Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931
Chapter 1 Summary
As Ashima Ganguli tries to create a spicy Indian snack with American ingredients, she feels a stirring in her lower abdomen. She is about to have her first baby. She feels the movement of the fetus and calls her husband, Ashoke Ganguli, for help; they need to go to the hospital right away. Her husband is a senior doctoral student in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Ashima finds herself in the hospital’s clinical environment, thinking of her home and family in Calcutta. She feels the difference between giving birth here in Boston and how it would have been in Calcutta; no one from her parents’ family is present. In Bengali Indian tradition, women go to their parents’ home for childbirth. Surrounded by female family elders, the would-be mother is, herself, treated like a child. As she lies on her hospital bed in a semi-private room, having the baby with only her husband present, she thinks that this is not the way it is supposed to be.
Her husband is also alone and tense about his wife’s imminent childbirth. As he awaits the birth of his firstborn child, Ashoke’s mind goes back to his days in India. He remembers his near-fatal train accident when he was en route to visit his grandfather, a retired professor of Russian literature who had instilled into him a love for writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. Ashoke was reading a short story by Gogol—“The Overcoat”—when the devastating accident occurred. He had just listened, somewhat dismissively, to a fellow passenger’s advice about getting out of India to see the world while he was still young, when his train derailed, killing hundreds of passengers (including the man he had just spoken with). His life was miraculously saved when a rescuer spotted a torn page from the book next to Ashoke’s mangled body. He could not walk for a year. During his recovery, Ashoke Ganguli decided to leave home to take up doctoral studies in MIT as soon as he was well.
Ashima’s mind wanders, too. She remembers the first time she met Ashoke, when he came to her parents’ home to formally “see” his prospective bride. Three weeks later she became his wife. She was dressed in a dazzling red sari and adorned with sandalwood dots on her forehead, flowers, and jewelry. She was carried on a flat wooden seat by her brothers and cousins. She hid her face with a large green leaf and ceremoniously withdrew it when brought face-to-face with Ashoke under a canopy erected for their wedding, and they “viewed” each other for the first time. Amid such pomp and show, Ashima and Ashoke were married in Calcutta.
On this day, one of the most important days of their young married life, both remember the past that got them here. Ashoke is thankful for a second chance, thankful that he is able to give life to another human being.
Chapter 2 Summary
The baby boy is born. The grandmother who was to name the newborn posted a letter with his name in it, but the letter never arrived. Because the hospital administrators will not allow the baby to leave without a name, Ashoke decides to name his son Gogol after his favorite author.
The Ganguli family lives in an apartment on the first floor of a house owned by a Harvard professor. The Gangulis spend time with other Bengali graduate students living in Boston. Every weekend, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli invite or visit Bengali friends for dinner.
All their friends are Bengalis; upon getting together, they eat Bengali food, talk incessantly in Bengali about the lives they left behind in Calcutta, and sing Bengali songs. During these visits, Boston is almost forgotten. At times Ashima wishes to return to Calcutta to bring up their son, but she knows that is not possible.
The Gangulis celebrate their son’s Rice Ceremony when he is six months old. At this age the baby is supposed to be ceremonially named and eat rice for the first time. The ceremony is elaborate: part social, part religious. After consuming his first meal of solid food, the baby is made to choose between objects to give an indication of what profession he will prefer when an adult: in front of him is placed a dollar (representing business), a pen (representing scholarship), and earth (representing land or real estate). Gogol does not choose; he begins to cry.
The Gangulis prepare to go back to India for a few weeks; it will be their first visit since their arrival in the United States. Ashima busies herself buying gifts for her parents and other members of her family. During one of these shopping sprees, during which she buys choice paint brushes for her amateur artist father, she carelessly leaves the packages in a shopping bag in the underground metro and is inconsolable with regret. To her very pleasant surprise, upon inquiring at the lost and found, Ashoke is told that the packages have been found intact. “Only in this country” is the incredulous response from Ashima’s Indian friends when she tells them the story.
A few days later, news comes from India that Ashima’s father has suddenly died of a heart attack. Devastated by the news, she deposits a bag with her father’s gifts under the seat of another metro and returns home empty handed. Their first trip back home, the one for which they were planning with such enthusiasm, turns into a sad event; they depart in tears.
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