namesake-jhumpa-lahiri-pdf-download_c (The Namesake Jhumpa "The Namesake confirms what her first book suggested—that she's a. Lahiri's novel The Namesake deftly demonstrates how the familiar struggles between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the. In The Namesake, Lahiri enriches the themes that made her collection an and poise." The Namesake is a fine-tuned, intimate, and deeply felt novel of identity.
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PDF | On Jun 1, , Binod Mishra and others published A Reading of Jhumpa Lahiri's debut novel The Namesake () is a story of a. PDF | In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri narrates the tortuous route from In her book, I will contend, Lahiri further problematizes Said's. A novel of exquisite and subtle tension, spanning two generations and continents and a plethora of emotional compromises in between The Namesake is a.
Ashima regrets that they can't go earlier, in time for Durga pujo, but it will be years before Ashoke is eligible for a sabbatical, and three weeks in December is all they can manage. Gupta that broiling hot, late summer's day: Every evening at dusk he heard a conch shell being blown in the house next door to signal the hour for prayer. She pulls back a bit of the curtain, then lets it fall. A red cotton scarf over her stringy yellow hair, the same texture and shade as her daughters', is always tied at the back of her neck.
Her head was draped with scarlet netting. The air was damp, and in spite of the pins Ashima's hair, thickest of all the cousins', would not lie flat. She wore all the necklaces and chokers and bracelets that were destined to live most of their lives in an extra-large safety deposit box in a bank vault in New England. At the designated hour she was seated on a piri that her father had decorated, hoisted five feet off the ground, carried out to meet the groom.
She had hidden her face with a heart- shaped betel leaf, kept her head bent low until she had circled him seven times. Eight thousand miles away in Cambridge, she has come to know him. In the evenings she cooks for him, hoping to please, with the unrationed, remarkably unblemished sugar, flour, rice, and salt she had written about to her mother in her very first letter home. By now she has learned that her husband likes his food on the salty side, that his favorite thing about lamb curry is the potatoes, and that he likes to finish his dinner with a small final helping of rice and dal.
At night, lying beside her in bed, he listens to her describe the events of her day: In spite of his meager graduate student wages he sets aside money to send every few months to his father to help put an extension on his parents' house. He is fastidious about his clothing; their first argument had been over a sweater she'd shrunk in the washing machine.
As soon as he comes home from the university the first thing he does is hang up his shirt and trousers, donning a pair of drawstring pajamas and a pullover if it's cold. On Sundays he spends an hour occupied with his tins of shoe polishes and his three pairs of shoes, two black and one brown.
The brown ones are the ones he'd been wearing when he'd first come to see her. The sight of him cross-legged on newspapers spread on the floor, intently whisking a brush over the leather, always reminds her of her indiscretion in her parents' corridor. It is a moment that shocks her still, and that she prefers, in spite of all she tells him at night about the life they now share, to keep to herself.
On another floor of the hospital, in a waiting room, Ashoke 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. An hour before, Ashoke had been fast asleep, at home, Ashima's side of the bed covered with exams he'd been grading late at night, when the telephone rang. Ashima was fully dilated and being taken to the delivery room, the person on the other end had said. Upon arrival at the hospital he was told that she was pushing, that it could be any minute now.
Any minute. And yet it seemed only the other day, one steel-colored winter's morning when the windows of the house were being pelted with hail, that she had spit out her tea, accusing him of mistaking the salt for sugar.
To prove himself right he had taken a sip of the sweet liquid from her cup, but she had insisted on its bitterness, and poured it down the sink. That was the first thing that had caused her to suspect, and then the doctor had confirmed it, and then he would wake to the sounds, every morning when she went to brush her teeth, of her retching.
Before he left for the university he would leave a cup of tea by the side of the bed, where she lay listless and silent. Often, returning in the evenings, he would find her still lying there, the tea untouched. He now desperately needs a cup of tea for himself, 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, 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 disheveled, sections of it on end.
So far, the door to the waiting room has opened twice, and a nurse has announced that one of them has a boy or a girl. There are handshakes all around, pats on the back, before the father is escorted away. The men wait with cigars, flowers, address books, bottles of champagne. They smoke cigarettes, ashing onto the floor. Ashoke 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 teenager 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 with pujo 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 translations when Ashoke was a boy.
Each day at tea time, 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. 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.
