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Gogol is the center of the novel, and it is his journey from childhood into young adulthood that the narrator tracks most closely. Gogol’s transformation is marked in at least three ways. First, his name. Gogol is Gogol, of course, because his father and mother needed a name for him before leaving the hospital. The name “Gogol” was an important one to Ashoke, who adored Nikolai Gogol’s work. Ashoke also has traumatic connection to the train-wreck during which he was reading Gogol. When Gogol asks his father, when he is college, whether the name Gogol reminds Ashoke of nearly dying, Ashoke counters that “Gogol” is for him a name of hope, of joy—of life. Gogol the child is the happy outcome of a terrible event in Ashoke’s younger days.
Gogol’s decision to become Nikhil occurs before he knows his father’s story in detail. But the change to Nikhil also represents a maturation, an attempt to find a new self in college. This leads to the second of Gogol’s transformations: into a student of architecture. Ashima’s father was a painter, and so visual art runs in the family. Gogol is also inspired by the design of the Taj Mahal when the family visits India together, when he is in high school. At Yale, Nikhil is able to pursue his love of architecture most directly, and this leads him to graduate study in New York, and a job at a firm there.
Gogol’slife in New York, in turn, leads to his third set of transformations—within romantic relationships. The novel spends relatively little time discussing Gogol’s friendships, although he is presumed to have some friends. Instead, Lahiri’s narrator focuses on Gogol’s life with three women: Ruth in college, Maxine in New York, and, finally, Moushumi, his wife. Each woman, in turn, marks a stage in Gogol’s development. And Lahiri is careful, too, to give these female characters emotional three-dimensionality of their own. In particular, Gogol seems not to recognize that Maxine truly loves him, and wishes to know his family’s practices in detail. By contrast, Moushumi, who is of Gogol’s world, wants constantly to leave that world, to make a new, more intellectually “rich” life for herself among her cosmopolitan New York friends. Through these romantic relationships, then, Gogol tests out different identities, different ways of relating to himself and his family, over time.