Ben is introduced in the second half of the novel as Sonia’s boyfriend. He eventually becomes Sonia’s husband. Ben makes Sonia happy, a fact that both Gogol and Ashima acknowledge. Ben acts as a contrast to Moushumi, who has failed to make Gogol happy.
Dimitri Desjardins is the man with whom Moushumi has an affair. The two originally met when Moushumi was in high school and Dimitri was in college. At that time, the two had struck up a pseudo-romantic relationship that lasted off and on for several years, yet that relationship was never consummated. When Moushumi later comes across Dimitri’s resume´, she secretly contacts him and finds that he has become a balding, unemployed, middle-aged man with a sad apartment. Nonetheless, she begins an affair with him.
Ashima is Ashoke’s wife and the mother of Gogol and Sonia. She represents the traditional Indian values and lifestyle that Gogol grows to resent. Indeed, Ashima adored living in India with her sprawling family. She worked as an English tutor before entering into an arranged marriage with Ashoke. In their entire married life together, Ashima never addressed her husband directly as Ashoke, a reflection of Indian tradition. After her arrival in America, Ashima is extremely homesick; she is afraid to raise her child in America without the support of her family. However, over time, she grows accustomed to her life in America, even celebrating Christmas and Easter for her children. Still, Ashima cooks predominantly Indian food and visits India every few years. She also maintains her roots by practicing Hindu rituals and making predominantly Bengali friends. These Bengali friends become something of a surrogate extended family for Ashima. The raucous parties she throws for her Bengali friends punctuate the Ganguli family’s life over the course of three decades.
When Ashoke is working in Cleveland, Ashima lives alone for the first time in her life, a frightening experience for her. Once again, though, she shows her inner strength and adaptability by getting a part-time job, her first job since before she was married. Through this job, Ashima makes the first truly American friends she has ever had. When Ashoke suddenly dies, Ashima grows frail and listless, and it is a long while before she adjusts to her widowhood. By the story’s end, however, Ashima has grown independent enough to sell the family home and travel back and forth between India and America. The latter country, she knows, has become as much a part of her now as her birthplace.
Ashoke is Ashima’s husband and the father of Gogol and Sonia. Ashoke is a rather stoic and reserved individual who plays the traditional role of distant father and breadwinner. In most cases in the book, he is referred to as being at work. Ashoke’s deeper nature, however, is revealed through his love of Russian literature. His deeper nature is also revealed through his life-changing encounter with the businessman who urges him to travel and the subsequent train accident. It is further revealed through Ashoke’s subsequent rescue, a rescue that hinges on the crumpled pages of a story by Nikolai Gogol. This incident influences Ashoke’s life and the name he chooses for his son. Although Ashoke is a rather static (unchanging) character, he features in some of the most poignant moments in the book, such as his gift of Nikolai Gogol’s stories to his son and the late-discovered inscription in that book. In another poignant moment, Ashoke finally reveals the true meaning behind Gogol’s name. When Gogol asks his father if he is a reminder of the accident, Ashoke replies, ‘‘You remind me of everything that followed.’’
The adult Gogol also fondly recalls a time when he was around five and he and his father walked alone to the very tip of Cape Cod. Ashoke’s sudden death also acts as a catalyst for his son. Indeed, losing his father causes Gogol to finally appreciate his family and heritage.
Gogol is the novel’s protagonist. He struggles with his identity as both an Indian and an American. As a child, he does not wish to be called by his formal name of Nikhil, but by the time he reaches adolescence, he resents his odd name so much that he legally changes his name to Nikhil when he turns eighteen. He tells the judge he has ‘‘always hated’’ the name. Throughout his life, Gogol had avoided reading the work of Nikolai Gogol: ‘‘To read the story, he believed, would mean paying tribute to his namesake, accepting it somehow.’’ Now that Gogol has changed his name, however, he must struggle not only with the duality of his cultural identity but with the duality of his two names. It takes some time for Gogol to ‘‘feel like Nikhil.’’ His dual names— one at school, one at home—make him feel like ‘‘he’s cast himself in a play acting the part of twins.’’ It is also odd to him when his parents visit him at school and call him Nikhil, but it is equally odd when his mother forgets and calls him Gogol. He ‘‘feels helpless, annoyed . . . caught in the mess he’s made.’’
As Gogol matures, he distances himself more and more from his family; he resents their Indianness and provincial lifestyle. He dates Maxine Ratliff, a woman whose family he admires and whose lifestyle he aspires to, yet ‘‘he is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own,’’ though he is untroubled, even relieved, by this acknowledgment. His seemingly preposterous relief is evident when his parents are unable to reach him at the Ratliff family lake house. This realization makes Gogol feel ‘‘that here at Maxine’s side, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free.’’
However, after his father’s death, Gogol experiences a change of heart. He breaks up with Maxine, is closer to his family, and makes peace with his heritage. He ultimately marries an Indian American woman. Sadly, Gogol’s wife, Moushumi, has not made the same peace with her background that Gogol has, and her constant dissatisfaction destroys their marriage. When he learns of her affair it is ‘‘the first time in his life [when] another man’s name upset him more than his own.’’ Moreover, the peace that Gogol has made with himself is underscored at the end of the novel when he realizes that ‘‘the name he had so detested . . . was the first thing his father had ever given him.’’ He also thinks that there are only a few people left in his life that know him as Gogol, and ‘‘yet the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all.’’
See Gogol Ganguli
See Sonia Ganguli
Sonia is Gogol’s sister. She does not appear much in the story, but when she does, she often serves as a contrast to Gogol. As a baby, she is given only one name and is labeled the ‘‘true American.’’ Also unlike Gogol, she moves rather far away from her family. However, like Gogol, she returns after Ashoke’s death. Sonia marries Ben, an American who makes her very happy.
Moushumi becomes Gogol’s wife. Like Gogol, she is an Indian American. In fact, they attended the same large Bengali parties as children, but they never interacted and only vaguely remember one another. The two are chosen as romantic possibilities by their mothers; to their mutual surprise, they fall in love. Notably, both rejected backgrounds, and both nevertheless resented their American lovers for doing the same. Moushumi, unlike Gogol, has not truly made peace with her background. She still aspires to be like her American college friends. Her disappointment at her failure to achieve that ideal keeps her largely dissatisfied with her life. In fact, it is this dissatisfaction that drives her into the arms of an idealized old flame who has aged badly.
Maxine is one of Gogol’s girlfriends. She lives on a private floor in her parents’ mansion in Chelsea (in New York City), and dines with them regularly. Maxine and her family represent the fine American lifestyle to which Gogol aspires. He is comfortable in her world in a way his parents never could be. On the other hand, Maxine is comfortable around Gogol’s parents despite Gogol’s own embarrassment. Eventually, Maxine’s charm wears thin when Gogol becomes more attached to his family. Gogol prefers to retrieve his father’s body alone and to mourn with his mother and sister alone. When Maxine urges him to take a vacation and get away from his family’s grief, Gogol says that he does not wish to do so. Indeed, Gogol’s growing attachment to his family and his exclusion of Maxine lead to the end of their relationship.
Ruth is Gogol’s first love. He is introduced to her parents and accepted by them, but he does not introduce Ruth to his parents. This is because he knows his parents would rather he date a Bengali girl—or rather, they want him to focus on his studies and date Bengali girls after he graduates. Ruth dates Gogol for a couple of years, even maintaining a long-distance relationship with him while she is studying abroad in England. However, when she returns, she and Gogol agree that they have grown apart, and they break up shortly thereafter.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Jhumpa Lahiri, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.