The novel begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968. Ashima Ganguli, a recent immigrant to the United States from Calcutta, India, is making a Rice Krispie and peanut snack, similar to that of Calcutta’s street-food vendors. Ashima is pregnant with her first child. She begins to feel contractions, and calls out to her husband in the next room, Ashoke, an electrical-engineering PhD student at MIT. Ashima remarks to herself that, following Bengali custom, she does not refer to her husband, even in private, using his given name. The two travel by cab to the hospital, where Ashima experiences stronger contractions, and Ashoke waits in the hall. Ashima notes the watch on her wrist, which her parents gave her as a present when she and Ashoke left India for Massachusetts. She muses that the clock ticks in “American seconds.”
Ashima thinks, as she waits to deliver her baby, of her new life in the United States. Ashima was a student and English tutor in India, with a special interest in the poets William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. One day, her parents introduced Ashima, at home, to a man named Ashoke, an engineering student in far-away Boston, where Ashima has never thought of visiting, let alone living. Ashima only learns Ashoke’s name after their betrothal, and they fly to America soon after they are married, in a highly formal Bengali ceremony in Calcutta. Ashima thinks on how she has gotten to know her new husband during the intervening months in freezing Cambridge, where she has cooked for him, washed his clothes, and learned his habits. Meanwhile, Ashoke sits outside, in the hall, reading an old newspaper, thinking of Ashima’s early pregnancy, and of his own childhood and education in India.
Ashoke’s grandfather, on his father’s side, was a professor of European literature in Calcutta. His grandfather introduced Ashoke to Russian novels, especially those of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke recalls the most violent, and jarring, moment of his young life: October 20, 1961, a train ride from Calcutta to Jamshedpur, where his grandfather lived. On the trip, Ashoke read Gogol, especially the story “The Overcoat,” about the luckless and impoverished low-level clerk, Akaky Akakyevich. Ashoke meets, in his train compartment, a businessman named Ghosh, who once lived in England, but returned after two years because his wife was homesick for India. Ghosh encourages Ashoke to travel abroad himself, and gives Ashoke his address in India, in case Ashoke ever wants to visit. Ashoke reads as his cabin-mates fall asleep. Suddenly, the train derails, killing Ghosh and dozens of others. But Ashoke survives, and is identified by rescuers by the fluttering page of his Gogol volume, which Ashoke drops when the rescuers are nearby.
Ashoke’s rehabilitation from his injuries takes months, and during that time he resolves to follow the deceased Ghosh’s advice and study abroad. Ashoke is accepted on scholarship to an engineering doctoral program at MIT, in Cambridge. Ashoke’s parents lament Ashoke’s departure for the US, but allow him to travel. Back in the hospital, awaiting the birth of his first child, Ashoke touches his rib, a tic he developed during his recuperation, and which occurs when he thinks on the train-wreck and his brush with death. As the chapter ends, Ashoke realizes he has had three lives: one in India before the crash, one of recuperation, and a third in the US, as a student living and working in English. Ashoke attributes his survival to Gogol, the author of the book that saved his life by attracting the rescuers’ attention.
The first chapter of The Namesake introduces many of the themes that will go on to shape the narrative: immigration, naming, literature, train travel, and re-birth. Lahiri’s narrator, writing in the third-person, describes the inner thoughts of Ashima and Ashoke, two recent émigrés to the United States, whose child will be born an American, separated from ancestral and linguistic ties to Calcutta, and to Bengali culture in India. Ashima notes that she does not use Ashoke’s given name, because that name, in Bengali, has a special, almost sacred resonance. Both Ashima and Ashoke are lovers of literature, Ashima of English poets, Ashoke of Russian authors, especially Gogol. And the train-ride to Ashoke’s grandfather’s house serves as the dominant traumatic event of Ashoke’s young life, which spurs his resolve to leave India, to see the world, to create his own life separate from the family networks of his native Calcutta.
Food, too, is an important touchstone for Ashima and for the novel itself. Ashima cooks to mark special occasions in America, and to re-interpret Bengali cuisine using the materials she can find in Cambridge. Food will go on to serve as a central, unifying element in the parties and celebrations hosted in the Bengali communities of the greater Boston area throughout the novel’s timeline. Ashima cooks and cleans for Ashoke, and manages the home when he is at work, in keeping with Bengali custom. But Lahiri’s narrator represents both Ashima and Ashoke’s interior monologues, and seems to imply that, although their marriage is traditional, Ashoke does not control Ashima, and Ashima’s responsibilities and skills complement her husband’s. The narrator recognizes that Ashima’s marriage was arranged, and that she did not exactly travel to America by choice, but also depicts Ashima’s interior life with depth and precision.