CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE MCCURRY / MAGNUM
In a hospital waiting room in Cambridge, Ashoke Ganguli hunches over a Boston Globe from a month ago, abandoned on a neighboring chair. He reads about the riots that took place during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and about Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor, being sentenced to two years in jail for threatening to counsel draft evaders. The Favre Leuba strapped to his wrist is running six minutes ahead of the large gray-faced clock on the wall. It is four-thirty in the morning.
He desperately needs a cup of tea, not having managed to make one before leaving the house. But the machine in the corridor dispenses only coffee, tepid at best, in paper cups. He takes off his thick-rimmed glasses, fitted by a Calcutta optometrist, and polishes the lenses with the cotton handkerchief he always keeps in his pocket, “A” for Ashoke embroidered by his mother in light-blue thread. His black hair, normally combed back neatly from his forehead, is dishevelled, sections of it on end. He stands and begins pacing, as the other expectant fathers do. The men wait with cigars, flowers, address books, bottles of champagne. They smoke cigarettes, ashing onto the floor. Ashoke, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at M.I.T., is indifferent to such indulgences. He neither smokes nor drinks alcohol of any kind. Ashima is the one who keeps all their addresses, in a small notebook she carries in her purse. It has never occurred to him to buy his wife flowers.
He returns to the Globe, still pacing as he reads. A slight limp causes Ashoke’s right foot to drag almost imperceptibly with each step. Since childhood he has had the habit and the ability to read while walking, holding a book in one hand on his way to school, from room to room in his parents’ three-story house in Alipore, and up and down the red clay stairs. Nothing roused him. Nothing distracted him. Nothing caused him to stumble. As a teen-ager he had gone through all of Dickens. He read newer authors as well, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, all purchased from his favorite stall on College Street withpujo money. But most of all he loved the Russians. His paternal grandfather, a former professor of European literature at Calcutta University, had read from them aloud in English translation when Ashoke was a boy. Each day at teatime, as his brothers and sisters played kabadi and cricket outside, Ashoke would go to his grandfather’s room, and for an hour his grandfather would read supine on the bed, his ankles crossed and the book propped open on his chest, Ashoke curled at his side. For that hour Ashoke was deaf and blind to the world around him. He did not hear his brothers and sisters laughing on the rooftop, or see the tiny, dusty, cluttered room in which his grandfather read. “Read all the Russians, and then reread them,” his grandfather had said. “They will never fail you.” When Ashoke’s English was good enough, he began to read the books himself. It was while walking on some of the world’s noisiest, busiest streets, on Chowringhee and Gariahat Road, that he had read pages of “The Brothers Karamazov,” and “Anna Karenina,” and “Fathers and Sons.” Ashoke’s mother was always convinced that her eldest son would be hit by a bus or a tram, his nose deep into “War and Peace”—that he would be reading a book the moment he died.
One day, in the earliest hours of October 20, 1961, this nearly happened. Ashoke was twenty-two, a student at Bengal Engineering College. He was travelling on the No. 83 Up Howrah-Ranchi Express to visit his grandparents in Jamshedpur, where they had moved upon his grandfather’s retirement from the university. Ashoke had never spent the Durga pujo holidays away from his family. But his grandfather had recently gone blind, and he had requested Ashoke’s company specifically, to read him The Statesman in the morning, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in the afternoon. Ashoke accepted the invitation eagerly. He carried two suitcases, the first one containing clothes and gifts, the second empty. For it would be on this visit, his grandfather had said, that the books in his glass-fronted case, collected over a lifetime and preserved under lock and key, would be given to Ashoke. He had already received a few in recent years, given to him on birthdays and other special occasions. But now that the day had come to inherit the rest, the day his grandfather could no longer read the books himself, Ashoke was saddened, and as he placed the empty suitcase under his seat he was disconcerted by its weightlessness, regretful of the circumstances that would cause it, upon his return, to be full.
He carried a single volume for the journey, a hardbound collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, which his grandfather had given him when he’d graduated from class twelve. On the title page, beneath his grandfather’s signature, Ashoke had written his own. Because of his passion for this particular book, the spine had recently split, threatening to divide the pages into two sections. His favorite story in the book was the last, “The Overcoat,” and that was the one Ashoke had begun to reread as the train, late in the evening, pulled out of Howrah Station with a prolonged and deafening shriek, away from his parents and his six younger brothers and sisters, all of whom had come to see him off, and had huddled until the last moment by the window, waving to him from the long, dusky platform.
Outside the view turned quickly black, the scattered lights of Howrah giving way to nothing at all. He had a second-class sleeper, in the seventh bogie behind the air-conditioned coach. Because of the season, the train was especially crowded, filled with families on holiday. Small children were wearing their best clothing, the girls with brightly colored ribbons in their hair. He shared his compartment with three others. There was a middle-aged Bihari couple who, he gathered from overhearing their conversation, had just married off their eldest daughter, and a friendly, potbellied, middle-aged Bengali businessman wearing a suit and tie, by the name of Ghosh. Ghosh told Ashoke that he had recently spent two years in England on a job voucher, but that he had come back home because his wife was inconsolably miserable abroad. Ghosh spoke reverently of England. The sparkling, empty streets, the polished black cars, the rows of gleaming white houses, he said, were like a dream. Trains departed and arrived according to schedule, Ghosh said. No one spat on the sidewalks. It was in a British hospital that his son had been born.
“Seen much of this world?” Ghosh asked Ashoke, untying his shoes and settling himself cross-legged on the berth. He pulled a packet of Dunhill cigarettes from his jacket pocket, offering them around the compartment before lighting one for himself. “You are still young. Free,” he said, spreading his hands apart for emphasis. “Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”
“My grandfather always says that’s what books are for,” Ashoke said, using the opportunity to open the volume in his hands. “To travel without moving an inch.”
“To each his own,” Ghosh said. He tipped his head politely to one side, letting the last of the cigarette drop from his fingertips. He reached into a bag by his feet and took out his diary, turning to the twentieth of October. The page was blank, and on it, with a fountain pen whose cap he ceremoniously unscrewed, he wrote his name and address. He ripped out the page and handed it to Ashoke. “If you ever change your mind and need contacts, let me know. I live in Tollygunge, just behind the tram depot.”
“Thank you,” Ashoke said, folding up the information and putting it at the back of his book.
“How about a game of cards?” Ghosh suggested. He pulled out a well-worn deck from his suit pocket, with an image of Big Ben on the back. But Ashoke politely declined. One by one the passengers brushed their teeth in the vestibule, changed into their pajamas, fastened the curtain around their compartments, and went to sleep. Ghosh offered to take the upper berth, climbing barefoot up the ladder, his suit carefully folded away, so that Ashoke had the window to himself. The Bihari couple shared some sweets from a box and drank water from the same cup without either of them putting their lips to the rim, then settled into their berths as well, switching off the lights and turning their heads to the wall.
