The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Chapter 1 | Summary



The novel begins in August 1968, 18 months after Ashoke and Ashima marry in India in a ceremony arranged by their parents. The couple have moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so Ashoke can continue his studies in electrical engineering at MIT. Ashima is preparing to give birth to their first child. As she struggles to prepare Indian food using American ingredients, she goes into labor. Ashoke goes with her to the hospital. As Ashima goes through labor, she wishes she could talk with someone who has already gone through it. Patty, her nurse, and Dr. Ashley, her doctor, are kind to her, although Ashima realizes Patty is amused at Ashima's somewhat incorrect English. Such errors embarrass her since Ashima's specialized subject in school was English. As Ashima experiences contractions, she thinks about her home back in Calcutta and wonders about the activities of her parents and brother.

Ashima is sad her baby is being born in a sterile American hospital without the presence of his extended family. She remembers how she first met Ashoke. Her parents interviewed his parents about Ashoke, who was quiet and noncommittal. Ashima remembers putting her feet into his foreign shoes left by the door just to see what it felt like. Then she remembers going into the sitting room to meet Ashoke and listen to her mother brag about her. Ashoke's father asked whether Ashima could handle living in a place with cold winters. Ashima naively wondered aloud whether Ashoke wouldn't also be there. The betrothal was set, and then Ashima learned Ashoke's name. They married two weeks later and moved to the United States. Now, Ashima has gotten to know him and his likes and dislikes, and she confides in him.

As Ashima goes through labor, Ashoke is in the waiting room, reminiscing about his early life. He remembers the train wreck that nearly took his life when he was 22. He thinks about Ghosh, the older businessman he met before the crash, and how they discussed traveling. Ghosh had encouraged Ashoke to take the opportunity to travel while he was young. Ashoke, an avid reader on the way to collect his grandfather's set of antique Russian literature, was reading "The Overcoat" by his favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. He told Ghosh his grandfather always said books could be his travel. Ghosh gave him his business card, telling him to get in touch if he changed his mind. Ashoke read until the early hours of the morning, until suddenly the train derailed. Several of the cars, Ashoke's included, were flung into a field. When rescuers arrived, they believed there was no one alive in Ashoke's car. Ashoke dropped a crumpled page of the story he had been reading onto the ground, catching the attention of the rescuers. He spent the next several months healing, retaining a limp and pain in his ribs. Ghosh's advice inspired him to reach further than college in India, getting a fellowship in the United States.

As Ashoke thinks about Ashima in the delivery room, he realizes none of what he has would have been possible had he not survived a childhood of poverty and the train wreck. He is not a religious man, so he doesn't thank any deity for his luck. He thinks about how grateful he is to Nikolai Gogol for having saved his life. At that moment, Patty, the nurse, arrives to tell him his son has been born.


The author introduces two of the main characters of the novel, Ashoke and Ashima, in this first chapter. She gives the reader background regarding how they met, married, and interact by describing cultural differences between their homeland of Calcutta, India, and their new home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also introduces the theme of starting over, highlighting early seminal life-changing events for the pair and the move to a foreign environment.

Ashima's nostalgic vision of home and her attempts to use American ingredients to make an Indian snack poignantly illustrate the solitariness of Ashima's life. She tries to improve the situation by recreating the things she loves from Calcutta, but she can never get the recipe to taste quite right. Yet, Ashima employs the symbolism of Indian food to build connections with family, memories, and the comforts of home. Ashima's use of Indian food to remain connected with Bengali culture is a recurring symbol in the novel. But these same cultural differences make Ashima's situation as a new mother in a new marriage particularly difficult. The thought of being a mother alone, without anyone to take over any of the home duties and without family to support her, terrifies Ashima. Ashima's internal thoughts express her need for companionship. She can't even reach out to anyone at the hospital because of cultural differences. Americans keep parts of their lives private, while Bengalis teach family and community through example. The descriptions of the stark setting in the hospital reinforce this sense of isolation for Ashima.

The cultural differences in marriage customs and relationships between spouses also reinforce Ashima's sense of isolation. In contrast to the Americans' interactions, Ashima's actions and Ashoke's interactions with her illustrate what is proper between a Bengali husband and wife. Neither spouse views their relationship as problematic, though an American reader might give in to judgment. The lack of obvious intimacy between Ashoke and Ashima highlights the impact of the missing family support when Ashima is in the hospital. The support she would ordinarily get from her mother and other female relatives as she goes through her first experience with childbirth is absent, which makes her miss home. She does not judge her relationship with her husband against American models.

The story of Ashoke's near-death experience on the train, which provided him with an opportunity to live a different life, also serves to set up the premise of the novel. Ashoke has been thinking about how the birth of his son is a third birth for him, into a new life, and the reason he can have this new life is because of Gogol's story, "The Overcoat." If not for the page of the story in his hand, Ashoke would not be alive. The story symbolizes survival and rebirth for Ashoke, for which he thanks the author. This symbol of survival and fatherly love will resonate throughout the novel, in both negative and positive ways, for Ashoke and his son. His gratefulness to Gogol for the story, a stand-in for gratefulness to any deity, foreshadows what he will do next regarding a cultural clash and his son's name.

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