The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Chapter 2 | Summary



When Ashoke and Ashima's baby is born, Ashoke comes to see Ashima and hold the baby. At first he doesn't know how to react because the baby's eyes are closed. But when Ashima falls asleep and he continues to hold his son, the baby's eyes open, and Ashoke "has never seen a more perfect thing." He sees his son as the second miracle in his life, the rescue from the train being the first. Dr. Gupta and Maya and Dilip Nandi, three Bengali friends of the couple, come to visit the baby. Ashoke and Ashima both reflect on how different their son's entry into the world is from their own. Ashoke celebrates that his son has the gift of a book, where he had nothing like that as a child. Ashima, however, notes that her son is mostly alone in the world, compared to how her family surrounded her mother. Ashima feels as if her son's birth is a little unreal, without anyone to take care of them at home and without a way to include her family in the celebration of his arrival.

Ashoke and Ashima plan to name the child as soon as a letter from Ashima's grandmother arrives with the name she has chosen. This is a family tradition. An elder chooses the "good name" of the baby, while the parents decide among the many pet names the child is called. But the letter has not arrived, and the couple is informed before Ashima is discharged to go home that they must choose a name for the birth certificate. According to Mr. Wilcox, a hospital administrator, it is too hard to change "baby boy" to an actual name later, so they are compelled to use a pet name for the birth certificate. No one understands their explanation of the Bengali good name/pet name tradition. Ashoke finally picks "Gogol," in honor of the favorite author whose story allowed him to be rescued from the train.

Ashoke and Ashima live in a shabby, cockroach-infested apartment, a small space which Ashima manages to spruce up and keep as clean as possible. The apartment is in a house in Central Square, Cambridge, owned by Alan and Judy Montgomery. Alan is a sociology professor at Harvard, and Judy works for a women's health collective in nearby Somerville. Alan and Judy live in the first two floors of the house, and their part of the house is a mess. They are vegetarians and heavy drinkers who are fairly lax about the way they dress and the way their children, Amber and Clover, appear. When Ashima gets home with the baby, her own apartment has become messy. She suddenly realizes that she is really going to have to do everything for herself, with no help from family or hired workers. She tells Ashoke he has to finish his degree quickly because she can't raise a child alone in the United States.

The first few days Ashima is alone, she cries incessantly while taking care of the baby and missing home. She is confronted by too much difference between the life she lived in India and the life she lives now. The dearth of rice in the apartment causes a crisis. Ashima borrows brown rice from Judy but throws it out. She must go to the store to get proper white rice. At the store she is surrounded by people who congratulate her on having a new baby. Ashima begins to fall into a routine, going out every day with Gogol and taking care of him, reveling in how much she loves him. Her family sends letters every week, with illustrations for the baby's wall over the crib drawn by her father. She and Ashoke save for a trip to India once Gogol has turned one, to introduce her family to their new addition. There is still no letter from Ashima's grandmother, but there is a letter from her father saying her grandmother has had a stroke and is not herself. Ashima is heartbroken, as her grandmother is the person in the family who understood her best.

Ashoke and Ashima begin to socialize with other Bengali families who live nearby. They finally know enough people to have a proper celebration for Gogol's annaprasan, which is a rice ceremony to celebrate a baby's first taste of solid food. The baby will also choose among a clump of soil, a dollar bill, and a pen to predict his future. However, Gogol is not tempted by any of the choices. Ashima feels sad her brother is not at the ceremony to feed Gogol his rice, but Dilip Nandi acts as Gogol's honorary uncle.

Ashima prepares for their upcoming trip to Calcutta by knitting vests for all of her male family members. She also buys presents for them, and when she forgets her bags on the subway, her bags are returned the next day with nothing missing. But a call in the middle of the night brings bad news. Ashima's father has died of a heart attack. Ashima's brother Rana can't bring himself to tell Ashima on the phone, so Ashoke has to tell her, and he is overcome with emotion, holding Ashima as he trembles and she cries. The Gangulis leave for Calcutta a week later. Before they leave, Ashima puts all of the gifts for her father into a shopping bag and leaves them on a subway train on purpose. She doesn't want to go home now, but she has no choice.


