Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli The son of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, Gogol is born in Boston. Because a letter from Ashima’s grandmother containing Gogol’s good name is lost in the mail, Gogol is legally given the pet name “Gogol” after the Russian author whose book saved Ashoke’s life. Gogol’s parents try to change his name to “Nikhil” when Gogol begins kindergarten, but Gogol will only respond to his pet name. As he grows older, however, Gogol comes to hate his name, and he legally changes it to “Nikhil” just before going to college at Yale. There, he is careful to bury all evidence of his former name. Although his parents hope that he will study engineering like his father, he instead decides to become an architect. He has two serious relationships with non-Bengali women—the first in college, the second after finishing a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City. His second relationship, with Maxine Ratliff, becomes so serious that Gogol begins living with Maxine and her parents while barely seeing his own family. Everything changes when Ashoke dies: Gogol embraces his family roots and breaks up with Maxine. The following year, he begins dating a fellow Bengali American named Moushumi, and they marry a year later. Shortly after their first anniversary, Moushumi begins an affair with an old friend named Dmitri. Although Gogol notices that his marriage is strained, he doesn’t suspect the affair for months. When Moushumi finally confesses, the two divorce. A year after the divorce, Gogol visits his family’s home once more before it is sold, and he discovers a book given to him by his father long ago, a copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol—a sign that he is beginning to heal and be at peace with his identity.
Ashima (Bhaduri) Ganguli Born and raised in Calcutta, Ashima is a college student studying English when her parents arrange her marriage to Ashoke. Within weeks, Ashima has married Ashoke and moved to Boston, where she feels isolated and out of place. She gives birth to two children, Gogol and Sonia, and slowly grows accustomed to life in America as she cares for them. To continue feeling Bengali even in America, Ashima makes friends with other Bengali Americans and takes pride in throwing large parties for them. Once her children are older, Ashima begins working at a library; by the time Ashoke receives a nine-month research appointment in Ohio, Ashima feels comfortable enough in Boston that she chooses to stay there alone. Ashoke dies while he is in Ohio, and Sonia moves in with Ashima to keep her company. This arrangement lasts until Sonia decides to get married herself. Ashima throws one last Bengali Christmas party before selling her home so she can spend six months of each year living in Calcutta and six months living in America.
Ashoke Ganguli As a young man, Ashoke nearly dies in a train crash in India. He survives because he was reading a short story by Nikolai Gogol when the crash occurred, and rescuers saw him move the book in the wreckage. Because the last piece of advice he received before the crash was to go and see the world, Ashoke moves to America to study fiber optics. After an arranged marriage, his wife, Ashima, joins him, and they have two children, Gogol and Sonia, naming the first in honor of Ashoke’s past. Meanwhile, Ashoke finishes his Ph.D. and becomes a professor at a university in the suburbs of Boston. Although Ashoke wants his son to appreciate the heritage of the name “Gogol,” Gogol hates the name and shows no interest in learning more about why it was given to him. It isn’t until Gogol is in college, after he has legally changed his name to “Nikhil,” that Ashoke finally tells Gogol about the train accident. Despite Gogol’s rejection of his name, Ashoke continues hoping that Gogol will come to appreciate his family heritage (a wish that ultimately comes true as a result of Ashoke’s death). Ashoke accepts a nine-month research appointment in Ohio, and while he is there, he dies suddenly of a heart attack.
Moushumi Mazoomdar Moushumi is Gogol’s wife for a year and half. Born to Bengali parents, she lived in England until just before her thirteenth birthday, when her family moved to Massachusetts. As Bengalis in the same community, the Mazoomdars and Gangulis are friends, but Moushumi and Gogol ignore each other as children. In high school, Moushumi’s family moves to New Jersey. She goes to college at Brown University, studying chemistry and French; after graduation, she impulsively moves to Paris, where she becomes engaged to an American named Graham. At his insistence, she moves to New York City to begin a Ph.D. in French literature at NYU. Their engagement is called off, and Moushumi spends a year alone in New York City before her parents and Ashima set her up with Gogol. They begin dating and marry within a year. Moushumi chooses to keep her own last name instead of taking Gogol’s. Within another year, Moushumi feels stifled by the marriage and begins an affair with an old friend named Dmitri. When Gogol discovers the affair after a few months, they divorce. Moushumi moves back to Paris.
