This novel vividly portrays the life of the Indian academic who perseveres in his attempt to settle into university life in America. Into this life he brings his Bengali wife – a marriage arranged by the parents, and raises two children. She struggles to find her niche, until she meets up with other Bengali women and families with whom she stolidly maintains her culture and traditions. Those who have emigrated will empathise with her lonely condition, while her husband immerses himself in his work all day.
The adults struggle to integrate, while the younger child, a daughter, is a natural American who quickly and successfully finds her place in the New World. In the middle there is their son, Gogol, the character after whom the book is titled. it is the name of the great Ukrainian-born Russian dramatist, novelist and short story writer. Gogol appears to have a foot in each of the Indian and American cultural camps. We witness his struggle to come to terms with the all-American behaviours of his first serious girlfriend and her family, and his disastrous marriage to a girl of his “clan” who has, like his sister, successfully embraced the American Way.
Above all, Gogol hates the stressful family visits to Calcutta, and his name: “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… 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 first the reader will assume that it is the name that causes him such distress, but it is in actual fact his inability to successfully merge both his Indian and American personae. He feels neither entirely at home in his Indian milieu, nor in America.
The book highlights the vast cultural differences that exist between European-based lands, such as the colonies, and those of other cultures, such as those of the East: it is the age-old dichotomy of Orient versus Occident. Those born into European-styled cultures, such as South Africans, Americans or Australians, can more easily adapt to life in Europe. This is not the case for Eastern or Oriental peoples, and one pities Ashima, who sought comfort and commonality among her Bengali friends in the small university towns in which her husband lectured.
On one level the book is about the difficulties of immigrants trying to assimilate a new culture, whilst keeping alive their own. On another, it empathises with anyone who has tried to fit in, and to find acceptance in society.