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After several years in Cambridge, Ashima, Ashoke, and Gogol move to the suburbs, to a college town where Ashoke has accepted a job as an assistant professor—despite Ashima’s plea that they stay nearer to Boston, since Ashoke also had a job offer at Northeastern. Ashoke enjoys teaching and research a great deal, and seems to relish the atmosphere of the town; Ashima, on the other hand, finds the transition from Cambridge jarring, and wishes she could walk around and come in contact with her neighbors, as she used to. Gogol begins nursery school, giving Ashima more time to herself than she has had in years, time which she does not, at first, know how to spend. Two years pass. The Gangulis buy a house in the college town (which remains unnamed), at 67 Pemberton Road, next to neighbors with names like “Johnson” and “Merton.” Because the Gangulis wait several months to plant grass and shrubs on their lawn, for a while the house sits on a dirt lot. In the summer, the Gangulis go to the nearby beach.
Ashima becomes pregnant again. Gogol is five and begins kindergarten; Ashoke takes over many of Ashima’s household chores, including cooking for the family. Ashoke drives Gogol to his first day of organized school. Beforehand, his parents tell Gogol, who is reluctant to attend kindergarten, that he will have a new name there, a “good name”: Nikhil, which is relatively common in Bengali and which also has a connection to Gogol, since the author’s first name is Nikolai. Although Ashoke presents Gogol to the principal, Mrs. Lapidus, as Nikhil, Gogol asserts, later, that his name is Gogol, and the teachers and principal, respecting the boy’s wishes over his parents’, register him as Gogol, not as Nikhil. Gogol’s sister is born, and Gogol goes to the hospital to greet her. His parents decide to combine her “pet” and “good” names, calling her, officially, Sonali: “she who is golden.” But the family refers to her in nickname form, as Sonia—also a Russian name, like Gogol. At her rice ceremony, when she is seven, Sonia eats nothing and misbehaves, causing the Bengalis to recognize that she is “the true American” in the family, more comfortable in the less formal culture of their adopted home.
Time continues to pass, and Ashima and Ashoke realize they have been living in America for ten years. They begin following more and more American customs, like buying a barbeque and celebrating secular versions of Christian holidays. The Gangulis begin to eat American food, wear ready-made American clothes, and buy other American products, like disposable razors and pens. Gogol notices that children in school occasionally make fun of his name, and he starts to feel self-conscious of its “strangeness.” His father, one night in the house, tells Gogol that their last name, Ganguli, is itself a shortened version, supplied by the occupying British, of their full Bengali name, Gangopadhyay. In sixth grade, Gogol goes on a school field trip to rural New England; they make a detour in an old cemetery, and do “rubbings” with charcoal of the names on gravestones, as a lesson in local history. Some students find names resembling their own; Gogol is aware that his name will not be present. When he brings home his rubbing from the gravestones, Gogol is surprised that his mother is upset, since she believes that, according to Bengali custom, it is morbid and sacrilegious to make art among the dead. Indeed, in Calcutta it is custom to burn, not bury, bodies. Ashima gives Gogol back the rubbing, refusing to hang it in the kitchen. Gogol keeps it upstairs, hidden.
Chapter 3 is a time of transition, both in Gogol’s life and in the lives of his parents. Gogol leaves the protective circle his mother had created for him, in Cambridge: he begins nursery school, then elementary and middle school, at each stage becoming more comfortable with American customs, with American nicknames, crafts, and pastimes. Ashoke, too, enjoys his work in the suburbs, and suburban life more generally—the leisurely pace, as compared to life in Boston or Cambridge (which are more urban), and the relative ease of the academic calendar. Ashima, however, has fewer opportunities for these kinds of personal growth and change, at least in the start of their time in the suburbs. She has Sonia, their second child, and must care for her while Gogol is in school and Ashoke works. In many ways, Ashima still mourns the distance between her nuclear family, in Massachusetts, and her extended family, in Calcutta, even as family members in India, from previous generations, pass away.
Read more about the influence of New England on the novel.
The chapter also takes up, as in Chapter 2, the issue of names. Gogol recognizes that his first name is “strange” for at least three reasons. First, it is not a “proper” Bengali “good” name, though it is used on official documents. It is a pet name and a good name mixed together—which is why Gogol insists on being called that, and not Nikhil, in kindergarten. But it is not a Bengali name at all; rather, it’s Russian, related to his father’s life in a personal and emotional, instead of traditional, manner. Third, it is a difficult name for many American teachers and schoolchildren to pronounce. People seem not to recognize the reference to Nikolai Gogol, and wonder whether it’s simply another way in which the Ganguli family follows “its own” customs. The names of neighbors on the Gangulis' block, and of the deceased on the gravestones in the rural cemetery, drive home, at least for Gogol, the fact that he and his family are immigrants to a country where their ancestors did not live. Although Ashoke seems comfortable with this fact, Ashima has more difficulty accepting it, and Gogol must navigate it from a “second-generation” perspective, as a child born in America to parents from abroad.
It is worth noting, too, that the Gangulis' last name, which to an American of non-Indian descent might seem “Indian,” is, in fact, a product of the English colonial regime in India, where longer names were cut down to make them more “pronounceable.” Thus, for Lahiri, names are slippery, not always referring to what they appear to, existing in a network of associations, rather than a state of fixity. Gogol’s attitudes toward his name will change a good deal, as the novel progresses. And Sonali’s name, intended to be both “good” and “pet” name, becomes shortened to “Sonia,” an American-style nickname that is also a common name in Russian novels.
Read more about the motif of naming.
Lahiri associates at least some aspects of American culture with the exchangeable, the disposable, the “ready-made” instead of the “tailor-made.” This is exemplified by Ashoke’s switch to safety razors, from a traditional blade, and by the family’s increasing reliance on pre-made American foods, in place of customary Bengali cuisine. Indeed, for Lahiri’s narrator, and for Ashima primarily (among the Gangulis), life in the suburbs is American life, and that life requires driving, roomy white-walled and carpeted houses, and holidays celebrated not for their religious significance but for their occasion for consumer activity, as in the “secular” Christmas the Gangulis incorporate into their lives. The chapter ends on an important, if chilling, note, as Ashima resists Gogol’s art project—the rubbings made in the cemetery—out of a belief that such art violates a basic Bengali principle, of respect for the dead. In silent protest, Gogol keeps the rubbing in his room, not disobeying his mother outright, but refusing to accept totally the Bengali values of life and death to which his mother ascribes.
Read more about the universality of foreignness as a theme.