A first generation immigrant couple from India, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, struggles to adapt to their new life and overcome the cultural gap between themselves and their American-born children Gogol and Sonia. Before his marriage Ashoke meets someone on a train who tells him the importance of travel while Ashoke is reading a book by the author Nicholai Gogol. The train is in an accident and Ashoke suffers a terrible injury that he must recuperate from, the whole event and the writings of Gogol leaving a profound impression on him.
Ashoke takes the traveler's advice and moves to America, returning to Calcutta to find a wife. He marries the would-be singer Ashima and takes her back to New York City with him where she is lonely and has a difficult time adjusting. They soon have a son, named for the author Gogol, and later their daughter Sonia is born. The family moves to the suburbs and Gogol grows up resenting his parents and their customs. The family takes two trips to India during the children's lives. The second trip, with a stop at the Taj Mahal, leaves the same profound impression on Gogol that his father's accident left on him. Gogol decides to become an architect and after college changes his name to Nikhil.
Back home, Gogol falls in love with a wealthy American girl named Maxine and moves in with her. His parents have trouble accepting her and Gogol feels closer to Maxine's family than his own. Ashoke tells Gogol the story of his namesake and soon after dies of a heart attack, alone, on a business trip in Ohio. Trying to come to terms with his father's death, Gogol begins practicing more of his parents' customs in an attempt to become what he thinks they would have wanted him to be. He grows apart from Maxine and eventually breaks up with her.
Gogol reconnects with an old family friend a Bengali woman, Moushumi. They marry but Moushumi gets bored quickly and has an affair, ending their marriage. Ashima blames herself for pressuring her son to marry a Bengali. She makes a decision to move on after her husband's death, selling her home and returning to Calcutta. Gogol goes to his childhood home to help his mother pack and finds the book his father gave him as a graduation gift, the same he'd been reading on the train all those years ago. Gogol decides that he will start traveling.