Maxine Ratliff Maxine is Gogol’s serious love interest during the months before his father’s death. An art historian by education, Maxine works as an assistant editor for an art book publisher and lives with her wealthy parents in a five-story house. Maxine pursues Gogol and the two begin dating. Soon Gogol is living with the Ratliffs in their mansion. Although Maxine is quick to welcome Gogol into her life, Gogol is reluctant to tell her about his Bengali heritage or introduce her to his parents; she knows Gogol only as “Nikhil.” Maxine meets Ashoke and Ashima only once before Ashoke dies. Gogol excludes Maxine from his mourning process because he recognizes that she knows nothing about his Bengali life; after all, he has intentionally kept her from it. They break up, and within a year Maxine is engaged to someone else.
Sonali ”Sonia” Ganguli Sonia is Gogol’s younger sister, born five years and nine months after Gogol. Because of their challenges with Gogol’s name, Ashoke and Ashima plan Sonia’s name well in advance of her birth, only giving her a good name and avoiding the pet name that caused them so much trouble with Gogol. When Ashoke dies, Sonia moves back in with Ashima and works in Boston as a paralegal while applying to law schools. She begins dating a man named Ben, a half Jewish, half Chinese magazine editor. At the end of the novel, Sonia and Ben are engaged to be married, planning a wedding in Calcutta.
Dr. Ashley the obstetrician who attends to Ashima during Gogol’s birth
Patty the nurse who attends to Ashima during Gogol’s birth
Ghosh A Bengali businessman whom Ashoke meets on a train in India just before the near-fatal train crash, Ghosh has just returned to India after two years in England, and he advises Ashoke to see as much of the world as he can. His advice inspires Ashoke to move to America for graduate school.
Maya and Dilip Nandi a Bengali couple who are among the Gangulis’ first close friends in America
Mr. Wilcox the compiler of hospital birth certificates who explains to the Gangulis that Gogol must be given a legal name
Alan and Judy Montgomery the Gangulis’ landlords in Boston, who live on the two floors above the Gangulis’ apartment along with their daughters, Amber and Clover
Rana Bhaduri Ashima’s younger brother, who lives in Calcutta; calls to tell Ashima when her father dies but can’t bring himself to give the news directly to her and tells Ashoke instead
Candace Lapidus the elementary school principal who decides that Gogol will be called “Gogol” instead of “Nikhil” at school
Mr. Lawson Gogol’s eleventh-grade English teacher, who spends a day teaching the class about Nikolai Gogol
Kim a college student who kisses Gogol at a party when he is a senior in high school; he tells her that his name is “Nikhil”
Jonathan and Brandon Gogol’s roommates during his freshman year at Yale
Ruth Gogol’s first girlfriend, a fellow student at Yale
Lydia and Gerald Ratliff Maxine’s parents, who welcome Gogol into their home but know very little about his past
Mr. Davenport the man at the Cleveland hospital who takes Gogol to identify Ashoke’s body
Bridget a married woman with whom Gogol has a brief affair
Rina Mazoomdar Moushumi’s mother, whom Gogol calls “Mashi” (Aunt)
Shubir Mazoomdar Moushumi’s father, whom Gogol calls “Mesho” (Uncle)
Samrat Mazoomdar Moushumi’s younger brother
Graham Moushumi’s ex-fiancé, whom she met in Paris and moved back to New York to be with before breaking off their engagement after she heard him mock Bengali culture
Astrid and Donald friends of Moushumi who live in New York and initially introduced Moushumi to Graham
Dmitri Desjardins the man with whom Moushumi has an affair while she is married to Gogol
Alice a secretary at NYU whose death causes Moushumi to discover Dmitri’s contact information
Ben Sonia’s fiancé, a magazine editor who is half Jewish and half Chinese