In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri provides an account of the Ganguli family, an Indian American family of educated, middle-class Bengali immigrants. Torn between two cultures and two worlds, the Ganguli's live in Suburban Massachusetts. Ashoke and Ashimi Ganguli have two children, Gogol and Sonia. The caste system in India impacts the lives of Ashoke and Ashimi, whose marriage is arranged, but in suburban Massachusetts such distinctions are undermined through the common ties of class and ethnicity. Nonetheless, for Gogol Ganguli, born in Massachusetts, reconciling his ethnic background with American culture presents a crisis of identity. Named after a Russian author, Gogol will become "Nikhil" in an attempt to forge an identity that is distinct from his ethnicity and distinctly his own. In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri argues that naming is often a limiting process by showing how Gogol's effort to rename himself is an effort to resist the confining limitations of naming.
The issue of naming is a pervasive theme throughout The Namesake. Naming in Indian culture involves several names that have distinct significance. Bengalis often provide two names to their children, one is a pet name and one is a good name. As Lahiri (25-6) writes, "Bengali nomenclature grants, to every single person, two names. In Bengali, the word for pet name is daknam, meaning, literally, the name by which one is called by friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private, unguarded moments." The other type of name is known as bhalonam or a "good name" (Lahiri 26). This duality in naming both reveals and conceals identity. We see that each name connotes different ideas and values to the named, while the formal name provides a definitive denotation or meaning. Pet names are considered for intimate use, without aspiring to any form of lofty pretensions or signifiers. However, bhalonam often reveal aspects of identity or character associated with the individual. For instance, Ashoke is the name of an emperor that means "he who transcends grief" (Lahiri 26).
Lahiri illustrates in The Namesake that the process of naming both reveals and conceals identity. When born, Gogol was to be named by Ashima's grandmother, but when her letter is late Ashoke and Ashimi cannot take their newborn son home from the hospital without bestowing a name on him. Reaching into a significant moment of his past, when he was rescued from a deadly train wreck, Ashoke comes up with a pet name he finds perfect for his son, "He remembers the page crumpled tightly in his fingers, the sudden shock of the lantern's glare in his eyes. But for the first time he thinks of that moment not with terror, but with gratitude. �Hello, Gogol,' he whispers" (Lahiri 28). Thus, naming his son, Ashoke lends to "Gogol" significant meaning from his past but also provides a Russian name to an American born Hindu. For Gogol's pet name is an allusion to his father's near death in a deadly train accident, something that carries with it specific associations. These conflicting identities will eventually impact "Gogol" in a number of ways.
Gogol's name is intended for use as a pet name or daknam, but because he is never called by the formal bhalonam intended for him, Nikhil, he suffers discomfort. Gogol's parents try to provide him with his bhalonam when he begins his education. However, Gogol does not answer to "Nikhil" in school and school officials continue to know him officially by his pet name. By the time he enters college, Gogol is beginning to feel distanced from his parents and his ethnic background. It is not until he enters college that he learns what readers know much earlier, the origins of his pet name. Ashoke explains to Gogol he chose his pet name because of his fondness for the stories of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. However, he also says he has a fondness for the name because "He spent most of his adult life outside his homeland Like me"...