Gogol's mother Ashima is the heart of the story. While the other characters don't show a lot of emotion, Ashima is the one who feels. So it's through her that we can really come to understand the feelings of alienation, culture shock, and homesickness that many immigrants feel.
At the start of the novel, Gogol's mother Ashima is the most culturally conservative member of the family. She misses her life back in Calcutta terribly and has trouble settling in to her new American life. The narrator tells us, " On more than one occasion [Ashoke] has come home from the university to find her morose, in bed, rereading her parents' letters." See, unlike Ashoke, who is attending graduate school, Ashima is isolated in Cambridge, with no friends of her own. In Calcutta, she would have had the company of siblings, parents, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, but now they're thousands of miles away.
In Cambridge, Ashima is surrounded by strangers, and she doesn't quite feel that she fits in. There are new customs to learn, new ways of doing things. Combine that with the grief of leaving your family, home, and loved ones behind, and you've got a serious case of the blues:
For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. (3.3)
Her position as an immigrant gives Ashima a unique perspective that her children can't share. They don't know what it's like to leave their home, because America is their home. Unfortunately, the fact that she shares this experience only with her husband a bit of a rift between her and her children:
Having been deprived of the company of her own parents upon moving to America, her children's independence, their need to keep their distance from her, is something she will never understand. (7.25)
As the years go by, Ashima is the glue that keeps the family together. And when her children leave the nest and adopt aspects of the American lifestyle, it must be hard to watch. She and Sonia clash when Sonia hits high school and has a budding social life. She dislike's Gogol's choices in women – Maxine in particular – because they know nothing of Bengali traditions.
It's a lonely life, what with her children growing up and her family back home growing old. In many ways, the one thing Ashima can count on is her husband Ashoke, and their steadfast love, which is "an utterly private, uncelebrated thing." (6.51)
Unfortunately, this makes Ashoke's death all the more tragic, and Ashima mourns his death deeply. We've come to expect deep, intense feelings from Ashima, but these are particularly moving:
Ashima feels lonely suddenly, horribly, permanently alone, and briefly, turned away from the mirror, she sobs for her husband. She feels overwhelmed by the thought of the move she is about to make, to the city that was once home and is now in its own way foreign. (12.7)
A New Ashima
By this point we know that Ashima has plans to move back to India, but we're surprised to find out that she now thinks of Calcutta as foreign. It used to be home. So what has changed in Ashima to bring about this change of heart?
It seems our homesick Ashima has grown accustomed to life in the states. She has accepted her daughter's non-Bengali fiancé, and she understands why Gogol divorced Moushumi, and she gets along with her children better in general. She has even managed to make a few American friends, through her job at the library.
She is no longer completely Bengali, but she hasn't become an American either, and it seems like she is at peace with that. Frankly, that's a fitting end to her character, because her name means "she who is limitless, without borders" (2.21), Ashima has reached a point where she really has transcended boundaries, and in the world of The Namesake, that is no small feat.Timeline