Only Ashoke continued to read, still seated, still dressed. A single small bulb glowed dimly over his head. From time to time he looked through the open window at the inky Bengal night, at the vague shapes of palm trees and the simplest of homes. Carefully he turned the soft yellow pages of his book, a few delicately tunnelled by worms. The steam engine puffed reassuringly, powerfully. Deep in his chest he felt the rough jostle of the wheels. Sparks from the smokestack passed by his window. A fine layer of sticky soot dotted one side of his face, his eyelid, his arm, his neck; his grandmother would insist that he scrub himself with a cake of Margo soap as soon as he arrived. Immersed in the sartorial plight of Akaky Akakyevich, lost in the wide, snow-white, windy avenues of St. Petersburg, unaware that one day he was to dwell in a snowy place himself, Ashoke was still reading at two-thirty in the morning, one of the few passengers on the train who was awake, when the locomotive engine and seven bogies derailed from the broad-gauge line. The sound was like a bomb exploding. The first four bogies capsized into a depression alongside the track. The fifth and sixth, containing the first-class and air-conditioned passengers, telescoped into each other, killing the passengers in their sleep. The seventh, where Ashoke was sitting, capsized as well, flung by the speed of the crash farther into the field. The accident occurred two hundred and nine kilometres from Calcutta, between the Ghatshila and Dhalbumgarh stations. More than an hour passed before the rescuers arrived, bearing lanterns and shovels and axes to pry bodies from the cars.
Ashoke can still remember their shouts, asking if anyone was alive. He remembers trying to shout back, unsuccessfully, his mouth emitting nothing but the faintest rasp. He remembers the sound of people half-dead around him, moaning and tapping on the walls of the train, whispering hoarsely for help, words that only those who were also trapped and injured could possibly hear. Blood drenched his chest and the left arm of his shirt. He had been thrust partway out the window. He remembers being unable to see anything at all; for the first hours he thought that perhaps, like his grandfather, he’d gone blind. He remembers the acrid odor of flames, the buzzing of flies, children crying, the taste of dust and blood on his tongue. They were nowhere, somewhere in a field. Milling about them were villagers, police inspectors, a few doctors. He remembers believing that he was dying, that perhaps he was already dead. He could not feel the lower half of his body, and so was unaware that the mangled limbs of Ghosh were draped over his legs. Eventually he saw the cold, unfriendly blue of earliest morning, the moon and a few stars still lingering in the sky. The pages of his book, which had been tossed from his hand, fluttered in two sections a few feet away from the train. The glare from a search lantern briefly caught the pages, momentarily distracting one of the rescuers. “Nothing here,” Ashoke heard someone say. “Let’s keep going.”
But the lantern’s light lingered, just long enough for Ashoke to raise his hand, a gesture that he believed would consume the small fragment of life left in him. He was still clutching a single page of “The Overcoat,” crumpled tightly in his fist, and when he raised his hand the wad of paper dropped from his fingers. “Wait!” he heard a voice cry out. “The fellow by that book. I saw him move.”
He was pulled from the wreckage, placed on a stretcher, transported on another train to a hospital in Tatanagar. He had broken his pelvis, his right femur, and three of his ribs on the right side. For the next year of his life he lay flat on his back, ordered to keep as still as possible while the bones of his body healed. There was a risk that his right leg might be permanently paralyzed. He was transferred to Calcutta Medical College, where two screws were put into his hips. By December he had returned to his parents’ house in Alipore, carried through the courtyard and up the red clay stairs like a corpse, hoisted on the shoulders of his four brothers. Three times a day he was spoon-fed. He urinated and defecated into a tin pan. Doctors and visitors came and went. Even his blind grandfather from Jamshedpur paid a visit. His family had saved the newspaper accounts. In a photograph, Ashoke observed the train smashed to shards, piled jaggedly against the sky, security guards sitting on the unclaimed belongings. He learned that fishplates and bolts had been found several feet from the main track, giving rise to the suspicion, never subsequently confirmed, of sabotage. “HOLIDAY-MAKERS’ TRYST WITH DEATH,” the Times of India had written.
During the day he was groggy from painkillers. At night he dreamed either that he was still trapped inside the train or, worse, that the accident had never happened, that he was walking down a street, taking a bath, sitting cross-legged on the floor and eating a plate of food. And then he would wake up, coated in sweat, tears streaming down his face, convinced that he would never live to do such things again. Eventually, in an attempt to avoid his nightmares, he began to read, late at night, which was when his motionless body felt most restless, his mind agile and clear. Yet he refused to read the Russians his grandfather had brought to his bedside, or any novels, for that matter. Those books, set in countries he had never seen, reminded him only of his confinement. Instead he read his engineering books, trying his best to keep up with his courses, solving equations by flashlight. In those silent hours, he thought often of Ghosh. “Pack a pillow and a blanket,” he heard Ghosh say. He remembered the address Ghosh had written, somewhere behind the tram depot in Tollygunge. Now it was the home of a widow, a fatherless son. Each day, to bolster his spirits, his family reminded him of the future, the day he would stand unassisted, walk across the room. It was for this, each day, that his father and mother prayed. But, as the months passed, Ashoke began to envision another sort of future. He imagined not only walking, but walking away, as far as he could, from the place where he was born and where he had nearly died. The following year, walking with a cane, he returned to college and graduated, and without telling his parents he applied to continue his engineering studies abroad. Only after he’d been accepted with a full fellowship, a newly issued passport in hand, did he inform them of his plans. “But we already nearly lost you once,” his bewildered father had protested. His siblings had pleaded and wept. His mother, speechless, had refused food for three days. In spite of all that, he’d gone.
Seven years later, there are still certain images that wipe him flat. They lurk around a corner as he rushes through the engineering department at M.I.T. They hover by his shoulder as he leans over a plate of rice at dinnertime, or nestles against Ashima’s limbs at night. At every turning point in his life—at his wedding, in Calcutta, when he stood behind Ashima, encircling her waist and peering over her shoulder as they poured puffed rice into a fire, or during his first hours in America, seeing a small gray city caked with snow—he has tried but failed to push these images away: the twisted, battered, capsized bogies of the train, his body twisted below it, the terrible crunching sound he had heard but not comprehended, his bones crushed as fine as flour. It is not the memory of pain that haunts him; he has no memory of that. It is the memory of waiting before he was rescued, and the persistent fear, rising up in his throat, that he might not have been rescued at all. At times he still presses his ribs to make sure they are solid.
He presses them now, in the hospital, shaking his head in relief, disbelief. Although it is Ashima who carries the child, he, too, feels heavy, with the thought of life, of his life and the life about to come from it. He was raised without running water, nearly killed at twenty-two. He was born twice in India, and then a third time, in America. Three lives by thirty. For this he thanks his parents, and their parents, and the parents of their parents. He does not thank God; he openly reveres Marx and quietly refuses religion. Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life, when the nurse enters the waiting room.
