Life and death. While many texts explore this dichotomy, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri complicates these terms by juxtaposing them in relation to trauma. The Namesake explores a family of Indian immigrants in the United States and their adjustment to a new culture, parenthood, cultural conflicts, and trauma. In the first chapter of the novel, Ashoke describes his near death experience from years prior, in which he almost died after a train went off course. This leads to a conflict with his new role as a father.
Ashoke’s trauma conflicts with his desire to be the best parent possible, as his first moments with his newborn son are infiltrated with violent images. This uncomfortable contrast suggests that Ashoke has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his near death experience.
As Ashoke waits for his son’s birth, he connects the arrival of new life with his traumatic experience, saying:
“Although it is Ashima who carries the child, he, too, feels heavy, with the thought of life, of his life and the life about to come from it… Again he tastes the dust on his tongue, sees the twisted train, the giant overturned iron wheels.” (Lahiri 30)
Ashoke fully identifies with Ashima’s experience as a pregnant woman in these thoughts, and feels heavy in a metaphoric sense. While Ashima feels the actual weight of a child, Ashoke feels an emotional weight of the responsibility of parenthood. “Heaviness” has negative connotations, making the birth of his son sound like a burden.
The nouns of “dust,” “twisted train,” and “giant overturned wheels” create a feeling of entrapment. The alliteration of “twisted train” emphasizes the impending doom, as it creates a rushed, uneasy sound.This arrival of new life is complicated by his trauma, as he has experienced what it is like to be on the verge of death. The imagery of dust on one’s tongue evokes not being able to breathe. “Giant overturned wheels” creates a feeling of smallness and imminent doom.
These disturbing images of death are juxtaposed with the arrival of his newborn son. Although the birth of his son should fill Ashoke with joy, the unresolved trauma complicates this experience. The imagery of the final sensory experiences before his ‘death’ articulate how raw the experience is in Ashoke’s head. These intrusive thoughts suggest an impending conflict between Ashoke’s ideal role as a father and the trauma he needs to resolve before fully embracing those responsibilities. B5.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2003