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Foreignness and 'the Other'
Ashima thinks it's strange that her child will be born in a place most people enter either to suffer or to die […] 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. (1.4)
Apparently, giving birth is quite a different event in India. In fact, for Ashima, doing it the Indian way sounds kind of nice. At least she wouldn't be alone in a room full of strangers. Even the very beginning of life is different over in America.
The occasion: Gogol's <em>annaprasan</em>, 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 on the consumption of solid food. (2.65)
The Gangulis preserve <em>some </em>traditions in America, including the <em>annaprasan</em>. Why do you think they choose to keep this particular tradition, and let others go? Is it because they are still fairly new to America at this point, or is it because there is something special about the <em>annaprasan</em>?
In Bengali the word for pet name is <em>daknam </em>[…] Every pet name is paired with a good name, a <em>bhalonam</em>, for identification in the outside world. (2.21)
The Gangulis' attitude toward names gets them into trouble with American bureaucrats, because in the States, everyone has to have a proper name. It sounds simple enough, but it throws a wrench in the Bengali tradition.
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)
Intense, right? It almost sounds as if she is a ghost, hovering between a "previous life" and "something more complicated." Do you think Ashima ever manages to get out of this state? Does the burden ever lift?
Upon returning to Calcutta, Gogol and Sonia both get terribly ill. It is the air, the rice, the wind, their relatives casually remark; they were not made to survive in a poor country, they say. (4.39)
Even their bodies can't adjust to India. They don't feel at home there, physically and emotionally. Their relatives seem to think it's a result of their privilege. They get sick because they live in a rich country, and can't handle the food of a poor one.
For a few days, in Agra, which is as foreign to Ashima and Ashoke as it is to Gogol and Sonia, they are tourists, staying at a hotel with a swimming pool, sipping bottled water, eating in restaurants with forks and spoons, paying by credit card. (4.37)
In Agra, the Gangulis are all tourists. Even though Ashima and Ashoke are at home in India, they are acting like westerners by staying in hotels and using credit. This also reminds us of the way that Gogol often has a tourist-like appreciation for the American homes he visits.
Within minutes, before their eyes Ashoke and Ashima slip into bolder, less complicated versions of themselves, their voices louder, their smiles wider, revealing a confidence Gogol and Sonia never see on Pemberton Road. (4.31)
In a reversal, when they are in India, it is Gogol and Sonia who feel foreign and different, while Ashoke and Ashima are totally at home (and yet a bit foreign to their children, who are surprised to see their change). But do Gogol and Sonia feel completely at home anywhere, even in the United States? It's possible that their situation is even tougher than that of their parents, because they don't belong in America <em>or</em> in India.
Living with a pet name and a good name, in a place where such distinctions do not exist – surely that was emblematic of the greatest confusion of all. (5.64)
Even if Gogol manages to fit in in the states, and totally assimilate into American culture (and he comes close with Maxine, don't you think?), his name will always stand in the way. Or at least that's what he seems to think. Maybe if he just stopped worrying about it, it wouldn't be such a big deal.
She has the gift of accepting her life; as he comes to know her, he realizes that she has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way. This, in his opinion, is the biggest difference between them, a thing far more foreign to him than the beautiful house she'd grown up in, her education at private schools. (6.50)
What's funny here is that even though Maxine fits right into American life, and is living the American dream, she is foreign to Gogol. He has no idea what it's like to live a life like hers.
For reasons he cannot explain or necessarily understand, these ancient Puritan spirits, these very first immigrants to America, these bearers of unthinkable, obsolete names, have spoken to him, so much so that in spite of his mother's disgust he refuses to throw the rubbings away.
The young Gogol finds comfort in the odd names he finds in the Puritan graveyard. Maybe they help him feel a little less foreign. Or maybe they help him realize that just about everyone is foreign in America.
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