The baby, a boy, is born at half past five in the morning. He measures twenty inches long, weighs seven pounds nine ounces. When Ashoke arrives, the nurse is taking Ashima’s blood pressure, and Ashima is reclining against a pile of pillows, the child wrapped like an oblong white parcel in her arms. Beside the bed is a bassinet, labelled with a card that says “Baby Boy Ganguli.”
“He’s here,” she says quietly, looking up at Ashoke with a weak smile. Her skin is faintly yellow, the color missing from her lips. She has circles beneath her eyes, and her hair, spilling from its braid, looks as though it had not been combed for days. Her voice is hoarse, as if she’d caught a cold. He pulls up a chair by the side of the bed and the nurse helps to transfer the child from mother’s to father’s arms. In the process, the child pierces the silence in the room with a short-lived cry. His parents react with mutual alarm, but the nurse laughs approvingly. “You see,” she says to Ashima, “he’s already getting to know you.”
At first Ashoke is more perplexed than moved, by the pointiness of the head, the puffiness of the lids, the small white spots on the cheeks, the fleshy upper lip that droops prominently over the lower one. The skin is paler than either Ashima’s or his own, translucent enough to show slim green veins at the temples. The scalp is covered by a mass of wispy black hair. He attempts to count the eyelashes. He feels gently through the flannel for the hands and feet.
“It’s all there,” Ashima says, watching her husband. “I already checked.”
“What are the eyes like? Why won’t he open them? Has he opened them?”
“What can he see? Can he see us?”
“I think so. But not very clearly. And not in full color. Not yet.”
They sit in silence, the three of them as still as stones. “How are you feeling? Was it all right?” he asks Ashima after a while.
But there is no answer, and when Ashoke lifts his gaze from his son’s face he sees that she, too, is sleeping.
When he looks back to the child, the eyes are open, staring up at him, unblinking, as dark as the hair on its head. The face is transformed; Ashoke has never seen a more perfect thing. He imagines himself as a dark, grainy, blurry presence. As a father to his son. Being rescued from that shattered train had been the first miracle of his life. But here, now, reposing in his arms, weighing next to nothing but changing everything, is the second.
Because neither set of grandparents has a working telephone, the couple’s only link to home is by telegram, which Ashoke has sent to both sides in Calcutta: “With your blessings, boy and mother fine.” As for a name, they have decided to let Ashima’s grandmother, who is past eighty now, who has named each of her six other great-grandchildren in the world, do the honors. Ashima’s grandmother has mailed the letter herself, walking with her cane to the post office, her first trip out of the house in a decade. The letter contains one name for a girl, one for a boy. Ashima’s grandmother has revealed them to no one.
Though the letter was sent a month ago, in July, it has yet to arrive. Ashima and Ashoke are not terribly concerned. After all, they both know, an infant doesn’t really need a name. He needs to be fed and blessed, to be given some gold and silver, to be patted on the back after feedings and held carefully behind the neck. Names can wait. In India parents take their time. It wasn’t unusual for years to pass before the right name, the best possible name, was determined. Ashima and Ashoke can both cite examples of cousins who were not officially named until they were registered, at six or seven, in school. Besides, there are always pet names to tide one over: a practice of Bengali nomenclature grants, to every single person, two names. In Bengali the word for “pet name” is daknam, meaning literally the name by which one is called, by friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private, unguarded moments. Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people. Every pet name is paired with a “good name,” a bhalonam, for identification in the outside world. Consequently, good names appear on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories, and in all other public places. Good names tend to represent dignified and enlightened qualities. Ashima means “she who is limitless, without borders.” Ashoke, the name of an emperor, means “he who transcends grief.” Pet names have no such aspirations. They are never recorded officially, only uttered and remembered.
Three days come and go. Ashima is shown by the nursing staff how to change diapers and how to clean the umbilical stub. She is given hot saltwater baths to soothe her bruises and stitches. She is given a list of pediatricians, and countless brochures on breast-feeding and bonding and immunizing, and samples of baby shampoos and Q-Tips and creams. The fourth day there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Ashima and the baby are to be discharged the following morning. The bad news is that they are told by Mr. Wilcox, compiler of hospital birth certificates, that they must choose a name for their son. For they learn that in America a baby cannot be released from the hospital without a birth certificate. And that a birth certificate needs a name.
“But, sir,” Ashima protests, “we can’t possibly name him ourselves.”
Mr. Wilcox, slight, bald, unamused, glances at the couple, both visibly distressed, then glances at the nameless child. “I see,” he says. “The reason being?”
“We are waiting for a letter,” Ashoke says, explaining the situation in detail.
“I see,” Mr. Wilcox says again. “That is unfortunate. I’m afraid your only alternative is to have the certificate read ‘Baby Boy Ganguli.’ You will, of course, be required to amend the permanent record when a name is decided upon.”
Ashima looks at Ashoke expectantly. “Is that what we should do?”
“I don’t recommend it,” Mr. Wilcox says. “You will have to appear before a judge, pay a fee. The red tape is endless.”
“Oh dear,” Ashoke says.
Mr. Wilcox nods, and silence ensues. “Don’t you have any backups?” he asks. “Something in reserve, in case you didn’t like what your grandmother has chosen.”
Ashima and Ashoke shake their heads. It has never occurred to either of them to question Ashima’s grandmother’s selection, to disregard an elder’s wishes in such a way.
“You can always name him after yourself, or one of your ancestors,” Mr. Wilcox suggests, admitting that he is actually Howard Wilcox III. “It’s a fine tradition. The kings of France and England did it,” he adds.
But this isn’t possible. This tradition doesn’t exist for Bengalis, naming a son after father or grandfather, a daughter after mother or grandmother. This sign of respect in America and Europe, this symbol of heritage and lineage, would be ridiculed in India. Within Bengali families, individual names are sacred, inviolable. They are not meant to be inherited or shared.
“Then what about naming him after another person? Someone you greatly admire?” Mr. Wilcox says, his eyebrows raised hopefully. He sighs. “Think about it. I’ll be back in a few hours,” he tells them, exiting the room.
The door shuts, which is when, with a slight quiver of recognition, as if he’d known it all along, the perfect pet name for his son occurs to Ashoke.
“Hello, Gogol,” he whispers, leaning over his son’s haughty face, his tightly bundled body. “Gogol,” he repeats, satisfied. The baby turns his head with an expression of extreme consternation and yawns.
Ashima approves, aware that the name stands not only for her son’s life but for her husband’s. She’d first heard the story of the accident soon after their marriage was arranged, when Ashoke was still a stranger to her. But the thought of it now makes her blood go cold. There are nights when she has been woken by her husband’s muffled screams, times they have ridden the subway together and the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks makes him suddenly pensive, aloof. She has never read any Gogol herself, but she is willing to place him on a shelf in her mind, along with Tennyson and Wordsworth. When Mr. Wilcox returns with his typewriter, Ashoke spells out the name. Thus Gogol Ganguli is registered in the hospital’s files. A first photograph, somewhat overexposed, is taken that broiling-hot, late summer’s day: Gogol, an indistinct blanketed mass, reposing in his weary mother’s arms. She stands on the steps of the hospital, staring at the camera, her eyes squinting into the sun. Her husband looks on from one side, his wife’s suitcase in his hand, smiling with his head lowered. “Gogol enters the world,” his father will eventually write on the back in Bengali letters.
