they pay the bill, the waiter asks Gogol if Moushumi is his sister—a question that embarrasses but pleases them both.
Gogol dwells on all of the details of their interaction, signaling his growing excitement about Moushumi. He and Moushumi bond over their shared attempts to escape the commandeering influence of their parents – even as they are essentially giving in to that influence by seeing one another. Their similarities draw them together, which is a new feeling for both.
They walk out into the cold New York winter. Moushumi sees Gogol shivering, and insists that they go to buy a hat. He enjoys the way she watches him try it on, and she then buys it as a present. At the counter, he sees her eyeing a beautiful, expensive hat, which she tries on, but leaves behind. Gogol returns to work, but when his day is done he returns to the store and buys the hat from the knowing saleswoman. He hides it in his closet, having decided to give it to her as a birthday present before he even knows when her birthday is. That weekend, at home, he looks through family photo albums and finds Moushumi in the background of an old birthday photo.
They are already beginning to care for one another like a married couple would, even on this very early date – and Gogol’s choice to buy the hat reflects the inevitable future of their relationship, one that is almost fated by their background. It is simultaneously a very spontaneous act and one that assumes long-term stability in their relationship. Moushumi’s presence in the family photo album is the clearest link yet between this woman and Gogol’s family, which has now become the center of his life.
The next weekend Gogol goes to Moushumi’s apartment for dinner, bringing a bunch of sunflowers. She looks for a place to put them on the countertops, which are filled with the ingredients for the meal she is cooking, and asks him to get a vase from a high shelf. They begin cooking together, making coq au vin, with Moushumi acknowledging that her mother would be appalled that she isn’t cooking Indian food. Steam from the pot fogs her glasses, and as Gogol helps her take them off, he leans in for a kiss. They go to the bedroom, where they make love “as if they’ve known each other’s bodies for years.” They are roused from bed by the smell of burnt chicken, and sprint naked into the kitchen. In the end they order Chinese.
This domestic scene is, again, already a glimpse into what their married life will presumably look like. They are rebelling from their parents and their past in small ways – in their choice of meal, for example – but in more important ways – like their choice of romantic partner – they are following the path their parents have set out for them. Love and sex again become a means for Gogol to assert his identity, although this time they involve returning to his Bengali heritage.
Within three months their lives become intimately intertwined. When they go out to dinner, they sometimes make comments in Bengali to avoid being overheard. Even as they get to know one another, Gogol feels he already knows her life—he can picture Moushumi’s house, the parties, the family dynamics, as if they were his own. They talk of their trips to Calcutta, and of being misidentified as Greek, Egyptian, or Mexican. She tells him nostalgically of her life in Britain, and of the paranoia of her parents upon moving to America.
This list of those things they have had to endure separately brings them together still further. They have shared experiences of the casual racism of being mistaken for another ethnicity, and of the frustration each has felt with their overly paranoid and overbearing mothers. Moushumi has some experiences that Gogol lacks, however – her autonomous life in London, and in Paris.
Moushumi admits that Gogol is exactly the type of man she has avoided all her life. From a young age, there was pressure in her family to marry a Bengali, but she had made a pact never to do so. Instead she remained single and lonely throughout college, forming intense crushes on her teachers. Her rebellion at Brown was academic—although she studied chemistry as expected, she secretly double majored in French, a culture she turned to in defiance of the other two that tried to lay their claim on her.
Here is a glimpse again into the particular dynamic of growing up as a second-generation immigrant woman, whose romantic life is tightly controlled. Like Gogol, Moushumi rebels from this mold, but like Gogol, that mold still shaped the person she is today, despite her best efforts. This pact never to marry a Bengali man will return later, when Moushumi begins to feel that she has “given up” in choosing Gogol as a husband.
After graduation Moushumi moved to Paris, despite her parents’ protests, and after years of loneliness fell into a series of passionate affairs with men who wooed her with expensive presents. She worked at a language center with American expatriates, where she met Graham, an investment banker, and fell in love. They lived together in secret in New York for a time, before Graham met her family. By this point, her parents were more accepting of an American husband, and one night she impulsively asked him to marry her. He accepted, gave her his grandmother’s ring, and flew with her to Calcutta to meet her extended family, charming them all.
This moment of more extreme rebellion in Moushumi’s past mirrors the height of Gogol’s rebellion in the woods with Maxine. Like Gogol, Moushumi has used love as a way to assert her independence from a past that she felt trapped by. This recounting of her history with Graham raises some alarm bells, creating a suspicion that Moushumi still has some feelings for her ex-fiancé—as if Gogol is in some way a backup plan, after her first choice backfired.
Graham agreed to a Hindu wedding, and all of the preparations were made, with the announcement made in the local paper. Then one night a few weeks before the wedding, at a dinner with friends, Moushumi heard him discussing their time in Calcutta, complaining about the lack of alcohol, the endless relatives, their provincial ways. Walking home afterward, they began to argue. For Moushumi, it was fine that she reject her past, but hearing these things from him felt like a betrayal. Moushumi threw his grandmother’s ring into the street, and then Graham slapped her across the face. By the end of the week he had moved out, the wedding was canceled, and she dropped out of the rest of the semester at NYU, taking a trip to the emergency room after swallowing half a bottle of pills.
Moushumi herself has rejected the traditions of her parents’ culture, but she cannot endure that Graham would reject them—he doesn’t understand them, and so has no right to criticize them out of hand. This suggests that, like Gogol, Moushumi is still loyal to her past in a deep, unshakeable way. The end of that relationship is swift and violent, suggesting that, as with Gogol and Maxine, the relationship between Moushumi and Graham may have been shallow in many ways – driven by Moushumi’s quest for an identity that rejected her past, and for that reason always incomplete.
Moushumi recovered slowly, watching television and movies all day, living in Brooklyn for a time with another couple. It was painful for her to see them together every day. She worked until she could afford to rent another studio, and was grateful to be alone. She grew thin, subsisting on Triscuits and raita, but was determined to stay at NYU, and when summer ended she worked hard to catch up. She began to date again, intermittently—and then she met Gogol.
The depth of this wound, and the fact that it was inflicted relatively recently, is another warning sign that Moushumi’s relationship to Gogol may be a too-hasty attempt at healing. This period of mourning resembles in some ways Gogol’s shock in the aftermath of his father’s death. Tragedy brought them both back to their roots, and to each other.