The novel’s primary protagonist. Gogol is an obedient, inquisitive, and sensitive child, close to his parents and sister. The novel tracks Gogol’s growth from child into young man. This growth includes changing his name, to Nikhil, and the gradual discovery of architecture as a career. Gogol navigates, over time, his relationship to his parents’ identity, as Bengalis in America. He also tries to forge his own identity, as a Bengali-American child born in the US. At the close of the novel, Gogol begins reading Nikolai Gogol, his namesake, as a way of getting closer to his deceased father, who adored the writer.
Another of the novel’s protagonists. Ashima, at the beginning of the novel, does not make choices so much as she accepts the choices of others. Her parents arrange her marriage to Ashoke, and out of duty she follows him to cold, desolate-seeming Boston. She grows to love her husband, and, later, her son Gogol and daughter Sonia. But for years, Ashima misses her family in Calcutta and yearns desperately for her old life there. Only after many years, and following her husband’s death while away in Ohio, does Ashima realize that the Boston area is her home, and that she is surrounded by friends and a surrogate family there.
The third of the novel’s protagonists. Ashoke is a quiet, sensitive man, and although the narrator does not have access to many of his thoughts, he is nevertheless devoted to his wife and children. Ashoke is also deeply affected by the train accident that nearly killed him in his youth. He gives his son the name Gogol as an acknowledgment of what that writer means to him. Nikolai Gogol and the other Russian writers are also emblems of “foreignness,” of a life lived in exile. This is the life Ashoke has chosen for himself, as a PhD student and then professor in the US, far from his family in Calcutta. Ashoke chose to set out for himself, in a place of his choosing, after the train accident solidified his resolve to see the world.
The fourth member of the Ganguli family in Boston. Although the reader very rarely has access to Sonia’s thoughts, she is a constant, calming presence for the family. She goes to school and lives for a time in California, but after Ashoke’s death, Sonia returns to the Boston area, where she practices law and becomes engaged to a man named Ben. Sonia is a steadying presence for Ashima after Ashoke’s passing.
Gogol’s wife. Moushumi knew Gogol when he was a young boy, and the two are set up on a blind date, in New York, by their parents. Moushumi is a graduate student in French literature and adores Paris. She also adores, in part, the cosmopolitan life she lived there, with a banker named Graham, who left her and broke her heart. Moushumi marries Gogol but, after a time, becomes restless in the marriage, and enjoys more and more the company of her intellectual friends. Moushumi begins an affair with Dimitri, an old acquaintance, and later she and Gogol divorce. Moushumi’s point of view is included, though not frequently, in the novel. We learn, for example, of the dissolution of Moushumi’s first engagement, to the American banker, via access to her own thoughts, although the narrator retains the third person in these sections.
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Gogol’s second serious girlfriend. Maxine and Gogol meet in New York, at a party. Maxine represents, for Gogol, a life very different from his own. She lives with her parents downtown, in a beautiful townhouse, and shares their intellectual, cosmopolitan life. Maxine does not always understand Gogol’s family’s traditions, but she tries to, and seems to care genuinely for him. After Ashoke’s death, Gogol pulls away from Maxine, leaving her out of the mourning ceremonies. They soon separate.
Nikhil’s first serious girlfriend. Gogol and Ruth meet on the train, from New Haven to Boston, heading back to their respective homes for a Thanksgiving break in college. They both attend Yale. They fall in love and spend about a year together, but Ruth then goes away to Oxford to study for a semester. After this, their relationship becomes strained, and they part.
an aimless academic, and Moushumi’s illicit lover. Dimitri met Moushumi when she was in high school and he was applying to PhD programs. Moushumi finds Dimitri’s information by change, and they begin an affair. Moushumi knows that her tryst with Dimitri is wrong, and that he is something of a slob and a dilettante. But this does not keep her from the affair.
Maxine’s parents. Wealthy and intellectually inclined, Gerald and Lydia open their home to Nikhil, whom they seem to admire. They are comfortable in their world of New York society, and though they are kind to Gogol, he never quite feels a part of their circle.
Moushumi’s intellectual friends in Brooklyn. Donald and Astrid are, in Nikhil’s mind, the kind of people who find their own choices to be the only correct ones. Although Donald and Astrid seem open and liberal, they are in fact quite set in their ways. Nikhil is frustrated by what he views as their selfishness.
Moushumi’s ex-fiancé. A banker in Paris, Graham, an American, moves back to America with Moushumi, and they plan a life together. But Moushumi realizes that Graham has reservations about the traditions that come with marrying a Bengali-American, and they break up.
a businessman Ashoke meets on his ill-fated train ride. Ghost tells Ashoke that living abroad is important for any young man. Ghosh himself lived in England until his wife made him return to India. Ghosh tells Ashoke to visit him at his home during the train ride, but Ashoke never has the chance, as Ghosh is killed in the wreck.
an illustrator in Calcutta. Ashima’s father dies in Chapter 2, as the family is preparing to return to India to visit. His death is very difficult for Ashima, who feels distant from her family.
given the ceremonial job of naming Gogol. Ashima’s grandmother suffers a stroke early in the novel, in Calcutta, and though she mails a letter with Gogol’s “official” name in it, the letter never arrives. She dies soon after.
Bengali friends of Ashoke’s and Ashima’s in Cambridge. These three visit the Gangulis in the hospital in Cambridge, after Gogol is born.
Ashoke and Ashima’s neighbors in Cambridge. Alan and Judy are free-spirits and liberals, and though Ashoke and Ashima find them nice and compassionate to live near, they are also confused by the informality of Alan and Judy’s lives, and by the cavalier way in which Alan and Judy raise and keep track of their children.