Letters arrive from Ashima’s parents, from Ashoke’s parents, from aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, from everyone, it seems, but Ashima’s grandmother. The letters are filled with every possible blessing and good wish, composed in an alphabet they have seen all around them for most of their lives, on billboards and newspapers and awnings, but which they see now only in these precious, pale-blue missives.
In November, when Gogol is three months old, he develops a mild ear infection. When Ashima and Ashoke see their son’s pet name typed on the label of a prescription for antibiotics, when they see it at the top of his immunization record, it doesn’t look right; pet names aren’t meant to be made public in this way. But there is still no letter from Ashima’s grandmother, and they are forced to conclude that it is lost in the mail. The very next day a letter arrives in Cambridge. The letter is dated three weeks ago, and from it they learn that Ashima’s grandmother has had a stroke, that her right side is permanently paralyzed, her mind dim. She can no longer chew, barely swallows, remembers and recognizes little of her eighty-odd years. “She is with us still, but to be honest we have already lost her,” Ashima’s father has written. “Prepare yourself, Ashima. Perhaps you may not see her again.”
It is their first piece of bad news from home. Ashoke barely knows Ashima’s grandmother, only vaguely recalls touching her feet at his wedding, but Ashima is inconsolable for days. She sits at home with Gogol as the leaves turn brown and drop from the trees, as the days begin to grow quickly, mercilessly dark. Unlike Ashima’s parents, and her other relatives, her grandmother, her dida, had not admonished Ashima not to eat beef or wear skirts or cut off her hair or forget her family the moment she landed in Boston. Her grandmother had not been fearful of such signs of betrayal; she was the only person to predict, rightly, that Ashima would never change. A few days before leaving Calcutta, Ashima had stood, her head lowered, under her late grandfather’s portrait, asking him to bless her journey. Then she bent down to touch the dust of her dida’s feet to her head.
“Dida, I’m coming,” Ashima had said. For this was the phrase Bengalis always used in place of goodbye.
“Enjoy it,” her grandmother had bellowed in her thundering voice, helping Ashima to straighten. With trembling hands, her grandmother had pressed her thumbs to the tears streaming down Ashima’s face, wiping them away. “Do what I will never do. It will all be for the best. Remember that. Now go.”
By 1971, the Gangulis have moved to a university town outside Boston, where Ashoke has been hired as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the university. In exchange for teaching five classes, he earns sixteen thousand dollars a year. He is given his own office, with his name etched onto a strip of black plastic by the door. The job is everything Ashoke has ever dreamed of. He had always hoped to teach in a university rather than work for a corporation. What a thrill, he thinks, to stand lecturing before a roomful of American students. What a sense of accomplishment it gives him to see his name printed under “Faculty” in the university directory. From his fourth-floor office he has a sweeping view of the quadrangle, surrounded by vine-covered brick buildings. On Fridays, after he has taught his last class, he visits the library, to read international newspapers on long wooden poles. He reads about American planes bombing Vietcong supply routes in Cambodia, Naxalites being murdered on the streets of Calcutta, India and Pakistan going to war. At times he wanders up to the library’s sun-filled, unpopulated top floor, where all the literature is shelved. He browses in the aisles, gravitating most often toward his beloved Russians, where he is particularly comforted, each time, by his son’s name stamped in golden letters on the spines of a row of red and green and blue hardbound books.
Ashoke and Ashima purchase a shingled two-story colonial in a recently built development, a house previously occupied by no one, erected on a quarter acre of land. This is the small patch of America to which they lay claim. Gogol accompanies his parents to banks, sits waiting as they sign the endless papers. Ashoke and Ashima are amazed, when moving by U-Haul to the new house, to discover how much they possess; each of them had come to America with a single suitcase, a few weeks’ worth of clothes. The walls of the new house are painted, the driveway sealed with pitch, the shingles and sundeck weatherproofed and stained. Ashoke takes photographs of every room, Gogol standing somewhere in the frame, to send to relatives in India. He is a sturdily built child, with full cheeks but already pensive features. When he poses for the camera he has to be coaxed into a smile.
In the beginning, in the evenings, his family goes for drives, exploring their new environs bit by bit: the neglected dirt lanes, the shaded back roads. The back seat of the car is sheathed with plastic, the ashtrays on the doors still sealed. Sometimes they drive out of the town altogether, to one of the beaches along the North Shore. Even in summer, they never go to swim or to turn brown beneath the sun. Instead they go dressed in their ordinary clothes. By the time they arrive, the ticket collector’s booth is empty, the crowds gone; there are only a handful of cars in the parking lot. Together, as the Gangulis drive, they anticipate the moment the thin blue line of ocean will come into view. On the beach Gogol collects rocks, digs tunnels in the sand. He and his father wander barefoot, their pant legs rolled halfway up their calves. He watches his father raise a kite within minutes into the wind, so high that Gogol must tip his head back in order to see, a rippling speck against the sky.
The August that Gogol turns five, Ashima discovers she is pregnant again. In the mornings she forces herself to eat a slice of toast, only because Ashoke makes it for her and watches her while she chews it in bed. Her head constantly spins. She spends her days lying down, a pink plastic wastepaper basket by her side, the shades drawn, her mouth and teeth coated with the taste of metal. Sometimes Gogol lies beside her in his parents’ bedroom, reading a picture book, or coloring with crayons. “You’re going to be an older brother,” she tells him one day. “There’ll be someone to call you Dada. Won’t that be exciting?”
In the evenings, Gogol and his father eat together, alone, a week’s worth of chicken curry and rice, which his father cooks in two battered Dutch ovens every Sunday. As the food reheats, his father tells Gogol to shut the bedroom door because his mother cannot tolerate the smell. It is odd to see his father presiding in the kitchen, standing in his mother’s place at the stove. When they sit down at the table, the sound of his parents’ conversation is missing.
Because his mother tends to vomit the moment she finds herself in a moving car, she is unable to accompany Ashoke to take Gogol, in September of 1973, to his first day of kindergarten at the town’s public elementary school. By the time Gogol starts, it is already the second week of the school year. For the past week, Gogol has been in bed, just like his mother, listless, without appetite, claiming to have a stomach ache, even vomiting one day into his mother’s pink wastepaper basket. He doesn’t want to go to kindergarten. He doesn’t want to wear the new clothes his mother has bought him from Sears, hanging on a knob of his dresser, or carry his Charlie Brown lunchbox, or board the yellow school bus that stops at the end of Pemberton Road.