Once, a younger cousin who had tried to imitate him had fallen down the red clay staircase in Ashoke's house and broken an arm. 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, , this nearly happened. Ashoke was twenty-two, a student at B. He was traveling on the 83 Up Howrah-Ranchi Express to visit his grandparents for the holidays; they had moved from Calcutta to Jamshedpur upon his grandfather's retirement from the university.
Ashoke had never spent the 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.
The books had been promised to Ashoke throughout his childhood, and for as long as he could remember he had coveted them more than anything else in the world. 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, a 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 Ashoke's passion for this particular book, the spine had recently split, threatening to divide the pages into two sections.
He had read "The Overcoat" too many times to count, certain sentences and phrases embedded in his memory. Each time he was captivated by the absurd, tragic, yet oddly inspiring story of Akaky Akakyevich, the impoverished main character who spends his life meekly copying documents written by others and suffering the ridicule of absolutely everyone. His heart went out to poor Akaky, a humble clerk just as Ashoke's father had been at the start of his career.
Each time, reading the account of Akaky's christening, and the series of queer names his mother had rejected, Ashoke laughed aloud. He shuddered at the description of the tailor Petrovich's big toe, "with its deformed nail as thick and hard as the shell of a tortoise. Ashoke was always devastated when Akaky was robbed in "a square that looked to him like a dreadful desert," leaving him cold and vulnerable, and Akaky's death, some pages later, never failed to bring tears to his eyes.
In some ways the story made less sense each time he read it, the scenes he pictured so vividly, and absorbed so fully, growing more elusive and profound. Just as Akaky's ghost haunted the final pages, so did it haunt a place deep in Ashoke's soul, shedding light on all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world.
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, especially raucous, filled with families on holiday. Small children were wearing their best clothing, the girls with brightly colored ribbons in their hair.
Though he had had his dinner before leaving for the station, a four-layer tiffin carrier packed by his mother sat at his feet, in the event that hunger should attack him in the night.
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 returned to India after spending 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. He pulled a packet of Dunhill cigarettes from his jacket pocket, offering them around the compartment before lighting one for himself. He tilted his head toward the window. America," he said, as if the nameless villages they passed had been replaced by those countries.
But I have a family," Ashoke said. Ghosh frowned. A mother and father and six siblings. I am the eldest. Free," he said, spreading his hands apart for emphasis. 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. 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. I live in Tollygunge, just behind the tram depot. He pulled out a well-worn deck from his suit pocket, with Big Ben's image on the back.
But Ashoke politely declined, for he knew no card games, and besides which, he preferred to read. 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 tunneled 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 kilometers from Calcutta, between the Ghatshila and Dhalbumgarh stations.
The train guard's portable phone would not work; it was only after the guard ran nearly five kilometers from the site of the accident, to Ghatshila, that he was able to transmit the first message for help. Over 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 right 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 whom he was on his way to visit, 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. 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. I saw him move. 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 as the bones of his body healed.
There was a risk that his right leg might be perma nently 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, he 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. That bodies had been mutilated beyond recognition. In the beginning, for most of the day, he had stared at his bedroom ceiling, at the three beige blades of the fan churning at its center, their edges grimy. He could hear the top edge of a calendar scraping against the wall behind him when the fan was on.
If he moved his neck to the right he had a view of a window with a dusty bottle of Dettol on its ledge and, if the shutters were open, the concrete of the wall that surrounded the house, the pale brown geckos that scampered there. He listened to the constant parade of sounds outside, footsteps, bicycle bells, the incessant squawking of crows and of the horns of cycle rickshaws in the lane so narrow that taxis could not fit.
He heard the tube well at the corner being pumped into urns. Every evening at dusk he heard a conch shell being blown in the house next door to signal the hour for prayer. He could smell but not see the shimmering green sludge that collected in the open sewer. Life within the house continued. His father came and went from work, his brothers and sisters from school. His mother worked in the kitchen, checking in on him periodically, her lap stained with turmeric.
Twice daily the maid twisted rags into buckets of water and wiped the floors. 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. He remembered the address Ghosh had written on a page of his diary, 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. For this that his mother gave up meat on Wednesdays. He imagined not only walking, but walking away, as far as he could from the place in which he was born and in which he had nearly died.
The following year, with the aid of 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. 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 MIT, checks his campus mail. 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 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: 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. To this day he is claustrophobic, holding his breath in elevators, feels pent-up in cars unless the windows are open on both sides.
On planes he requests the bulkhead seat. At times the wailing of children fills him with deepest dread. 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. Again he tastes the dust on his tongue, sees the twisted train, the giant overturned iron wheels. None of this was supposed to happen.
