Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis: 1971

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1590

The Gangulis have moved to the suburbs of Boston. Ashoke has earned his doctorate in engineering and was offered a job as an assistant professor of engineering in a college outside of Boston. He is now Professor Ganguli and is quietly proud of himself. He notes with special satisfaction that all his students are Americans; he is respected as an authority even among White Americans. Quietly, he is impressed with his achievements. He almost died in Calcutta, he often reminds himself. He got a second lease on life, left India to study in the United States, and here he is on the threshold of his professional career. He has reasons to be pleased.

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However, moving every few years is becoming too much for Ashima. She is a city girl, having been born and brought up in Calcutta and then “having lived in Boston” (Cambridge, actually). She finds life in this university town a bit too quiet and lonely, especially when Ashoke is at the university. Ashima cooks and cleans house and goes shopping with little Gogol. When he is four, he starts going to a preschool for children of the faculty. Ashima goes to her son’s school and watches him learn the letters of the alphabet and count.

When Gogol is five, Ashima gives birth to a baby girl whom they name Sonali, the golden one. Her name eventually will be muted to Sonia, a name easily recognizable in three continents: Europe, North America, and Asia. Gogol begins going to school. His father wants to name him Nikhil, which means “the all encompassing,” but Gogol will have none of it. He does not know or respond to the name. So when his father takes him to school the first day the school principal sides with Gogol and he gets to keep his name.

Gogol is fourteen now. He is almost as tall as his father; he is gaunt and has a clear hint of a moustache. His eyes are dark and piercing. Like his mother, he has long, tapering fingers; his face is always slightly pensive. Gogol’s fourteenth birthday party is like any other birthday party of his—an all-Bengali affair attended by Ashoke and Ashima’s friends who are Bengalis. The ladies come in dazzling saris and jewelry while the men dressed a lot more casually in T-shirts and pants. The men sit on the carpeted floor and play cards as they stormily discuss Reaganomics. The women congregate in another room to discuss cooking, clothing, and their children. Only Gogol is left with nothing to do. He realizes that he is too old for the other children who have come to the party with their parents and too young to discuss politics and economics with his father’s friends. For Ashima these birthdays mean cooking sprees: endless samosas and curries; chops made of ground meat and sweets made with milk and ricotta cheese. She started cooking for the party three days in advance.

These days Gogol spends most of his time sulking, pensive because of the confusion he feels over his name. He wonders why his father named him so weirdly after a Russian author. His friends laugh at his name, which is neither Indian nor American. Other Indians in his school have names that can easily be muted to American names like Jay for Jaydev. Even his own formal name, Nikhil, could have been shortened to Nick had he not objected to it as a five year old. Everywhere he goes, people immediately question his name: “What? What does it mean, Gogol, where does it come from?” He has to explain too much. Other boys his age have been on occasional dates with girls but Gogol has not bothered to ask a girl out. He cannot imagine calling a girl and announcing that his name is Gogol. So he sulks, mostly by himself, unable to find any sympathy in his parents or in school. For a young adolescent boy growing up Indian American, he is going through an acute identity crisis, but hardly anybody seems aware of it.

The crisis with his name becomes intolerable when, shortly after his fourteenth birthday, his father enters his room while he is busy gyrating to the Beatles’ White Album. Gogol expected Sonia and is shocked to see his father, who has hardly ever come to his room. Startled, he asks him to come in.
 Ashoke enters with a wrapped present in his hand. He gives him the present, which he says he ordered for him. It is a book, the short stories of Nicolay Gogol. He is unimpressed. His father tells him there is a special reason why he has given him the short stories of Gogol. “Because he’s your favorite author?” suggests Gogol. But his father says there is another reason. As Gogol waits, expecting an answer, Ashoke begins to have second thoughts about whether he should tell his son about the train accident on a day when he assumes his son is happy. So Ashoke retracts his offer to tell him. He says, “No other reason,” and leaves the room.

When Gogol is fifteen, he and Sonia are informed by their parents that Ashoke has been given a sabbatical leave from his college and they are to go to Calcutta for eight months. This is not good news for Gogol and Sonia. They have been to India several times, but the previous visits were short and lasted two to three weeks at most. Gogol is in tenth grade now and such a long absence from school can set him back in his studies. His teachers object but his parents prevail. He is given detailed homework from school. Then, much against their will, Gogol and Sonia leave for Calcutta with their parents. At the airport Ashoke presents two Indian passports (belonging to him and his wife) and two American passports (his childrens’). On the plane the four of them are unable to get their seats together, so Gogol gets to sit separate from his parents. Surreptitiously, he orders an alcoholic drink—a Bloody Mary—another first in his life.

The eight months in Calcutta pass slowly for the children but their parents seem to be in their elements. For Ashoke and Ashima, the transformation is almost immediate as they come face to face with their relatives. Their smiles are broader, their voices louder, and their confidence is back. Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of what seems to be thousands of relatives, Ashoke and Ashima seem completely at ease while their children barely manage. What is to their parents a natural show of affection from relatives—and therefore immensely appreciated—frequently seems like imposition to the two siblings, but the imposition must be politely tolerated for the sake of their parents. To their relatives, Gogol and Sonia are curios to be asked endless, and often seemingly mindless, questions (“Are all American buildings sky scrapers?”), all of which they answer patiently.

The high point of their India visit is their trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Gogol has always felt interested in art and has a special talent for painting. He is mesmerized by this monumental symbol of love that the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jehan, built for his wife, Mumtaz. (Her name is shortened to Taz or Taj in the name of the building, mahal in this context meaning “edifice” or “mausoleum.”) Gogol is fairly overwhelmed by the awesome structure, built with the best Italian marble in majestic symmetry. He decides that he will be an architect when he grows up.

The Ganguli family finally returns to their home in Massachusetts and feels relieved to back after so long. They appreciate the small, everyday things of American life they had taken so much for granted: the quiet suburb, grocery shopping in supermarkets, hamburgers and pizza. Gogol and Sonia are able to run around the house again and misbehave with each other without having to be under the gaze of myriads of relatives.

As Gogol progresses through high school approaching college age, his parents are pleased with his aptitude in drawing and mathematics, skills necessary for a career in engineering like his father’s. But the problem Gogol has with his name keeps haunting him. He is now in the eleventh grade. To be accepted by his friends, he drinks an occasional beer and sometimes even smokes pot. But he still cannot get himself to look for dates and misses his junior prom because he dreads having to explain his name and wince under their curiosity. This does not matter to Ashoke and Ashima. They never dated, so the possibility of their son’s dating, especially at age seventeen, does not enter their minds.

The day before Gogol sits for the SAT (a public exam American, college-bound kids take to get into college), he goes to a local college party with his high school friends. They lie about their ages and pretend to be at the postsecondary level. Gogol gets to know a girl at the party who has bright red lipstick. She asks him his name, a situation he hoped would not arise. Finally he says he is Nikhil and the girl says it is a lovely name. Gogol feels relived. High on a couple of beers, he kisses her—his first kiss. On the way back with his friends, he brags about the kiss. They are impressed but Gogol cannot believe it happened. Gogol did not do it, he keeps telling himself: it was Nikhil.

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