Ashoke Ganguli, an Indian student, is riding on a train outside of Calcutta. The older man sitting across from him keeps telling him that he should see more of the world than India, but Ashoke says that he’d rather just read about other places, because reading takes you around the world for free. Then he returns to his book, which is a Russian novel by Nikolai Gogol. Suddenly, the train gets in a terrible wreck. Almost everyone dies; the rescuers only spot Ashoke because he is waving around his copy of the book.
In the next scene, Ashoke and his parents are visiting another family. The purpose of the visit is to decide whether Ashoke would make a good match for Amisha, the family’s daughter. Amisha spies on him from another room, and decides she likes him because she likes his American-made shoes. When she goes in to meet him, his parents warn her that Ashoke lives in America now, getting his PhD (he took the old man’s advice about traveling), and that Amisha might get lonely. Amisha says she won’t get lonely if Ashoke is there, and the two of them decide to get married.
Ashoke and Amisha move to Queens, New York. Their first night there, Amisha tries to do Ashoke’s laundry, but she doesn’t understand American washing machines and she shrinks all of his sweaters. He gets angry, but then immediately apologizes, and they start to build a loving relationship. Amisha gets pregnant and has a baby boy. They don’t have a name for him yet, because it’s tradition for Amisha’s grandmother to name the children and she hasn’t decided yet. They decide to call the baby Gogol, after Ashoke’s favorite author, just until the grandma comes up with something more formal.
The next scenes go quickly through Gogol’s childhood. Amisha and Ashoke have a second child, Sonia. Gogol gets a proper name, Nikil, but insists on being called Gogol anyway. The family moves from Queens to suburban New Jersey. Amisha’s father dies, and they all travel to India for the funeral.
Flash forward to Gogol as a teenager. He’s graduated from high school and is heading off to go to Yale at the end of the summer. Ashoke gives Gogol a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s stories, but Gogol doesn’t appreciate it, just tossing it in a box. Later, Gogol is forced to spend time with Moushumi, the annoying ugly duckling daughter of his parents friends. The family heads off to spend the summer in India before Gogol goes to school. They visit the Taj Mahal, and Gogol decides he wants to major in architecture.
Flash forward again. Gogol is now graduated, and living with his American girlfriend, Maxine, in Manhattan. Her family likes Gogol, but don’t really appreciate his culture. They call him “Nick” (shortening “Nikil,” which he’s decided to go by as an adult), etc. One day, Amisha calls Gogol and asks him to come home for the weekend. Ashoke is leaving to go spend a semester teaching in Ohio, and Amisha wants Gogol to say goodbye. He says he can’t because he is going on vacation with Maxine’s family, but when he hangs up the phone he feels guilty enough to ask Maxine if they can stop and have dinner with his parents before going to her family’s summer house.
The dinner is a disaster. Maxine does all sorts of offensive things without even realizing it: She calls Gogol’s parents by their first names, alludes to the fact that she and Gogol are sleeping together, etc. Maxine says that his parents are so different, and that Gogol fits in more with her family than his own.
A few months later, Gogol gets a call from his sister. His father had a heart attack while teaching in Ohio, and died. Gogol has to go to Cincinatti to pick up his father’s things. He’s completely devastated, and Maxine doesn’t understand. She comes to the funeral wearing all black, but the Indian color of mourning is white. She offers to go to India with Gogol to scatter Ashoke’s ashes, but Gogol says it’s a family thing. It’s pretty obvious that he feels guilty about all of the times he’s ignored his family over the years. Maxine gets upset and they break up.
A few months later (there are lots of time jumps in this movie), Amisha asks Gogol if he will have coffee with Moushumi, the annoying girl from his high school years, because she just moved to Manhattan. They go out, and she’s completely changed: she’s really attractive and cultured, getting her PhD in French Literature. It’s hard to tell whether Gogol is drawn to her because he likes her, or because she’s the kind of girl he thinks his parents would appreciate.
Gogol and Moushumi get married, and all is well for a short period of time, until they are on a train going to visit Ashima for Christmas and we learn that Moushumi is having an affair. She says it wasn’t enough that they are both Indian; they’re just not meant to be together.
Gogol goes home alone, and tells him mother that Moushumi left him. He goes down to his old bedroom to be alone, and comes across the book that his father gave him in high school. He starts to read it.
The last scene is of Gogol riding on a train, like his father in the beginning, going off to see the world and find his own way.
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