But no, he had survived it. 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. But there is one more dead soul he has to thank. He cannot thank the book; the book has perished, as he nearly did, in scattered pieces, in the earliest hours of an October day, in a field kilometers from Calcutta.
Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life, when Patty enters the waiting room. He measures twenty inches long, weighs seven pounds nine ounces. Ashima's initial glimpse, before the cord is clipped and they carry him away, is of a creature coated with a thick white paste, and streaks of blood, her blood, on the shoulders, feet, and head. A needle placed in the small of her back has removed all sensation from her waist to her knees, and given her a blistering headache in the final stages of the delivery.
When it is all over she begins to shiver profoundly, as if beset with an acute fever. For half an hour she trembles, in a daze, covered by a blanket, her insides empty, her outside still misshapen. She is unable to speak, to allow the nurses to help exchange her blood-soaked gown for a fresh one.
In spite of endless glasses of water, her throat is parched. She is told to sit on a toilet, to squirt warm water from a bottle between her legs. Eventually she is sponged clean, put into a new gown, wheeled into yet another room.
The lights are soothingly dim, and there is only one other bed next to hers, empty for the time being. When Ashoke arrives, Patty 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.
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 has 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 Patty 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 Patty laughs approvingly. He's stronger than you think. 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. Why won't he open them? Has he opened them? Can he see us? But not very clearly. And not in full color. Not yet. Was it all right? 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. Again he thinks of the night he was nearly killed, the memory of those hours that have forever marked him flickering and fading in his mind.
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. Apart from his father, the baby has three visitors, all Bengali—Maya and Dilip Nandi, a young married couple in Cambridge whom Ashima and Ashoke met a few months ago in the Purity Supreme, and Dr. Gupta, a mathematics postdoc from Dehradun, a bachelor in his fifties, whom Ashoke has befriended in the corridors of MIT.
At feeding times the gentlemen, including Ashoke, step out into the hall. Maya and Dilip give the boy a rattle and a baby book, with places for his parents to commemorate every possible aspect of his infancy. There is even a circle in which to paste a few strands from his first haircut.
Gupta gives the boy a handsome illustrated copy of Mother Goose rhymes. Ashima thinks the same, though for different reasons. For as grateful as she feels for the company of the Nandis and Dr. Gupta, these acquaintances are only substitutes for the people who really ought to be surrounding them.
Without a single grandparent or parent or uncle or aunt at her side, the baby's birth, like most everything else in America, feels somehow haphazard, only half true. As she strokes and suckles and studies her son, she can't help but pity him. She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived. Because neither set of grandparents has a working telephone, their only link to home is by telegram, which Ashoke has sent to both sides in Calcutta: When her grandmother learned of Ashima's pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family's first sahib.
And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes, ignoring the forms from the hospital about filing for a birth certificate. 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. The Nandis and Dr. Gupta understand perfectly. Of course you must wait, they agree, wait for the name in his great-grandmother's letter. Besides, there are always pet names to tide one over: In Bengali the word for pet name is daknam, mean ing, 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. They all have pet names. Ashima's pet name is Monu, Ashoke's is Mithu, and even as adults, these are the names by which they are known in their respective families, the names by which they are adored and scolded and missed and loved.
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.
For this reason, letters from Ashima's mother say "Ashima" on the outside, "Monu" on the inside. Good names tend to represent dignified and enlightened qualities. Ashima means "she who is limitless, without borders. Unlike good names, pet names are frequently meaningless, deliberately silly, ironic, even onomatopoetic.
Often in one's infancy, one answers unwittingly to dozens of pet names, until one eventually sticks. And so at one point, when the baby screws up his rosy, wrinkled face and regards his small circle of admirers, Mr.
Nandi leans over and calls the baby "Buro," the Bengali word for "old man. Ashoke lifts the lid and polishes off the chicken; Ashima is now officially referred to by the maternity nurses as the Jell-O-and-Ice-Cream Lady. My grandmother is choosing. The thought of her grandmother, born in the previous century, a shrunken woman in widow's white and with tawny skin that refuses to wrinkle, boarding a plane and flying to Cambridge, is inconceivable to her, a thought that, no matter how welcome, how desirable, feels entirely impossible, absurd.
But a letter will. 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.
Wilcox, slight, bald, unamused, glances at the couple, both visibly distressed, then glances at the nameless child. Wilcox says again. I'm afraid your only alternative is to have the certificate read 'Baby Boy Ganguli. Wilcox says. The red tape is endless. Wilcox nods, and silence ensues. Ashima frowns. 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. The kings of France and England did it," he adds.