There is a reason Gogol doesn’t want to go to kindergarten. His parents have told him that at school, instead of being called Gogol, he will be called by a new name, a good name, which his parents have finally decided on, just in time for him to begin his formal education. The name, Nikhil, is artfully connected to the old. Not only is it a perfectly respectable Bengali good name, meaning “he who is entire, encompassing all,” but it also bears a satisfying resemblance to Nikolai, the first name of the Russian Gogol’s. Ashoke thought of it recently, staring mindlessly at the Gogol spines in the library, and he rushed back to the house to ask Ashima her opinion. He pointed out that it was relatively easy to pronounce, though there was the danger that Americans, obsessed with abbreviation, would truncate it to Nick. She told him she liked it well enough, though later, alone, she’d wept, thinking of her grandmother, who had died earlier in the year, and of the letter, forever hovering somewhere between India and America.
But Gogol can’t understand why he has to answer to anything else. “Why do I have to have a new name?” he asks his parents, tears springing to his eyes. It would be one thing if his parents were to call him Nikhil, too. But they tell him that the new name will be used only by the teachers and children at school. He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn’t know. Who doesn’t know him. His parents tell him that they each have two names, too, as do all their Bengali friends in America, and all their relatives in Calcutta. It’s a part of growing up, they tell him, part of being a Bengali. They write it for him on a sheet of paper, ask him to copy it over ten times. “Don’t worry,” his father says. “To me and your mother, you will never be anyone but Gogol.”
At school, Ashoke and Gogol are greeted by the secretary, who asks Ashoke to fill out a registration form. He provides a copy of Gogol’s birth certificate and immunization records, which are put in a folder along with the registration. “This way,” the secretary says, leading them to the principal’s office. Candace Lapidus, the name on the door says. Mrs. Lapidus assures Ashoke that missing the first week of kindergarten is not a problem, that things have yet to settle down. Mrs. Lapidus is a tall, slender woman with short white-blond hair. She wears frosted blue eye shadow and a lemon-yellow suit. She shakes Ashoke’s hand and tells him that there are two other Indian children at the school, Jayadev Modi, in the third grade, and Rekha Saxena, in fifth. Perhaps the Gangulis know them? Ashoke tells Mrs. Lapidus that they do not. She looks at the registration form and smiles kindly at the boy, who is clutching his father’s hand. Gogol is dressed in powder-blue pants, red-and-white canvas sneakers, a striped turtleneck top.
“Welcome to elementary school, Nikhil. I am your principal, Mrs. Lapidus.”
Gogol looks down at his sneakers. The way the principal pronounces his new name is different from the way his parents say it, the second part of it longer, sounding like “heel.”
She bends down so that her face is level with his, and extends a hand to his shoulder. “Can you tell me how old you are, Nikhil?”
When the question is repeated and there is still no response, Mrs. Lapidus asks, “Mr. Ganguli, does Nikhil follow English?”
“Of course he follows,” Ashoke says. “My son is perfectly bilingual.”
In order to prove that Gogol knows English, Ashoke does something he has never done before, and addresses his son in careful, accented English. “Go on, Gogol,” he says, patting him on the head. “Tell Mrs. Lapidus how old you are.”
“What was that?” Mrs. Lapidus says.
“I beg your pardon, Madam?”
“That name you called him. Something with a ‘G.’ ”
“Oh that, that is what we call him at home only. But his good name should be—is”—he nods his head firmly— “Nikhil.”
Mrs. Lapidus frowns. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. ‘Good name’?”
Mrs. Lapidus studies the registration form. She has not had to go through this confusion with the two other Indian children.
“I’m not sure I follow you, Mr. Ganguli. Do you mean that Nikhil is a middle name? Or a nickname? Many of the children go by nicknames here. On this form there is a space—”
“No, no, it’s not a middle name,” Ashoke says. He is beginning to lose patience. “He has no middle name. No nickname. The boy’s good name, his school name, is Nikhil.”
Mrs. Lapidus presses her lips together and smiles. “But clearly he doesn’t respond.”
“Please, Mrs. Lapidus,” Ashoke says. “It is very common for a child to be confused at first. Please give it some time. I assure you he will grow accustomed.”
He bends down, and this time in Bengali, calmly and quietly, asks Gogol to please answer when Mrs. Lapidus asks a question. “Don’t be scared, Gogol,” he says, raising his son’s chin with his finger. “You’re a big boy now. No tears.”
Though Mrs. Lapidus does not understand a word, she listens carefully, hears that name again. Gogol. Lightly, in pencil, she writes it down on the registration form.
Ashoke hands over the lunchbox, a windbreaker in case it gets cold. He thanks Mrs. Lapidus. “Be good, Nikhil,” he says in English. And then, after a moment’s hesitation, Gogol’s father is gone.
At the end of his first day he is sent home with a letter to his parents from Mrs. Lapidus, folded and stapled to a string around his neck, explaining that owing to their son’s preference he will be known as Gogol at school. What about the parents’ preference? Ashima and Ashoke wonder, shaking their heads.
And so Gogol’s formal education begins. At the top of sheets of scratchy pale-yellow paper he writes out his pet name again and again, and the alphabet in capital and lowercase. He learns to add and subtract, and to spell his first words. In the front covers of the textbooks from which he is taught to read he leaves his legacy, writing his name in No. 2 pencil below a series of others. In art class, his favorite hour of the week, he carves his name with paper clips into the bottoms of clay cups and bowls. He pastes uncooked pasta to cardboard, and leaves his signature in fat brushstrokes below paintings. Day after day he brings his creations home to Ashima, who hangs them proudly on the refrigerator door. “Gogol G.,” he signs his work in the lower right-hand corner, as if there were a need to distinguish him from any other Gogol in the school.
In May his sister is born. This time, Ashoke and Ashima are ready. They have the names lined up, for a boy or a girl. The only way to avoid confusion, they have concluded, is to do away with the pet name altogether, as many of their Bengali friends have already done. For their daughter, good name and pet name are one and the same: Sonali, meaning “she who is golden.” Though Sonali is the name on her birth certificate, the name she will carry officially through life, at home they begin to call her Sonu, then Sona, and, finally, Sonia. Sonia makes her a citizen of the world. It’s a Russian link to her brother, it’s European, South American. Eventually it will be the name of the Indian Prime Minister’s Italian wife.
As a young boy Gogol doesn’t mind his name. He recognizes pieces of himself in road signs: “Go Left,” “Go Right,” “Go Slow.” For birthdays his mother orders a cake on which his name is piped across the white frosted surface in a bright-blue sugary script. It all seems perfectly normal. It doesn’t bother him that his name is never an option on key chains or refrigerator magnets. He has been told that he was named after a famous Russian author, born in a previous century. That the author’s name, and therefore his, is known throughout the world and will live on forever. One day his father takes him to the university library, and shows him, on a shelf well beyond his reach, a row of Gogol spines. When his father opens up one of the books to a random page, the print is far smaller than in the Hardy Boys series Gogol has begun recently to enjoy. “In a few years,” his father tells him, “you’ll be ready to read them.” Though substitute teachers at school always pause, looking apologetically when they arrive at his name on the roster, forcing Gogol to call out, before even being summoned, “That’s me,” his regular teachers know not to give it a second thought. After a year or two, the students no longer tease and say “Giggle” or “Gargle.” In the programs of the school Christmas plays, the parents are accustomed to seeing his name among the cast. “Gogol is an outstanding student, curious and coöperative,” his teachers write year after year on report cards. “Go, Gogol!” his classmates shout on golden autumn days as he runs the bases or sprints in a dash.
