Gogol Ganguli is the son of Bengali immigrants Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968, and raised in the suburbs. His early childhood is marked by his unusual name, which honors the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. He tries to change his name to Nikhil in college, but with limited success. He becomes an architecture student at Yale and works for a firm in New York. He discovers himself through two failed relationships and a marriage to a Bengali woman, which ends in divorce. When Gogol's father dies, Gogol finally understands the depth of his father's love after reading the work of his namesake.
Ashoke Ganguli is a Bengali immigrant to the United States from Calcutta, in West Bengal, India. He is an atheist and a Marxist—a person who supports the political, economic, and social principles of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). He is fastidiously neat and works as an electrical engineering professor at a university in a Boston suburb. A lover of literature, Ashoke names his son after Nikolai Gogol, whose work he believes saved his life in a train wreck. He works hard to give his son the opportunity to succeed in the United States and to give his wife and children a comfortable life and a social network.
Ashima Ganguli, Gogol's mother, is a Bengali woman whose parents arrange for her to marry a young man with prospects for study in the United States. She accompanies him and feels lost and miserable until she gives birth to their son. Finally, she feels as if she has a purpose: to give her son everything he needs to succeed as the child of immigrants and, she hopes, to marry and have his own children.
Moushumi Mazoomdar meets Gogol when he turns 14, and their parents hope they will connect, but she does not see Gogol again until adulthood when she is in New York working on her doctorate in French literature. As adults, she and Gogol fall in love and marry, but Moushumi's desire for excitement in her life leads her to have an affair with an old flame, effectively ending her marriage.
Sonali "Sonia" Ganguli is the younger of the two Ganguli children, and she is very close with her family. She rebels as a teenager but keeps in touch with her brother even when they are apart. She helps her brother and mother when Ashoke dies. She is a lawyer and is engaged and then married to Ben, a longtime boyfriend.