But this isn't possible, Ashima and Ashoke think to themselves. 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.
Someone you greatly admire? Wilcox says, his eyebrows raised hopefully. He sighs. 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. He remembers the page crumpled tightly in his fingers, the sudden shock of the lantern's glare in his eyes. But for the first time he thinks of that moment not with terror, but with gratitude. 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 her husband's. She knows the story of the ac cident, a story she first heard with polite newlywed sympathy, but the thought of which now, now especially, 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.
Besides, it's only a pet name, not to be taken seriously, simply something to put on the certificate for now to release them from the hospital. When Mr. Wilcox returns with his typewriter, Ashoke spells out the name. Thus Gogol Ganguli is registered in the hospital's files. Gupta 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's first home is a fully furnished apartment ten minutes by foot to Harvard, twenty to MIT. The apartment is on the first floor of a three-story house, covered with salmon- colored shingles, surrounded by a waist-high chain-link fence.
The gray of the roof, the gray of cigarette ashes, matches the pavement of the sidewalk and the street. A row of cars parked at meters perpetually lines one side of the curb. At the corner of the block there is a small used bookstore, which one enters by going down three steps from the sidewalk, and across from it a musty shop that sells the newspaper and cigarettes and eggs, and where, to Ashima's mild disgust, a furry black cat is permitted to sit as it pleases on the shelves.
Other than these small businesses, there are more shingled houses, the same shape and size and in the same state of mild decrepitude, painted mint, or lilac, or powder blue. This is the house Ashoke had brought Ashima to eighteen months ago, late one February night after her arrival at Logan Airport. In the dark, through the windows of the taxi, wide awake from jet lag, she could barely make out a thing, apart from heaps of broken snow glowing like shattered, bluish white bricks on the ground.
It wasn't until morning, stepping briefly outside wearing a pair of Ashoke's socks under her thin-soled slippers, the frigid New England chill piercing her inner ears and jaw, that she'd had her first real glimpse of America: Leafless trees with ice-covered branches. Dog urine and excrement embedded in the snowbanks.
Not a soul on the street. The apartment consists of three rooms all in a row without a corridor. There is a living room at the front with a three-sided window overlooking the street, a pass-through bedroom in the middle, a kitchen at the back. It is not at all what she had expected. The apartment is drafty during winter, and in summer, intolerably hot. The thick glass windowpanes are covered by dreary dark brown curtains.
There are even roaches in the bathroom, emerging at night from the cracks in the tiles. But she has complained of none of this. She has kept her disappointment to herself, not wanting to offend Ashoke, or worry her parents.
Instead she writes, in her letters home, of the powerful cooking gas that flares up at any time of day or night from four burners on the stove, and the hot tap water fierce enough to scald her skin, and the cold water safe enough to drink.
The top two floors of the house are occupied by their landlords, the Montgomerys, a Harvard sociology professor and his wife. The Montgomerys have two children, both girls, Amber and Clover, aged seven and nine, whose waist-length hair is never braided, and who play on warm days for hours on a tire swing rigged to the only tree in the backyard. The professor, who has told Ashima and Ashoke to call him Alan, not Professor Montgomery as they had at first addressed him, has a wiry rust-colored beard that makes him look much older than he actually is.
They see him walking to Harvard Yard in a pair of threadbare trousers, a fringed suede jacket, and rubber flip-flops. Rickshaw drivers dress better than professors here, Ashoke, who still attends meetings with his adviser in a jacket and tie, thinks frequently to himself.
The Montgomerys have a dull green Volkswagen van covered with stickers: They have a washing machine in the basement which Ashoke and Ashima are permitted to share, a television in their living room which Ashoke and Ashima can hear clearly through the ceiling.
It had been through the ceiling one night in April, when Ashoke and Ashima were eating their dinner, that they'd heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sometimes Ashima and Alan's wife, Judy, stand side by side in the yard, clipping clothes to the line. Judy always wears blue jeans, torn up into shorts once summer comes, and a necklace of small seashells around her throat.
A red cotton scarf over her stringy yellow hair, the same texture and shade as her daughters', is always tied at the back of her neck. She works for a women's health collective in Somerville a few days a week. When she learned of Ashima's pregnancy she approved of Ashima's decision to breast-feed but had been disappointed to learn that Ashima was going to put herself in the hands of the medical establishment for her child's delivery; Judy's daughters were born at home, with the help of midwives at the collective.