As for his last name, Ganguli, by the time he is ten he has been to Calcutta three times, twice in summer and once during Durga pujo, and from the most recent trip he still remembers the sight of the name etched respectably into the pink stone façade of his paternal grandparents’ house. He remembers the astonishment of seeing six pages full of Gangulis, three columns to a page, in the Calcutta telephone directory. He’d wanted to rip out the page as a souvenir, but, when he’d told this to one of his cousins, the cousin had laughed. On taxi rides through the city, going to visit the various homes of his relatives, his father had pointed out the name elsewhere, on the awnings of confectioners, and stationers, and opticians. He had told Gogol that Ganguli was a legacy of the British, an anglicized way of pronouncing his real surname, Gangopadhyay.
Back home on Pemberton Road, he helps his father paste individual golden letters bought from a rack in the hardware store, spelling out Ganguli on one side of their mailbox. One morning, the day after Halloween, Gogol discovers, on his way to the bus stop, that it has been shortened to “Gang,” with the word “green” scrawled in pencil following it. He runs back into the house, sickened, certain of the insult his father will feel. Though it is his last name, too, something tells Gogol that the desecration is intended for his parents more than for Sonia and him. For by now he is aware, in stores, of cashiers smirking at his parents’ accents, and of salesmen who prefer to direct their conversation to Gogol, as though his parents were either incompetent or deaf. But his father is unaffected at such moments, just as he is unaffected by the mailbox. “It’s only boys having fun,” he tells Gogol, flicking the matter away with the back of a hand, and that evening they drive to the hardware store, to buy the missing letters again.
Gogol’s fourteenth birthday. Like most events in his life, it is another excuse for his parents to throw a party for their Bengali friends. His own friends from school were invited the previous day, for pizzas that his father picked up on his way home from work, a basketball game watched together on television, some Ping-Pong in the den. His mother cooks for days beforehand, cramming the refrigerator with stacks of foil-covered trays. She makes sure to prepare his favorite things: lamb curry with lots of potatoes, luchis, thick channa dal with swollen brown raisins, pineapple chutney, sandeshes molded out of saffron-tinted ricotta cheese. All this is less stressful to her than the task of feeding a handful of American children, half of whom always claim they are allergic to milk, all of whom refuse to eat the crusts of their bread.
Close to forty guests come, from three different states. Women are dressed in saris far more dazzling than the pants and polo shirts their husbands wear. A group of men sit in a circle on the floor and immediately start a game of poker. These are all his mashis and meshos, his honorary aunts and uncles. Presents are opened when the guests are gone. Gogol receives several dictionaries, several calculators, several Cross pen-and-pencil sets, several ugly sweaters. His parents give him an Instamatic camera, a new sketchbook, colored pencils and the mechanical pen he’d asked for, and twenty dollars to spend as he wishes. Sonia has made him a card with Magic Markers, on paper she’s ripped out of one of his own sketchbooks, which says “Happy Birthday Goggles,” the name she insists on calling him instead of Dada. His mother sets aside the things he doesn’t like, which is almost everything, to give to his cousins the next time they go to India. Later that night he is alone in his room, listening to side three of the White Album on his parents’ cast-off RCA turntable. The album is a present from his American birthday party. Born when the band was near death, Gogol is a passionate devotee of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. He sits cross-legged on the bed, hunched over the lyrics, when he hears a knock on the door.
“Come in!” he hollers, expecting it to be Sonia in her pajamas, asking if she can borrow his Rubik’s Cube. He is surprised to see his father, standing there in stocking feet, a small potbelly visible beneath his oat-colored sweater vest, his mustache turning gray. Gogol is especially surprised to see a gift in his father’s hands. His father has never given him birthday presents apart from whatever his mother buys, but this year, his father says, walking across the room to where Gogol is sitting, he has something special. The gift is covered in red-and-green-and-gold-striped paper left over from Christmas the year before, taped awkwardly at the seams. It is obviously a book, thick, hardcover, wrapped by his father’s own hands. Gogol lifts the paper slowly, but in spite of this the tape leaves a scab. “The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol,” the jacket says. Inside, the price has been snipped away on the diagonal.
“I ordered it from the bookstore, just for you,” his father says, his voice raised in order to be heard over the music. “It’s difficult to find in hardcover these days. It’s a British publication, a very small press. It took four months to arrive. I hope you like it.”
Gogol leans over toward the stereo to turn the volume down a bit. He would have preferred “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or even another copy of “The Hobbit” to replace the one he lost last summer in Calcutta, left on the rooftop of his father’s house in Alipore and snatched away by crows. In spite of his father’s occasional suggestions, he has never been inspired to read a word of Gogol, or of any Russian writer, for that matter. He has never been told why he was really named Gogol. He thinks his father’s limp is the consequence of an injury playing soccer in his teens.
“Thanks, Baba,” Gogol says, eager to return to his lyrics. Lately he’s been lazy, addressing his parents in English, though they continue to speak to him in Bengali. Occasionally he wanders through the house with his running sneakers on. At dinner he sometimes uses a fork.
His father is still standing there in his room, watching expectantly, his hands clasped together behind his back, so Gogol flips through the book. A single picture at the front, on smoother paper than the rest of the pages, shows a pencil drawing of the author, sporting a velvet jacket, a billowy white shirt, and a cravat. The face is foxlike, with small, dark eyes, a thin, neat mustache, an extremely large pointy nose. Dark hair slants steeply across his forehead and is plastered to either side of his head, and there is a disturbing, vaguely supercilious smile set into long, narrow lips. Gogol Ganguli is relieved to see no resemblance.
For by now he’s come to hate questions pertaining to his name, hates having constantly to explain. He hates having to tell people that it doesn’t mean anything “in Indian.” He hates having to wear a nametag on his sweater at Model United Nations Day at school. He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but, of all things, Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second. He hates seeing it on the brown-paper sleeve of the National Geographic subscription his parents got him for his birthday the year before, and seeing it perpetually listed in the high honor roll printed in the town’s newspaper. At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear. At times he wishes he could disguise it, shorten it somehow, the way the other Indian boy in his school, Jayadev, had got people to call him Jay. But Gogol, already short and catchy, resists mutation. Other boys his age have begun to court girls already, asking them to go to the movies or the pizza parlor, but he cannot imagine saying, “Hi, it’s Gogol” under potentially romantic circumstances. He cannot imagine this at all.
From the little he knows about Russian writers, it dismays him that his parents chose the weirdest namesake. Leo or Anton, he could have lived with. Alexander, shortened to Alex, he would have greatly preferred. But Gogol sounds ludicrous to his ears, lacking dignity or gravity. What dismays him most is the irrelevance of it all. Gogol, he’s been tempted to tell his father on more than one occasion, was his father’s favorite author, not his. Then again, it’s his own fault. He could have been known, at school at least, as Nikhil. That one day, his first day of kindergarten, which he no longer remembers, could have changed everything.