Ashoke and Ashima's first child is named not by Ashima's grandmother, as is customary in the family. He is also not named with an American or Indian name by the new parents. The namesake for the new baby is the author who Ashoke believes saves his life: Nikolai Gogol. The differences in naming customs between the United States and West Bengal force the young couple to make a decision without much thought that it will influence the course of their baby's life. The importance of this naming decision will affect the baby's sense of culture and identity throughout the novel. The symbolic meaning of Nikolai Gogol's story—survival, family, and Ashoke's love for his son—is a permanent part of the baby's life.

The importance of naming also highlights a clash of cultures when Ashoke and Ashima are pressed to choose a name for the birth certificate. The conversations they have with both Patty, the nurse, and the man who records birth certificates for the hospital reveal the frustration of cultural adaptation. Even with this most personal and basic act, the naming of one's child, Ashoke and Ashima are confronted with differences in cultural traditions, but they are also confronted with the inability to communicate their cultural preferences to the Americans.

The influence of cultural differences extends to interactions between Ashoke and Ashima as well. Ashima, who has not asserted herself or complained about her life in America, makes her desire to move back to Calcutta clear to Ashoke. Ashima has hidden her distress by confining her sulking to times when Ashoke is absent. But when they come home from the hospital and find the apartment dirty, the loneliness is too much for Ashima. The lack of family and the cultural differences push Ashima beyond her capacity for tolerance. The cultural deprivation forces Ashima to break a cultural norm and insist that Ashoke change their circumstances as soon as he is able. Even though they find Bengali friends to celebrate milestones with them, the celebrations are still modified; for example, by appointing Dilip as the "honorary uncle" at Gogol's rice ceremony.

The description of Alan and Judy as a typical hippie couple of the late 1960s adds depth to the setting. It also highlights huge differences between American cultural norms and Indian ones. Ashoke looks at Alan's flip-flops and fringed leather jacket and thinks street vendors in Calcutta dress better than that. Ashoke would never go to school in the casual clothing he wears at home. The culture clash touches on the role of food in Indian life, as well, when Ashima realizes she is out of rice and has to borrow from Judy. Ashima realizes it's brown rice and throws it out rather than try to cook with it. Kindness goes a long way toward making interactions with their landlords pleasant, but both Ashoke and Ashima never feel comfortable in Alan and Judy's house. The empty alcohol bottles on the top of the refrigerator alone are enough to turn Ashima's stomach. The symbol of food in Indian culture also reveals cultural misunderstandings when Judy whispers to Alan about the food at Gogol's rice ceremony. She accidentally picks up a shrimp cutlet and realizes her perception that all Indians are vegetarians is incorrect.

The death of her father reveals Ashima's difficulty in tolerating intense emotions. First, her brother can't even tell her on the phone what has happened to her father, and Ashoke has to tell Ashima after the call ends. Ashoke must work up the courage to tell Ashima, as well, and he trembles from head to toe when he has to break the news. Both men know Ashima will take the news particularly hard, and they try to be gentle with her by keeping information from her for as long as they can. Ashima loses her desire to go to Calcutta—the thought of trying to celebrate the arrival of Gogol alongside the funeral of her father is too much for her to bear. She goes so far as to leave the presents for her father on a subway train rather than take them with her to give to the family, because his death is heartbreaking for her.

Physical gestures show the love that has developed between Ashima and Ashoke, as well as add to characterization. Ashima's push to overcome her depression is centered on physical actions such as dressing up and establishing a routine route to walk. These actions and their positive results reveal an underlying strength in Ashima's personality. Ashoke's physical gestures reveal much about their relationship. His grip on Ashima's hand when he has to tell her about her father, and his subsequent gesture of covering her body with his own, are gestures of deep love and his desire to protect Ashima through the tragic loss of her father. Ashima thinks, at first, that he wants to make love, but he is trying to find a way to tell her something terrible has happened without hurting her. Ashoke's response to Ashima's reluctance to see her family in Calcutta is to put his hand on hers. Each of these gestures reveal the gentleness of Ashoke's personality and his sensitivity to emotions, as well as his developing love for his wife, though never stated as such.

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