Some nights Judy and Alan go out, leaving Amber and Clover unsupervised at home. Only once, when Clover had a cold, did they ask Ashima if she could check in on them. Ashima remembers their apartment with abiding horror—just beyond the ceiling yet so different from her own, piles everywhere, piles of books and papers, piles of dirty plates on the kitchen counter, ashtrays the size of serving platters heaped with crushed-out cigarettes.
The girls slept together on a bed piled with clothes. Sitting momentarily on the edge of Alan and Judy's mattress, she had cried out, falling clumsily backward, startled to discover that it was filled with water. Instead of cereal and tea bags, there were whiskey and wine bottles on top of the refrigerator, most of them nearly empty. Just standing there had made Ashima feel drunk.
They arrive home from the hospital courtesy of Dr. Gupta, who owns a car, and sit in the sweltering living room, in front of their only box fan, suddenly a family. Instead of a couch they have six chairs, all of them three-legged, with oval wooden backs and black triangular cushions. To her surprise, finding herself once again in the gloomy three-room apartment, Ashima misses the hustle-bustle of the hospital, and Patty, and the Jell-O and ice cream brought at regular intervals to her side.
As she walks slowly through the rooms it irks her that there are dirty dishes stacked in the kitchen, that the bed has not been made.
Until now Ashima has accepted that there is no one to sweep the floor, or do the dishes, or wash clothes, or shop for groceries, or prepare a meal on the days she is tired or homesick or cross. She has accepted that the very lack of such amenities is the American way. But now, with a baby crying in her arms, her breasts swollen with milk, her body coated with sweat, her groin still so sore she can scarcely sit, it is all suddenly unbearable.
He sets the cup beside her on the flaking windowsill. She pulls back a bit of the curtain, then lets it fall. Not like this. It's not right. I want to go back. On more than one occasion he has come home from the university to find her morose, in bed, rereading her parents' letters.
Early mornings, when he senses that she is quietly crying, he puts an arm around her but can think of nothing to say, feeling that it is his fault, for marrying her, for bringing her here. He remembers suddenly about Ghosh, his companion on the train, who had returned from England for his wife's sake. A soft knock on the door interrupts them: Alan and Judy and Amber and Clover, all there to see the baby. Judy holds a dish covered with a checkered cloth in her hands, says she's made a broccoli quiche.
Alan sets down a garbage bag full of Amber and Clover's old baby clothes, uncorks a bottle of cold champagne. The foaming liquid splashes onto the floor, is poured into mugs. They raise their mugs to Gogol, Ashima and Ashoke only pretending to take sips. Amber and Clover flank Ashima at either side, both delighted when Gogol wraps a hand around each of their fingers.
Judy scoops the baby out of Ashima's lap. Ashoke goes out to the corner store, and a box of disposable diapers replaces the framed black-and-white pictures of Ashima's family on the dressing table.
Judy is at work at the collective as usual, and Ashima, on her own with Gogol for the first time in the silent house, suffering from a sleep deprivation far worse than the worst of her jet lag, sits by the three-sided window in the living room on one of the triangular chairs and cries the whole day.
She cries as she feeds him, and as she pats him to sleep, and as he cries between sleeping and feeding. She cries after the mailman's visit because there are no letters from Calcutta. She cries when she calls Ashoke at his department and he does not answer. One day she cries when she goes to the kitchen to make dinner and discovers that they've run out of rice. She goes upstairs and knocks on Alan and Judy's door. To be polite, Ashima takes a cup, but downstairs she throws it away.
She calls Ashoke at his department to ask him to pick up the rice on his way home. This time, when there is no answer, she gets up, washes her face and combs her hair. She changes and dresses Gogol and puts him into the navy blue, white-wheeled pram inherited from Alan and Judy.
For the first time, she pushes him through the balmy streets of Cambridge, to Purity Supreme, to buy a bag of white long-grain rice.
The errand takes longer than usual; for now she is repeatedly stopped on the street, and in the aisles of the supermarket, by perfect strangers, all Americans, suddenly taking notice of her, smiling, congratulating her for what she's done.
They look curiously, appreciatively, into the pram. Before Gogol's birth, her days had followed no visible pattern. She would spend hours in the apartment, napping, sulking, rereading her same five Bengali novels on the bed.
