I love books. I’ve got a stash of books in the toilet, by the side of every chair I’m likely to sit on and that includes the lavvy pan. Under my bed and by the side of my bed. But I don’t read enough and a book has never saved my life in the way it did Ashoke Ganguli after a train crash 209 kilometers from Calcutta he is involved in when going to visit and read to his grandfather, who also loves books and in particular the giants of Russian literature, but is now blind and cannot read.
Over an hour passed before the rescuers arrived, bearing lanterns and shovels and axes to pry the bodies from the cars…the lanterns light lingered just long enough for Ashoke to raise his hand…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.
Gogol saves Ashoke’s life, but that’s as action packed as it gets. The structure is simple it follows the lives of Ashoke and his wife Ashima Ganguli as she stands, two weeks before their due date, in their apartment in ‘a sticky August evening in 1968,’ where he’s studying and teaching as a doctoral candidate in MIT, and ends in the year 2000 going home to Calcutta to live with her younger brother Rama. But she’s no longer sure where or what home is and neither is the reader.
This is not a story of immigrants making good, although there is that disconnect to it, the element of speaking two languages and living in more cultures than there are Hindi gods. Ahoke seems the most centred, he moves seamlessly from arranged marriage to associate professor to professor to family man and father of two children, Gogil and, four years later, Sonia than he is being carried from the wreck of a train. Ahima speaks English, but it is people speaking and shouting and arguing in Bengali she wants to hear, her family to advise her, to be near to her and not just to sit and watch TV with the sound down. Her son, who they eventually name Gogol, is a step into a different identity and a pushes them firmly into two worlds. But like magnets drawing iron fillings other families from the Indian subcontinent meet to speak their common language and eat their own cooking and to rejoice at the lives they have in this new country, but also to long for home.
Gogol is an American boy, who fits easily in with his classmates. He is always getting confused with being Spanish or Greek or Italian. His sister calls him Goggles and although he speaks the language hates going home to Calcutta every few years for an extended stay. And he also hates his name Gogol.
Gogol goes to Yale and Columbia, he’s an all American man, but before he takes that step he changes his name. In the summer of 1986 he rides the Green line, goes to a Courthouse and has his name changed from Gogol to Nikolia. It’s simpler than he thinks.
But the women he hooks up with during college and afterwards are not the type Ashima can approve of. It’s on a train he meets with his first love and breaks with his last love, so trains figure prominently, but the writing is so warm and loving it’s hard not to fall in love with the girls yourself. See what Gogol sees and hear what he hears when travelling, dutiful son that he is, back to his parent’s house from Yale at the weekend on a packed train, looking for a seat and finds one with a girl’s jacket taking up the other.
‘It’s pretty brilliant, actually. Sometimes I pretend to fall asleep for the same reason,’ he admits. ‘No one wants to fall asleep next to me if I’m sleeping.’
She laughs softly, putting a strand of hair behind her ear. Her beauty is direct, unassuming. She wears no make-up apart from something glossy on her lips; two small moles by her right cheekbone are the only thing that distract from the pale peach of her complexion. She has slim, small hands with unpolished nails and ragged cuticles.
With Jhumpa Lahiri there is a sense of woman like Ruth having lives outside the text. When Gogol later meets with Moushami my mind flips back to a girl I’d marked out earlier in the text, a kind of whodunit when you pick out the next victims of marriage. And she does seem the one, beautiful, speaks the same languages and the glamour of having lived in Paris, lived a different life, speaking fluent French and writing learned articles for international magazines. She is the kind of girl that would make Ashima happy, and Moushami’s mother ecstatic, a girl at thirty, dumped at the altar by some rich white man. Not an arranged marriage, but does seem fated. Lahiri’s great beauty is she allows life to be as complicated as it is. It is fitting that such a writer should win The Pulitzer Prize. Now off to read Gogol again.