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Ashima and Ashoke’s child is born, a healthy baby boy. Both parents check to see that he has all his fingers and toes. Ashoke thinks, as he holds him for the first time, of the accident that nearly killed him. Three family friends, all Bengali—Maya and Dilip Nandi, and Dr. Gupta—visit the child in the hospital, and Ashoke remarks how fortunate his baby is, when Dr. Gupta gives him a book, since Ashoke had to wait years to own his first, precious volume. Ashima thinks back to her and Ashoke’s families in India; her child has been born far away from a network of loving relations, despite the presence of Gupta and the Nandis in the hospital. Ashima and Ashoke send a telegram to Calcutta, announcing the boy’s birth to the extended families, and await a letter from Ashima’s grandmother, who has the honor of naming the boy. The naming of a child is, in Bengali tradition, a solemn affair, and the Nandis and Dr. Gupta comprehend the significance of the boy’s great-grandmother’s decision.
The narrator distinguishes, in Bengali, between one’s “pet name” (daknam) and “good name” (bhalonam). The first is for everyday, family use, and never appears on official documents. The second, “good” name is for precisely those documents, and for recognition in the world outside the family. Ashoke’s pet name is Mithu, and Ashima’s is Monu. After several days elapse, and it is time for Ashima to leave the hospital with the baby, Mr. Wilcox, an administrator, asks for the boy’s official name for the birth certificate. Ashima and Ashoke try to explain that they are still waiting for Ashima’s grandmother’s letter from Calcutta, with the boy’s bhalonam inside. But Wilcox argues that it’s a difficult bureaucratic process, if the family does not assign a name to the birth certificate on leaving the hospital. Wilcox gives the Gangulis time to think, and it occurs to Ashoke that Gogol, his literary idol, would be a fitting daknam for the little Ganguli, until the letter from Calcutta arrives with his bhalonam. Ashima agrees, and Gogol Ganguli is discharged to the family’s apartment near Central Square in Cambridge.
The narrator describes the Gangulis’ modest apartment, and their neighbors the Montgomerys, a family of intellectuals and free spirits who own the house and live in the second-floor apartment. Ashima worries aloud, after a few days, to Ashoke, who has returned to work, that she cannot care for Gogol alone, without help. Ashoke tells her they will be OK—he is supportive but maintains his busy work schedule—and occasionally the Montgomery family, Alan and Judy (the parents) and Clover and Amber (the children), stop by to see how Ashima is doing. Ashima, over a period of several months, becomes more comfortable taking care of Gogol, and running errands in her Cambridge neighborhood. Ashoke and Ashima soon learn that Ashima’s grandmother is very sick, nearly unconscious in Calcutta; her letter with Gogol’s bhalonam still has not arrived, and because she told no one else her choice, the Gangulis realize they may never know her wishes.
The Gangulis, in the lead-up to Gogol’s “annaprasan,” or “rice ceremony,” become acquainted with many Bengalis in the Boston area. The ceremony, held at their apartment on a cold February day, has Gogol eat small portions of different foods and pick up different objects—soil, a pen, or a dollar bill—in a tradition once believed to hint at a child’s eventual profession and interests. Gogol begins to cry when he is forced to choose an item, and the narrator does not reveal Gogol’s selection. Instead, the narrative moves forward to the following August, when Gogol is one year old. The family prepares for a visit to Calcutta, their first since Gogol’s birth, and Ashima spends days buying items at the department store to bring on the plane. One evening, Ashima and Ashoke receive a strained phone call from Rana, Ashima’s brother, checking in with the family; Ashoke also speaks with Rana privately, but Rana does not explain to his sister what’s the matter. Rana leaves that for Ashoke, who, in bed with Ashime after the call, begins to cry, and tells his wife that her father has died of a heart attack. Under these most terrible and unexpected of circumstances, Ashima, Ashoke, and Gogol begin the long, multi-city flight to Calcutta.
Chapter 2 covers an important and eventful years in the lives of the Gangulis. Although Gogol’s birth is relatively painless for Ashima, and Gogol himself is born without complication, the Gangulis are nevertheless nervous on his behalf, wondering whether they are feeding him, bathing him, and otherwise tending to him properly. Ashima feels, throughout the first year with Gogol, that she does not know how to parent him, especially without the help of her own family, with whom she communicates primarily by letter. Ashoke supports Ashima as best he can, considering his own reserve, and the traditions of Bengali parenting, which place childcare primarily on the shoulders of the mother. But Ashoke and Ashima also begin “opening up” to other Bengali families in the area, creating for themselves, if not a network of blood relations, then a group of powerful friendships, between people bound by geographic, linguistic, and religious ties to Calcutta.
Gogol’s name is significant for several reasons. Of course, his “pet name” hearkens not only to his father’s favorite writer, and to the intellectual tradition in Russia that Nikolai Gogol represents; it represents, too, the train accident that nearly claimed Ashoke’s life. Gogol’s name, therefore, is a reminder both of desire and aspiration—for a world outside Calcutta, as represented by the English translations of a Russian author—and of the tenuousness of life itself, of the thin line between living and dying. Gogol, too, is a “pet name” that has come to serve, in addition, as a “good name,” as a name one puts on an official document. The word “namesake,” the book’s thematically-loaded title, means, in the dictionary, “a person or thing that has the same name as another,” and Lahiri makes the most of the symbolic importance of this definition. For Gogol literally has the same name as Nikolai Gogol, but he is named for his father, and relatedly, he is named in lieu of his grandmother, who, in turn, would not name him after another person, but for a quality she would want Gogol to possess later in life. Soon, in the novel, other “sakes” for which one can be “named” will be discussed.
Gogol’s rice ceremony, too, is a symbolic event, and Gogol’s reluctance to choose the soil, the pen, or the dollar will be complicated, later, by his choice of career (architecture) and by his inability to determine his wishes in other aspects of his life. This is a sharp contrast to the lives of his parents: Ashoke became an electrical engineer and then a professor without expressing much doubt as to his choice, and Ashima has had wifehood and motherhood largely determined for her, by her own family. Thus Gogol’s “choices” of life and profession, in America, represent a radically larger spectrum of options than were available to his own parents in Calcutta. As the novel progresses, too, Ashima will be forced, by circumstances beyond her control, to expand the sphere of her life and duties, in part at the urging of her children. This process begins in Chapter 2, as Ashima leaves her apartment with Gogol, and learns to branch out into the life of her Cambridge neighborhood—even if it’s only, at first, to shop for groceries and make small talk with others.
Finally, the family’s first visit to India, after Gogol’s birth, mixes great excitement with tragedy: the sudden death of Ashima’s father, an illustrator and avid card-player, in Calcutta. Sudden death is not new to the novel, as Ghosh, during Ashoke’s ill-fated train ride, also dies quickly, just after providing Ashoke important advice on living abroad. Indeed, Ashima and Ashoke assumed that a phone call from Calcutta would announce the death of Ashima’s grandmother—a woman who had lived well into her eighties, and who was already ailing. The death of Ashima’s father is profoundly upsetting, of course, as would be the death of any immediate family member, and it is compounded, too, by the distance between Cambridge and Calcutta, which Ashima and Ashoke have spent the past year, with Gogol, attempting to manage, in part by establishing a large circle of Bengali friends. Ashima’s father’s death thus makes the world seem quite small—Rana conveyed the news, after all, via an expensive but otherwise simple telephone call—and impossibly large, separated by continents and by time, such that the Gangulis’ life in America appears more and more disconnected from the realities of their families’ lives in India. This “distance” between American and Indian experience will only deepen, as Gogol and his sister grow and navigate their Bengali heritage and American daily lives.