But now the days that had once dragged rush all too quickly toward evening—those same hours are consumed with Gogol, pacing the three rooms of the apartment with him in her arms. Now she wakes at six, pulling Gogol out of the crib for his first feeding, and then for half an hour she and Ashoke lie with the baby in bed between them, admiring the tiny person they've produced.
Between eleven and one, while Gogol sleeps, she gets dinner out of the way, a habit she will maintain for decades to come. Every afternoon she takes him out, wandering up and down the streets, to pick up this or that, or to sit in Harvard Yard, sometimes meeting up with Ashoke on a bench on the MIT campus, bringing him some homemade samosas and a fresh thermos of tea.
At times, staring at the baby, she sees pieces of her family in his face—her mother's glossy eyes, her father's slim lips, her brother's lopsided smile. She discovers a yarn store and begins to knit for the coming winter, making Gogol sweaters, blankets, mittens, and caps.
Every few days she gives Gogol a bath in the porcelain sink in the kitchen. Every week she carefully clips the nails of his ten fingers and toes. When she takes him in his pram for his immunizations at the pediatrician's, she stands outside the room and plugs up her ears. One day Ashoke arrives home with an Instamatic camera to take pictures of the baby, and when Gogol is napping she pastes the square, white- bordered prints behind plastic sheets in an album, captions written on pieces of masking tape.
To put him to sleep, she sings him the Bengali songs her mother had sung to her. She drinks in the sweet, milky fragrance of his skin, the buttery scent of his breath. One day she lifts him high over her head, smiling at him with her mouth open, and a quick stream of undigested milk from his last feeding rises from his throat and pours into her own.
For the rest of her life she will recall the shock of that warm, sour liquid, a taste that leaves her unable to swallow another thing for the rest of the day. Letters arrive from her parents, from her husband'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.
Sometimes two letters arrive in a single week. One week there are three. As always Ashima keeps her ear trained, between the hours of twelve and two, for the sound of the postman's footsteps on the porch, followed by the soft click of the mail slot in the door. The margins of her parents' letters, always a block of her mother's hasty penmanship followed by her father's flourishing, elegant hand, are frequently decorated with drawings of animals done by Ashima's father, and Ashima tapes these on the wall over Gogol's crib.
Every hour there is a change. Remember it. She writes that they are saving money for a trip home the following December, after Gogol turns one. She does not mention the pediatrician's concern about tropical diseases.
A trip to India will require a whole new set of immunizations, he has warned. In November, Gogol 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. They are forced to conclude that it is lost in the mail. Ashima decides to write to her grand mother, explaining the situation, asking her to send a second letter with the names. The very next day a letter arrives in Cambridge. Though it is from Ashima's father, no drawings for Gogol adorn the margins, no elephants or parrots or tigers. 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. Perhaps you may not see her again. 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, thinking of the last time she saw her grandmother, her dida, a few days before flying to Boston.
Ashima had gone to visit her; for the occasion her grandmother had entered the kitchen after over a decade's retirement, to cook Ashima a light goat and potato stew. She had fed her sweets with her own hand. Unlike her parents, and her other relatives, her grandmother 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. Before leaving, 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. For this was the phrase Bengalis always used in place of good-bye. With trembling hands, her grandmother had pressed her thumbs to the tears streaming down Ashima's face, wiping them away.
It will all be for the best. Remember that. Now go. Through the Nandis, now expecting a child of their own, Ashoke and Ashima meet the Mitras, and through the Mitras, the Banerjees.
More than once, pushing Gogol in his stroller, Ashima has been approached on the streets of Cambridge by young Bengali bachelors, shyly inquiring after her origins.
Like Ashoke, the bachelors fly back to Calcutta one by one, returning with wives. Every weekend, it seems, there is a new home to go to, a new couple or young family to meet.
They all come from Calcutta, and for this reason alone they are friends. Most of them live within walking distance of one another in Cambridge. The husbands are teachers, researchers, doctors, engineers. The wives, homesick and bewildered, turn to Ashima for recipes and advice, and she tells them about the carp that's sold in Chinatown, that it's possible to make halwa from Cream of Wheat.
The families drop by one another's homes on Sunday afternoons. They drink tea with sugar and evaporated milk and eat shrimp cutlets fried in saucepans. They sit in circles on the floor, singing songs by Nazrul and Tagore, passing a thick yellow clothbound book of lyrics among them as Dilip Nandi plays the harmonium.