“Thanks again,” Gogol tells his father now. He shuts the cover and swings his legs over the edge of the bed, to put the book away on his shelves. But his father takes the opportunity to sit beside him on the bed. For a moment he rests a hand on Gogol’s shoulder. The boy’s body, in recent months, has grown tall, nearly as tall as Ashoke’s. The childhood pudginess has vanished from his face. The voice has begun to deepen, is slightly husky now. It occurs to Ashoke that he and his son probably wear the same size shoe. In the glow of the bedside lamp, Ashoke notices a scattered down emerging on his son’s upper lip. An Adam’s apple is prominent on his neck. The pale hands, like Ashima’s, are long and thin. He wonders how closely Gogol resembles him at this age. But there are no photographs to document Ashoke’s childhood; not until his passport, not until his life in America, does visual documentation exist. On the night table Ashoke sees a can of deodorant, a tube of Clearasil. He lifts the book from where it lies on the bed between them, running a hand protectively over the cover. “I took the liberty of reading it first. It has been many years since I have read these stories. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No problem,” Gogol says.
“I feel a special kinship with Gogol,” Ashoke says, “more than with any other writer. Do you know why?”
“You like his stories.”
“Apart from that. He spent most of his adult life outside his homeland. Like me.”
Gogol nods. “Right.”
“And there is another reason.” The music ends and there is silence. But then Gogol flips the record, turning the volume up on “Revolution 1.”
“What’s that?” Gogol says, a bit impatiently.
Ashoke looks around the room. He notices the Lennon obituary pinned to the bulletin board, and then a cassette of classical Indian music he’d bought for Gogol months ago, after a concert at Kresge, still sealed in its wrapper. He sees the pile of birthday cards scattered on the carpet, and remembers a hot August day fourteen years ago in Cambridge when he held his son for the first time. Ever since that day, the day he became a father, the memory of his accident has receded, diminishing over the years. Though he will never forget that night, it no longer lurks persistently in his mind, stalking him in the same way. Instead, it is affixed firmly to a distant time, to a place far from Pemberton Road. Today, his son’s birthday, is a day to honor life, not brushes with death. And so, for now, Ashoke decides to keep the explanation of his son’s name to himself.
“No other reason. Good night,” he says to Gogol, getting up from the bed. At the door he pauses, turns around. “Do you know what Dostoyevsky once said?”
Gogol shakes his head.
“ ‘We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.’ ”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It will make sense to you one day. Many happy returns of the day.”
Gogol gets up and shuts the door behind his father, who has the annoying habit of always leaving it partly open. He turns the lock on the knob for good measure, then wedges the book on a high shelf between two volumes of the Hardy Boys. He settles down again with his lyrics on the bed when something occurs to him. This writer he is named after—Gogol isn’t his first name. His first name is Nikolai. Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name but a last name turned first name. And so it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name. Not even the source of his namesake.
Plenty of people changed their names: actors, writers, revolutionaries, transvestites. In history class, Gogol has learned that European immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island, that slaves renamed themselves once they were emancipated. Though Gogol doesn’t know it, even Nikolai Gogol renamed himself, simplifying his surname at the age of twenty-two, from Gogol-Yanovsky to Gogol, upon publishing in the Literary Gazette.
One day in the summer of 1986, in the frantic weeks before moving away from his family, before his freshman year at Yale is about to begin, Gogol Ganguli does the same. He rides the commuter rail into Boston, switching to the Green Line at North Station, getting out at Lechmere, the closest stop to the Middlesex Probate and Family Court. He wears a blue oxford shirt, khakis, a camel-colored corduroy blazer bought for his college interviews that is too warm for the sultry day. Knotted around his neck is his only tie, maroon with yellow stripes on the diagonal. By now Gogol is just shy of six feet tall, his body slender, his thick brown-black hair slightly in need of a cut. His face is lean, intelligent, suddenly handsome, the bones more prominent, the pale-gold skin clean-shaven and clear. He has inherited Ashima’s eyes—large, penetrating, with bold, elegant brows—and shares with Ashoke the slight bump at the very top of his nose.
The courthouse is an imposing, pillared brick building occupying a full city block, but the entrance is off to the side, down a set of steps. Inside, Gogol empties his pockets and steps through a metal detector, as if he were at an airport, about to embark on a journey. He is soothed by the chill of the air-conditioning, by the beautifully carved plaster ceiling, by the voices that echo pleasantly in the marbled interior. A man at the information booth tells him to wait upstairs, in an area filled with round tables, where people sit eating their lunch. Gogol sits impatiently, one long leg jiggling up and down.
The idea to change his name had first occurred to him a few months ago. He was sitting in the waiting room of his dentist, flipping through an issue ofReader’s Digest. He’d been turning the pages at random until he came to an article that caused him to stop. The article was called “Second Baptisms.” “Can you identify the following famous people?” was written beneath the headline. The only one he guessed correctly was Robert Zimmerman, Bob Dylan’s real name. He had no idea that Leon Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. That Gerald Ford’s name was Leslie Lynch King, Jr., and that Engelbert Humperdinck’s was Arnold George Dorsey. They had all renamed themselves, the article said, adding that it was a right belonging to every American citizen. He read that tens of thousands of Americans, on average, had their names changed each year. All it took was a legal petition.
That night at the dinner table, he brought it up with his parents. It was one thing for Gogol to be the name penned in calligraphy on his high-school diploma, and printed below his picture in the yearbook, he’d begun. But engraved, four years from now, on a bachelor-of-arts degree? Written at the top of a résumé? Centered on a business card? It would be the name his parents picked out for him, he assured them, the good name they’d chosen for him when he was five.
“What’s done is done,” his father had said. “It will be a hassle. Gogol has, in effect, become your good name.”
“It’s too complicated now,” his mother said, agreeing. “You’re too old.”
“I’m not,” he persisted. “I don’t get it. Why did you have to give me a pet name in the first place? What’s the point?”
“It’s our way, Gogol,” his mother maintained. “It’s what Bengalis do.”
“But it’s not even a Bengali name. How could you guys name me after someone so strange? No one takes me seriously.”
“Who? Who does not take you seriously?” his father wanted to know, lifting his fingers from his plate, looking up at him. “People,” he said, lying to his parents. For his father had a point; the only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished it were otherwise, was Gogol.
“I don’t know, Gogol,” his mother had said, shaking her head. “I really don’t know.” She got up to clear the dishes. Sonia slinked away, up to her room. Gogol remained at the table with his father. They sat there together, listening to his mother scraping the plates, the water running in the sink.
“Then change it,” his father said simply, quietly, after a while.
“In America anything is possible. Do as you wish.”
