The novel begins in 1968 with the birth of a son
to Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, a Bengali couple that settled in Boston. While Ashima is giving birth the reader is taken back
in time to 1961 when Ashoke almost lost his life in a train derailment. Only
the book he was clutching – a collection of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories –
revealed him to the rescuers. With this story in mind, the Gangulis confront
the problem of what to do about their newborn son’s name. He needs both a
‘bhalonam’ and a ‘daknam’ to keep with Bengali tradition, but the letter
carrying the good name never arrives from Ashima’s grandmother in Calcutta, so
he starts his life with only his familiar name, Gogol.
At first Ashima is very lonely but as the baby grows, so, too, does their
circle of Bengali acquaintances. When Gogol is six months old they have his
‘annaprasan’ ceremony. Gogol is little over a year old when they get the news
of the death of Ashima’s father and they leave for India. By 1971 the Gangulis move to the Boston suburbs. When Gogol turns five Ashima is pregnant
again. Gogol is admitted to the town’s public school under the name of Nikhil.
But the principal, Mrs. Lapidus, explains that due to their son’s preference he
will be known as Gogol in school.
When Gogol’s sister is born the Gangulis are ready with the name, Sonali/Sonia.
For Gogol and Sonia Durga pujo does not stand in comparison with Christmas in America. One day on a field trip to a graveyard Gogol
realizes that how uncommon his name is and how names die over time. On Gogol’s
fourteenth birthday Ashoke presents Gogol with The Short Stories of Nikolai
Gogol. He tells Gogol that his favourite author spent most of his adult life
outside his homeland like him but he cannot bring himself to tell Gogol about
his train accident. The next year they go for eight months to India. When they return their American friends are happy to
see them back.
When Gogol is in high school, Mr. Lawson, their teacher, tells them about the
life of Nikolai Gogol. Once in a party he meets a girl called Kim. Instead of
the unromantic Gogol he introduces himself as Nikhil. Before his freshman year
at Yale changes his name to Nikhil officially. During his sophomore year Gogol
gets involved with a girl called Ruth. After Ruth’s return from Oxford they find it difficult to adjust with each other and
the relationship ends. One day when Gogol is late coming from Yale because of a
train accident, his father tells him the truth of him being named so. It has a
profound effect on Gogol.
Gogol graduates in architecture and starts living in New York. There, Gogol gets into a relationship with Maxine
Ratliff. On his way with her to the Ratliff’s lake house in New Hampshire he drops by at Pemberton Road to meet his parents because his father will be
leaving for Ohio on a nine months’ research grant.
Ashima is alone at
home surrounded by the security system installed by Ashoke. Ashoke comes home
every three weekends. One day Ashima receives a call from Ashoke that he is in
the hospital for an ordinary checkup. Later the hospital informs her that her
husband has expired. Sonia flies back from San Francisco to be with Ashima. Gogol goes alone to Cleveland to cremate his father. Ashima has no desire to escape
to Calcutta now and be far from the place where her husband made
his life, the country in which he died. Gogol remembers how once his father
told him, "Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went
together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."
After a year the family plans to travel to Calcutta to scatter Ashoke’s ashes in the Ganges.
Maxine cannot understand being excluded from their plans and says that she
feels jealous of Gogol’s mother and sister. The relationship breaks. As time
passes by, one day Ashima asks Gogol to meet someone called Moushumi Mazoomdar
whom he had known as a girl. They meet and get involved romantically. Earlier,
Moushumi after years of being convinced that she would never have a lover had
moved to Paris with no specific plans and began to fall effortlessly
into affairs. It is there that she fell in love with Graham who happily
accompanied her to visit her relatives in Calcutta. On returning when she realizes that he was just
pretending to enjoy himself in Calcutta, they argue and their wedding is canceled. It is in
this condition that she meets Gogol and within a year they marry.
After the first anniversary of their marriage Moushumi starts having an affair
with Dimitri, which eventually leads to the breakup of her marriage. Ashima
prepares to leave for India intending to live six months of her life in India and six months in the states. Sonia is going to marry
her boyfriend, Ben. On Christmas Eve Ashima throws a party for her friends in America. As the party begins Gogol goes upstairs to get his
father’s Nikon camera but instead he retrieves the unread book that his father
had presented him on his fourteenth birthday. He turns to the first story, The
Overcoat, and as the party goes on downstairs, he starts to read.