They argue riotously over the films of Ritwik Ghatak versus those of Satyajit Ray. North Calcutta versus South. For hours they argue about the politics of America, a country in which none of them is eligible to vote. By February, when Gogol is six months old, Ashima and Ashoke know enough people to entertain on a proper scale. The occasion: Gogol's annaprasan, his rice ceremony. There is no baptism for Bengali babies, no ritualistic naming in the eyes of God.
Instead, the first formal ceremony of their lives centers around the consumption of solid food. They ask Dilip Nandi to play the part of Ashima's brother, to hold the child and feed him rice, the Bengali staff of life, for the very first time.
Gogol is dressed as an infant Bengali groom, in a pale yellow pajamapunjabi from his grandmother in Calcutta. The fragrance of cumin seeds, sent in the package along with the pajamas, lingers in the weave. A headpiece that Ashima cut out of paper, decorated with pieces of aluminum foil, is tied around Gogol's head with string.
He wears a thin fourteen-karat gold chain around his neck. His tiny forehead has been decorated with considerable struggle with sandalwood paste to form six miniature beige moons floating above his brows. His eyes have been darkened with a touch of kohl. He fidgets in the lap of his honorary uncle, who sits on a bedcover on the floor, surrounded by guests in front and behind and beside him.
The food is arranged in ten separate bowls. The final bowl contains payesh, a warm rice pudding Ashima will prepare for him to eat on each of his birthdays as a child, as an adult even, alongside a slice of bakery cake.
Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies established this young writer as one the most brilliant of her generation. Her stories are one of the very few debut works -- and only a handful of collections -- to have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In The Namesake , Lahiri enriches the themes that made her collection an international bestseller: Here again Lahiri displays her deft touch for the perfect detail -- the fleeting moment, the turn of phrase -- that opens whole worlds of emotion.
The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family.
When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs.
With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves. The New York Times has praised Lahiri as "a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.
Young men—Fiction. East Indian Americans—Fiction. Children of immigrants—Fiction. Assimilation Sociology —Fiction. Alienation Social psychology —Fiction. Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich, ——Appreciation—Fiction.
I wish to thank the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for its generous support. I am indebted to the following books: The Life of Gogol, by Henri Troyat.
The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix.
Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves. She stares blankly at the pegboard behind the countertop where her cooking utensils hang, all slightly coated with grease. She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her sari.
Her swollen feet ache against speckled gray linoleum. A curious warmth floods her abdomen, followed by a tightening so severe she doubles over, gasping without sound, dropping the onion with a thud on the floor. The sensation passes, only to be followed by a more enduring spasm of discomfort.
In the bathroom she discovers, on her underpants, a solid streak of brownish blood. She calls out to her husband, Ashoke, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at MIT, who is studying in the bedroom. He leans over a card table; the edge of their bed, two twin mattresses pushed together under a red and purple batik spread, serves as his chair. Ashima registers, answering questions about the frequency and duration of the contractions, as Ashoke fills out the forms.
She is seated in a wheelchair and pushed through the shining, brightly lit corridors, whisked into an elevator more spacious than her kitchen. On the maternity floor she is assigned to a bed by a window, in a room at the end of the hall. She is asked to remove her Murshidabad silk sari in favor of a flowered cotton gown that, to her mild embarrassment, only reaches her knees. Her obstetrician, Dr. Ashley, gauntly handsome in a Lord Mountbatten sort of way, with fine sand-colored hair swept back from his temples, arrives to examine her progress.
She is told that she is still in early labor, three centimeters dilated, beginning to efface. What does it mean, dilated? Ashley holds up two fingers side by side, then draws them apart, explaining the unimaginable thing her body must do in order for the baby to pass.
The process will take some time, Dr. Ashley tells her; given that this is her first pregnancy, labor can take twenty-four hours, sometimes more. We can take over from here. Now she is alone, cut off by curtains from the three other women in the room. Another is Lois. Carol lies to her left. Goddamnit, goddamn you, this is hell, she hears one of them say. I love you, sweetheart. Words Ashima has neither heard nor expects to hear from her own husband; this is not how they are.
It is the first time in her life she has slept alone, surrounded by strangers; all her life she has slept either in a room with her parents, or with Ashoke at her side. She wishes the curtains were open, so that she could talk to the American women. Perhaps one of them has given birth before, can tell her what to expect. But she has gathered that Americans, in spite of their public declarations of affection, in spite of their miniskirts and bikinis, in spite of their hand-holding on the street and lying on top of each other on the Cambridge Common, prefer their privacy.
