Names are crucially important in Lahiri's The Namesake, as we can see from the novel's title. The name referred to in the title is Gogol, who is the protagonist of the novel. His parents are from India and live in Massachusetts where his father Ashoke works as a professor. He brings Ashima to the U.S. after their arranged marriage, and the two have Gogol not long after settling in Massachusetts. The novel opens with Ashima in the hospital giving birth to Gogol. The two parents do not want to name him right away because they are waiting for the name to be sent to them by elder relatives in India. The hospital will not let them take the baby home without a name, though, so Ashoke suggests Gogol. He names the baby after his favorite author, the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, whose book he was reading when Ashoke was involved in a serious train accident that most of his fellow travelers did not survive. After his long, painful recovery, Ashoke went on to travel, to marry Ashima, and then to start his family. He considers his life to have been born out of that moment he survived, which he credits to Gogol's book, specifically the story "The Overcoat."
As a child, Gogol becomes accustomed to his name, and when he enters school, he wants to keep it even though his parents want him to go by Nikhil, a more ordinary name. As he grows older, however, Gogol finds his name to be awkward and after he learns some of the background of the author Gogol, he is very embarrassed. He blames his parents for naming him with such a strange moniker. He legally changes his name to Nikhil when he is old enough and continues to use that name thereafter. His father eventually explains his name's meaning, and Gogol reacts by saying that he can't believe his father would name him something related to a major tragedy. Even though Ashoke assures him that Gogol and Ashima don't remind him of a near-death experience, but "of everything that came after," Gogol is offended. He becomes estranged from his family until his father's untimely death. Then, he begins to reclaim his heritage and appreciate his father's gift to him. Gogol's progress as a character is shown at the end of the book when he opens the book of Gogol stories to read, after having left it on the shelf since he was a teenager. He wants to come to terms with his background and begins to embrace his father's choice as an act of love.
Names are a central theme of The Namesake, and Gogol's name is one way Lahiri explores the character's coming-of-age and his struggle to reconcile his Indian and American identities. She also explores generational conflict and family relationships through this central issue of naming.