Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri (photo by Amazon.com)

Jhumpa Lahiri was born 1967 in London, and raised in Rhode Island. She holds a B.A. in English literature, and an M.A. in English, M.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was translated into twenty-nine languages and became a bestseller both in the United States and abroad. In addition to the Pulitzer, it received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, and some other prestigious award and nomination. Lahiri was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. Her second book, a novel, The Namesake, was also one of the most anticipated books when it arrived, and here is Unaccustomed Earth, her third book, again a collection of short stories with settings in United States, India, London, Italy and Thailand, has gained much appreciation as well from wide readers.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bloomsbury, 2009 (2008), Short Stories Collection, English, 333 pages.

Human nature will not flourish, anymore than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth. – Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House” (the opening page).

The stories are (still) about indian families – son, daughter, parents, uncles and aunties, friends of families –  living in America, with seem-to-be-unbroken ties to their extended families back in India, about how they adjust to the new norms in this new earth of living, while also ‘having to’ preserve the roots to their original land. There is an unavoidable gap between the first generation of the parents and that of the children as the second one. Children see traditions as ‘weird’, and parents regard the new values as ‘humiliating’. But yet, both seem to see compromise as the most feasible solution, albeit all those personal sacrifices that may follow. Both generation experience a shift in identity; they feel being americans as well as indians, but yet, not americans nor indians. Loneliness, a sense of being a stranger not belonging to any place, and loss or grief, are some of the core themes here.

Simple themes within families are elaborated beautifully. No need shocking drama or such, the themes just creep into the stories silently. The writing tone is ‘very much introvert’. It can start with a usual morning in a house, or a daughter’s recollection on her father, until you unveil the underlying feelings or thoughts of the family members. Here is some bit of a father’s reflection on what he thought was being ‘wrong’, in his family:

But that was not what caused him to feel guilty. It was the fact that they’d all been so full of assumptions: the assumption that the procedure would go smoothly, the assumption that she would spend one night in the hospital and then return home, the assumption that friends would be coming to the house two weeks later for dinner, that she would visit France a few weeks after that. The assumption that his wife’s surgery as to be a minor trial in her life and not the end of it. He remembered Ruma sobbing in his arms as if she were suddenly very young again and had fallen off a bicycle or been stung by a bee. As in those other instances he had been strong for her, nor shedding a tear. (page 31)

The characters are vivid and strong, yet soft in various aspects, and very human. I could easily sympathize with all of them, the ‘good’ ones or ‘bad’ ones. All of them are struggling and successful indians having immigrated to America, or England, with soaring accomplishment in their education. Even though the stories are still about indian families living abroad in America, like those in her previous books, I did not feel it as repetitive, as each story is so different one another, also those in this book. Lahiri is so capable in capturing subtle themes in family or relationship, and you need not be an indian or an american to identify with the inner conflicts here.

I read all her books, and always I was touched by the stories and her beautiful subtle prose. I found the stories always captivating at the end, no matter how ‘soft’ the theme is. As per the language, Lahiri seems to prefer a simple language, but at the same time I found it beautiful. It just captures you from the very first sentence. In one of her interviews, Lahiri did say that she wanted to always simplify her sentences, and it is actually what she did most when revising her works.

A beautiful and rich reading.


Balikpapan, 12 November 2010

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