The child is no longer restless; for the past few days, apart from the occasional flutter, she has not felt it punch or kick or press against her ribs. She wonders if she is the only Indian person in the hospital, but a gentle twitch from the baby reminds her that she is, technically speaking, not alone.
There is nothing to comfort her in the off-white tiles of the floor, the off-white panels of the ceiling, the white sheets tucked tightly into the bed. In India, she thinks to herself, women go home to their parents to give birth, away from husbands and in-laws and household cares, retreating briefly to childhood when the baby arrives.
Another contraction begins, more violent than the last. She cries out, pressing her head against the pillow. Her fingers grip the chilly rails of the bed. No one hears her, no nurse rushes to her side. She has been instructed to time the duration of the contractions and so she consults her watch, a bon voyage gift from her parents, slipped over her wrist the last time she saw them, amid airport confusion and tears. Now, in addition, she wears a plastic bracelet with a typed label identifying her as a patient of the hospital.
She keeps the watch face turned to the inside of her wrist. On the back, surrounded by the words waterproof, antimagnetic, and shock-protected, her married initials, A. American seconds tick on top of her pulse point. For half a minute, a band of pain wraps around her stomach, radiating toward her back and shooting down her legs.
And then, again, relief. She calculates the Indian time on her hands. The tip of her thumb strikes each rung of the brown ladders etched onto the backs of her fingers, then stops at the middle of the third: Her mother, very soon to be a grandmother, is standing at the mirror of her dressing table, untangling waist-length hair, still more black than gray, with her fingers. Her father hunches over his slanted ink-stained table by the window, sketching, smoking, listening to the Voice of America.
Her younger brother, Rana, studies for a physics exam on the bed. For an instant the weight of the baby vanishes, replaced by the scene that passes before her eyes, only to be replaced once more by a blue strip of the Charles River, thick green treetops, cars gliding up and down Memorial Drive.
A tray holding warm apple juice, Jell-O, ice cream, and cold baked chicken is brought to her side. Patty, the friendly nurse with the diamond engagement ring and a fringe of reddish hair beneath her cap, tells Ashima to consume only the Jell-O and the apple juice.
Ashima would not have touched the chicken, even if permitted; Americans eat their chicken in its skin, though Ashima has recently found a kind butcher on Prospect Street willing to pull it off for her. Patty comes to fluff the pillows, tidy the bed.
Ashley pokes in his head from time to time. Everything is looking perfectly normal. We are expecting a perfectly normal delivery, Mrs. But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For it was one thing to be pregnant, to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepless nights, the dull throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom.
That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare. How about a little walk? It might do you good, Patty asks when she comes to clear the lunch tray. The printed pages of Bengali type, slightly rough to the touch, are a perpetual comfort to her.
There is a pen-and-ink drawing on page eleven by her father, an illustrator for the magazine: Patty helps Ashima out of bed, tucks her feet one by one into slippers, drapes a second nightgown around her shoulders. Just think, Patty says as Ashima struggles to stand. After a few feet Ashima stops, her legs trembling as another wave of pain surges through her body. She shakes her head, her eyes filling with tears. I cannot. Hoping for a boy or a girl? Patty asks. As long as there are ten finger and ten toe, Ashima replies.
For these anatomical details, these particular signs of life, are the ones she has the most difficulty picturing when she imagines the baby in her arms. Patty smiles, a little too widely, and suddenly Ashima realizes her error, knows she should have said fingers and toes.
This error pains her almost as much as her last contraction. English had been her subject. In Calcutta, before she was married, she was working toward a college degree. She used to tutor neighborhood schoolchildren in their homes, on their verandas and beds, helping them to memorize Tennyson and Wordsworth, to pronounce words like sign and cough, to understand the difference between Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedy.
But in Bengali, a finger can also mean fingers, a toe toes. He was the third in as many months. The first had been a widower with four children. The second, a newspaper cartoonist who knew her father, had been hit by a bus in Esplanade and lost his left arm. To her great relief they had both rejected her. She was nineteen, in the middle of her studies, in no rush to be a bride. And so, obediently but without expectation, she had untangled and rebraided her hair, wiped away the kohl that had smudged below her eyes, patted some Cuticura powder from a velvet puff onto her skin.
The sheer parrot green sari she pleated and tucked into her petticoat had been laid out for her on the bed by her mother. Before entering the sitting room, Ashima had paused in the corridor. She could hear her mother saying, She is fond of cooking, and she can knit extremely well.
Within a week she finished this cardigan I am wearing.