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Gogol celebrates his fourteenth birthday twice. His first is an “American” celebration: watching a basketball game with school friends (of different backgrounds) at home, eating pizza and ice cream. The second is a large, formal, Bengali affair, for which his mother prepares lamb curry and other traditional foods for days. Dozens of Bengali friends from the greater Boston area arrive at the home, including one girl Moushumi, whose family has come to the region from England, where they lived previously. Moushumi, who has an English accent of which she’s mildly embarrassed, says she does not like TV, and she reads instead of playing with the others. She has little to say to Gogol. After this second party, Gogol hears a knock on his bedroom door, and lets in his father, who has a present for him: Nikolai Gogol’s short stories. Gogol accepts the gift nonchalantly. Although it seems his father has more to tell him about its significance, Ashoke merely repeats a saying of Dostoevsky’s to his son—that “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat,” a reference to Gogol’s most famous story. Gogol Ganguli doesn’t understand his father’s statement, and, after Ashoke leaves, Gogol stores the book in a corner of his room and forgets about it.
Gogol’s classmates find his name increasingly odd. Some wonder whether it’s “Indian,” and Gogol explains that he is named after a Russian author. To add to Gogol’s high school difficulties, his father receives a sabbatical for the academic year, when Gogol is in tenth grade, and Ashima and Ashoke announce to their children that the whole family will be moving to Calcutta for eight months. Gogol and Sonia are upset, as they will miss school, their American friends, and the comforts of their life in Massachusetts. His parents, however, are thrilled to be back among their extended families, and for months they travel to different aunts’ and uncles’ houses in Calcutta, eating long meals and catching up. Gogol and Sonia feel out of place, “foreign” in the city, but Ashoke and Ashima, Gogol notices, are far more confident in their native tongue, and among their friends and relatives. By the time summer arrives, after several months in Calcutta without sightseeing, Ashoke decides that the family will travel to Delhi and to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Gogol is surprised that his own parents are “foreigners” in non-Bengali regions of India, and though he and Sonia get sick to their stomachs on the trip, Gogol is taken by the majestic architecture of the palace in Agra.
Gogol begins eleventh grade in the fall, and his English teacher, Mr. Lawson, assigns some classics of European short fiction, including Nikolai Gogol. Gogol Ganguli cringes when he hears Lawson explain the terrible sadness of Gogol (the writer’s) life, including periods of depression and mania, lack of success in publishing, and horrid writer’s block. Gogol eventually dies of self-inflicted malnutrition. Gogol is anguished with shame, since his namesake is such an apparently luckless character, although the other students don’t seem to notice as acutely as he does. The narrator moves on to Gogol’s social life in high school, which, though not particularly robust, does include some furtive drinking and smoking, which his parents never suspect. Gogol goes with friends one night to a party at the local college (where Ashoke is a professor), and meets a college girl named Kim, whom he kisses. He introduces himself to Kim as “Nikhil,” the first time he has done so.
Chapter 4 takes up more explicitly the differences between an “Indian” (or, more aptly, Bengali) and American adolescence. Gogol and Sonia are accustomed to squabbling among themselves, to talking back to their parents (casually, and without malice), and to behaving with the kind of independence to which Americans are accustomed. But in Calcutta, among relatives, Gogol and Sonia must be on their best behavior for two reasons: because they are guests among family, and because Bengali culture demands stricter discipline, where individual desires are often set aside for group or familial ones. The trip, nevertheless, provides Gogol ample opportunity to observe aspects of life in Calcutta and beyond, and the Taj Mahal scene will be an important one in the novel: it’s one of the first instances of Gogol’s demonstrated passion in architecture, which will go on to be his career.
In Massachusetts, then, Gogol must begin living something like a double life, although a mild version of it. He does not tell his parents that he sneaks out occasionally to relax with his friends, and they certainly never suspect that he is attending parties or kissing anyone. Gogol seems to understand what his parents do not: that Bengali rules might apply to some aspects of household life, but that, in school, Gogol is an American student with American friends, and Gogol feels he ought to follow those customs, rather the customs of a culture to which he is less immediately connected. The scene in which Gogol kisses Kim, too, illustrates Gogol’s willingness to present himself in a new way. He calls himself Nikhil, which he feels is his “proper” name (even though it’s much “newer” than Gogol), and Kim, of course, has no idea that Gogol is using “Nikhil” for the first time.
Read more about the formation of identity as a theme.
Gogol realizes that Nikolai Gogol, the author, did not have a pleasant life, and he has an increasingly difficult time understanding why his father is so interested in Gogol’s fiction, and why Ashoke felt it necessary to name Gogol in the writer’s honor. Ashoke has an opportunity to enlighten Gogol, about the train accident that nearly killed him, but does not, perhaps because he does not want to burden Gogol with that information. Gogol, for his part, does not seem to pick up on the additional, emotional story Ashoke desires to tell: and the scene perfectly demonstrates how his father’s reserve, forged in part by the difficulties of his life in India, meshes with Gogol’s brasher, more typically American adolescence—in which all parents are simply bossy, or annoying, or awkward.
Read more about the symbolism behind the stories of Nikolai Gogol.
Additionally, although Sonia’s and Ashima’s characters are developed somewhat in this chapter, the narrative revolves primarily, here, around Gogol and his father—a relationship that will recur later in the novel, after a different kind of tragedy. Parts of the novel focus on Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol, but, interestingly, Sonia does not receive nearly as great an emphasis, and the reader rarely has direct access to her thoughts. There might be many reasons for this. But it is worth considering whether Lahiri herself—a young woman who grew up in New England, in a Bengali family—has “written herself,” or a perspective similar to hers, “out of the novel.” Sonia is present, an intelligent and near-constant observer of the action of the novel, and her viewpoint might shadow Lahiri’s. Sonia will go on to serve an increasingly important role in Ashima’s home life. But the reader does not learn Sonia’s desires, or the details of her friendship and relationships, the way the reader learns Gogol’s.
Read more about the important differences between Lahiri’s biography and the stories of the characters she portrays.