With relief, he types his name at the top of his freshman papers. He reads the telephone messages his roommates leave for Nikhil on assorted scraps of paper. He opens up a checking account, writes his new name into his course books. “Me llamo Nikhil,” he says in his Spanish class. It is as Nikhil, that first semester, that he grows a goatee, starts smoking Camel Lights at parties and, while writing papers and before exams, discovers Brian Eno and Elvis Costello and Charlie Parker. It is as Nikhil that he takes Metro-North into Manhattan one weekend and gets himself a fake I.D. that allows him to be served liquor in New Haven bars. It is as Nikhil that he loses his virginity at a party at Ezra Stiles, with a girl wearing a plaid woollen skirt and combat boots and mustard tights. By the time he wakes up, hung over, at three in the morning, she has vanished from the room, and he is unable to recall her name.
There is only one complication: he doesn’t feel like Nikhil. Not yet. Part of the problem is that the people who now know him as Nikhil have no idea that he used to be Gogol. They know him only in the present, not at all in the past. But, after eighteen years of Gogol, two months of Nikhil feel scant, inconsequential. At times he feels as if he’d cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different. At times he still feels his old name, painfully and without warning, the way his front tooth had unbearably throbbed in recent weeks after a filling, threatening for an instant to sever from his gums when he drank coffee, or ice water.
Even more startling is when those who normally call him Gogol refer to him as Nikhil. Though he has asked his parents to do precisely this, the fact of it troubles him, making him feel in that instant that he is not related to them, not their child. “Please come visit us with Nikhil one weekend,” Ashima says to his roommates when she and Ashoke visit campus during parents’ weekend in October, the suite hastily cleared of liquor bottles and ashtrays for the occasion. The substitution sounds wrong to Gogol, correct but off key, the way it sounds when his parents speak English to him instead of Bengali.
At Thanksgiving, he takes the train up to Boston. He feels distracted for some reason, impatient to be off the train; he does not bother to remove his coat, does not bother to go to the café car for something to drink even though he is thirsty. His mother and Sonia have gone to India for three weeks, to attend a cousin’s wedding, and this year Gogol and his father will spend Thanksgiving at the home of friends.
He angles his head against the window and watches the autumnal landscape pass: the spewing pink and purple waters of a dye mill, electrical power stations, a big ball-shaped water tank covered with rust. Abandoned factories, with rows of small square windows partly bashed in, ravaged as if by moths. On the trees the topmost branches are bare, the remaining leaves yellow, paper-thin. The train moves more slowly than usual, and when he looks at his watch he sees that they are running well behind schedule. And then, somewhere outside Providence, in an abandoned field, the train stops moving. For more than an hour they stand there while a solid, scarlet disk of sun sinks into the tree-lined horizon. The lights turn off, and the air inside the train turns uncomfortably warm. The conductors rush anxiously through the compartments. “Probably a broken wire,” the gentleman sitting beside Gogol remarks. Across the aisle a gray-haired woman reads, a coat clutched like a blanket to her chest. Without the sound of the engine Gogol can hear an opera playing faintly on someone’s Walkman. Through the window he admires the darkening sapphire sky. He sees spare lengths of rusted rails heaped in piles. It isn’t until they start moving again that an announcement is made on the loudspeaker about a medical emergency. But the truth, overheard by one of the passengers from a conductor, quickly circulates: a suicide has been committed, a person has jumped in front of the train.
He is shocked and discomforted by the news, feeling bad about his irritation and impatience, wondering if the victim had been a man or a woman, young or old. He imagines the person consulting the same schedule that’s in his backpack, determining exactly when the train would be passing through. As a result of the delay he misses his commuter-rail connection in Boston, waits another forty minutes for the next one. He puts a call through to his parents’ house, but no one answers. He tries his father’s department at the university, but there, too, the phone rings and rings. At the station he sees his father waiting on the darkened platform, wearing sneakers and corduroys, anxiousness in his face. A trenchcoat is belted around his waist, a scarf knitted by Ashima wrapped at his throat, a tweed cap on his head.
“Sorry I’m late,” Gogol says. “How long have you been waiting?”
“Since quarter to six,” his father says. Gogol looks at his watch. It is nearly eight.
“There was an accident.”
“I know. I called. What happened? Were you hurt?”
Gogol shakes his head. “Someone jumped onto the tracks. Somewhere in Rhode Island. I tried to call you. They had to wait for the police, I think.”
“I was worried.”
“I hope you haven’t been standing out in the cold all this time,” Gogol says, and from his father’s lack of response he knows that this is exactly what he has done.
The night is windy, so much so that the car jostles slightly from time to time. Normally on these rides back from the station his father asks questions, about his classes, about his finances, about his plans for the future. But tonight they are silent, Ashoke concentrating on driving. Gogol fidgets with the radio.
“I want to tell you something,” his father says, once they have already turned onto their road.
“What?” Gogol asks.
“It’s about your name.”
Gogol looks at his father, puzzled. “My name?”
His father shuts off the radio. “Gogol. There is a reason for it, you know.”
“Right, Baba. Gogol’s your favorite author. I know.”
“No,” his father says. He pulls in to the driveway and switches off the engine, then the headlights. He undoes his seat belt, guiding it with his hand as it retracts, back behind his left shoulder. “Another reason.”
And, as they sit together in the car, his father revisits a field two hundred and nine kilometres from Howrah. With his fingers lightly grasping the bottom of the steering wheel, his gaze directed through the windshield at the garage door, he tells Gogol the story of the train he’d ridden twenty-five years ago, in October, 1961. He tells him about the night that had nearly taken his life, and the book that had saved him, and about the year afterward, when he’d been unable to move.
Gogol listens, stunned, his eyes fixed on his father’s profile. Though there are only inches between them, for an instant his father is a stranger, a man who has kept a secret, has survived a tragedy, a man whose past he does not fully know. A man who is vulnerable, who has suffered in an inconceivable way. He imagines his father, a college student as Gogol is now, sitting on a train as Gogol had just been, reading a story, and then suddenly nearly killed. He struggles to picture the West Bengal countryside he has seen on only a few occasions, his father’s mangled body, among hundreds of dead ones, being carried on a stretcher, past a twisted length of maroon compartments. Against instinct he tries to imagine life without his father, a world in which his father does not exist.
“Why don’t I know this about you?” Gogol says. His voice sounds harsh, accusing, but his eyes well with tears. “Why haven’t you told me this until now?”
“It never felt like the right time,” his father says.
“But it’s like you’ve lied to me all these years.” When his father doesn’t respond, he adds, “That’s why you have that limp, isn’t it?”
“It happened so long ago. I didn’t want to upset you.”
“It doesn’t matter. You should have told me.”
“Perhaps,” his father concedes, glancing briefly in Gogol’s direction. He removes the keys from the ignition. “Come, you must be hungry. The car is getting cold.”
But Gogol doesn’t move. He sits there, still struggling to absorb the information, feeling awkward, oddly ashamed, at fault. “I’m sorry, Baba.”
His father laughs softly. “You had nothing to do with it, Gogol.”
And suddenly the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”