Gogol decides to change his name, officially, to Nikhil, the summer before he heads to Yale. He announces this to his parents, saying that Gogol is a strange name, not even a Bengali one, and that Nikolai Gogol was a flawed, miserable person for a namesake. Although Ashima and Ashoke wonder why their son is so angered, all of a sudden, by the name Gogol, they let him do as he wishes. Gogol changes the name at a courthouse in Cambridge, and marvels at how little ceremony is required. When the judge asks his reason for changing, Gogol simply says that he “hates the name Gogol.” Gogol nevertheless receives cards of congratulation, on graduating from high school, addressed to “Gogol,” since that is the name his Bengali family friends know him by.
At Yale, Gogol introduces himself to his roommates as Nikhil, and changes his official documentation at the university, so that he can register for classes under his new name. Gogol engages in typical freshman-year behavior: he gets a fake ID (for “Nikhil,” not Gogol), begins smoking and drinking, and goes to parties. But he remains a disciplined son—he takes the train home regularly, to the Boston suburbs, to see his parents, and watches as Sonia, now a teenager, begins to argue with Ashima and Ashoke. Gogol takes his first architecture class, and enjoys learning the name of various parts of buildings. He comes to regard New Haven, and the university, as home.
On a busy train back to Boston, the day before Thanksgiving, Gogol sits next to a girl named Ruth, also a Yale student; the two begin talking, and soon Gogol is drawing the floor-plan of his grandparents’ home in Calcutta for her, and buying her tea and chips in the café car. Ruth is on her way home to Maine for the break—she will take a bus when the train ends in Boston. Gogol asks for her number, almost in a daze, and after the holiday, the two start dating, kissing and making love after class, touring the campus’s museums together, and otherwise enjoying each other’s company. Gogol eventually tells his parents, after many months, that he is dating someone. They refer to Ruth as an “American,” and say that their son is “too young” for a relationship, although they do not explicitly critique Gogol for not choosing a Bengali woman.
Gogol and Ruth date for over a year, before she heads to Oxford, for a semester abroad. In quick succession, the narrator describes Gogol’s internship, between junior and senior years, at an architecture firm in Cambridge, and Ruth’s return from England. She and Gogol meet up in Cambridge and attempt to rekindle their relationship, but they acknowledge they have fallen out of love. The narrative jumps ahead again, this time to Thanksgiving of his senior year, when Gogol is on the train once again, back to the Boston area from New Haven. He thinks of his chance encounter with Ruth, two years before, and learns that the train will be delayed, because someone has committed suicide by jumping onto the tracks. Gogol is confused and saddened by the news, and he reaches Boston far later than he planned.
At the station in Boston, Gogol finds Ashoke, who has waited anxiously for his son, pacing the platform in the cold. Gogol asks his father why he waited to so long and so worriedly. Finally, Ashoke reveals to his son the train accident that almost killed him, in India, that solidified Ashoke’s love for Gogol the author, and that resulted, years later, in Gogol being named for him. Gogol asks his father whether his pet-name reflects that time of anguish and pain in his father’s life. But his father counters that the opposite is true—that Gogol’s name causes Ashoke to recall the beautiful life that followed his near-tragedy on the Indian railway.
Gogol is shocked by how easy it is, bureaucratically, to change his name. He expects, too, that the world will follow him immediately in his transformation. But he realizes that his relatives and family friends will continue to call him Gogol. He cannot willfully abandon all parts of himself that retain some trace of “Gogol-ness,” of the name his parents gave him in the hospital. At Yale, Gogol begins the process of transforming into Nikhil in others’ eyes. But there, Lahiri asserts, the taking-on of a new identity is not so much the province of a Bengali-American like Gogol, but of all late-adolescents. In other words, Gogol goes through, in college, what all American college-aged students go through. He asserts his independence; he tests his authority and his good judgment; he falls in love for the first time. Gogol’s transformation into Nikhil, in college, does not make him different from his fellow students; it proves how similar to them he really is.
Read more about the theme of identity and its formation.
Lahiri carefully demonstrates that Gogol's love of architecture occurs around the same time as his first serious romantic relationship, with Ruth. The first of these loves Gogol will sustain throughout the novel, whereas the other, romantic love will change, will be transformed by distance and time. Lahiri investigates, throughout The Namesake, these different forms of love: the ones that remain, and the ones that fade. Indeed, Gogol’s love of architecture, nurtured first in a tour of the Taj Mahal and, later, on the Yale campus, seems only to deepen with time. Gogol appreciates that the buildings he studies and designs will exist in time and through time. Gogol’s relationship with Ruth, on the other hand, is book-ended by two rides on the Amtrak train, the first during his sophomore Thanksgiving, the second during that same break his senior year. It is the repetition of the train ride that allows Gogol to realize how much he has grown and changed over the intervening four semesters.
Read more about the theme of change, and its dependence on stability.
That second train ride also occasions Ashoke’s worry, when the train is delayed, and prompts the telling of his Indian train-accident story to Gogol. This is an important scene in the novel, and a contrast to the scene from a few years previous, when Ashoke presents Gogol with the stories of Gogol in an effort to connect with his son, and, perhaps, to explain to him the importance of that writer’s name. In high school, Gogol was too petulant to listen to his father. But now, Gogol is more sensitive to those around him, and he realizes, when he arrives late in Boston, that his father is more upset than he ought to be. When Gogol asks what is wrong, Ashoke finally feels comfortable telling his son the origins of his (Ashoke’s) love for Nikolai Gogol, and Ashoke’s own desire to leave India and begin a new life abroad.
Read more about the symbolism behind riding the train.
Chapter Five develops one of Lahiri’s overarching themes in the novel: the interrelation of repetition and change. Gogol learns a great deal in college. He develops a passion for his academic discipline. He makes new friends, most of whom are not of Bengali descent. He tests out some of the boundaries of “good behavior” he has learned as a relatively obedient high-school student. But Gogol also travels home to Boston regularly, and his life in New Haven is only about two hours away from the life he has known as a child and young adult, in Massachusetts. Gogol ‘sself-realization is therefore a gradual one. Lahiri contrasts the development of Gogol ‘scharacter with the lightning strike of change that interrupts Ashoke’s life—the accident that nearly kills him. Afterward, Ashoke resolves to move to America and to build a life entirely for himself. Because Ashoke has made that sort of rupture in his own life. Gogol does not have to make a similar one in his. At the close of the chapter, Gogol realizes just how severely the accident has divided his father’s life. Later, Lahiri will use other events in the lives of the Ganguli family as “dividers,” as moments when characters’ trajectories seem instantly, and irrevocably, to change.