With the publication of Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri, the subtle chronicler of immigrant Bengali Diaspora, has arrived at a coveted literary milestone. Dissolution of identity on account of migration is more a backdrop than a force holding the centre stage of her new anthology. Commoner yet grimmer human predicaments like death, deceit and desertion play defining roles in the lives of the characters of The Unaccustomed Earth. The resultant perspective is rich in tonal contrast, achieved by the emergence of the second generation of immigrants, the children of the first movers.
Most of her earlier stories from The Interpreter of Maladies showcase the psycho-social conflicts of the characters, their isolation, the crises of identity, and the struggle to belong. The first generation émigrés were like first settlers to an ‘unaccustomed earth’ braving the rough winds and weather alien to them, survival and sustenance being more the core of their problem. The epithet receives its due honour as it becomes the title of the succeeding volume.
The Unaccustomed Earth picks up the threads right off its predecessor. The first wave of settlers has arrived for long and some have switched to the new culture aggressively, even as some stick to the baggage from that far off land. Then there are some who are straddling two boats. Food, clothes and customs which may prove to be a veritable anathema to the Indian ethos pose major stumbling blocks to transition for some. Unable to withstand the fumes of change, they fiercely cling to the earlier ways of life, almost as if mourning. The quandary turns into a quagmire when they seek to perpetuate their conscience through their children. Regardless of their levels of assimilation, the alienation haunting them gets transmitted to their offspring as if genetically. However, the children have become naturalized citizens of the adopted land imbibing its customs and mores. Not only they feel proud of it, they find the culture of their parents’ incongruent. When their complete migration to the American culture as they move into adulthood is checked by their parents, it causes friction that shapes their future.
The title story of the collection tells us about Ruma, living in Seattle with her husband Adam and their toddler son Akash. She hasn’t joined her work after her mother’s sudden demise and is expecting her second child. Ruma’s father is a consummate immigrant, naturalized to the extent that he could be easily mistaken for an American in his old age with his gray hair and fair skin. He conforms to the intense individualism manifest in the American culture. He lives alone and makes his own meal, loves to hop around the world, living off a suitcase. He has developed interest in Mrs Bagchi, a widow who frequents packaged tours, and is an Americanised immigrant like him. Ruma’s father is an epitome of the free spirit who sends over picture post-cards to her periodically. But there is a certain disconnect between him and Ruma, which is a direct offshoot of the resettlement process. “Occasionally there was a sentence of the weather. But there was a never a sense of her father’s presence in those places.”
Ruma has not been able to get over her mother’s instincts who had refused to shun her Indian identity. Although she has chosen to marry an American, much to the mortification of her mother, there are unmistakeable streaks of the orient in her. She feels guilty for not taking due care of his father as an Indian daughter would and is constantly worried about him. She yearns to be with him if only to invoke the old times when her mother was still alive. However, when her father pays her a visit she fears that he may decide to stay with them, not sure how Adam will receive it in the long run and what impact it will have on the family she has so carefully nurtured.
Hell-Heaven is told from the perspective of a young girl whose mother hated the American way of life, enforced Bengali customs at home, forbade her from going on dates or even to Harvard square with a friend, eating turkeys and touching wine. Her mother had a secret crush on Pranab, an acquaintance who married an American girl Deborah. Her recurrent refrain to the daughter is, “Don’t you think you will get away with marrying an American, the way Pranab Kaku did.”
Choice of Accommodation is about secret personal rivalry between Amit and his American wife, Megan. Their emotions are tested when they travel to Langford to attend the marriage of Pam Borden, with whom Megan suspects Amit of having had an affair. Both Only Goodness and Nobody’s Business have Indian Immigrant girls as protagonists, painfully seeking to balance their lives with their English and Egyptian counterparts, respectively.
The last three stories are in the form of a triptych about Hema and Kaushik, childhood acquaintances and lovers later on. Lahiri has rendered poignant urgency to the tales using alternate perspectives, summing up the conflicts and the fates of the émigrés, the immigrant and the vagabond. Once in a Lifetime is a tale about Kaushik’s parents returning to America after staying in Bombay for seven years. As they stay together at Hema’s house, her mother and Mrs Chowdhary represent two opposing forces at different ends of the assimilation seesaw at conflict with each other. Hema’s mother dresses and eats in typically Indian manner, Kaushik’s mother dresses and eats like Americans, smokes cigarettes and loves to have her drinks. For a while the families stay together in a strained dichotomy. The next story, Year’s End, is told from Kaushik’s perspective. His mother is already dead as he receives a call from his father to inform him about his new mother and stepsisters. He tries to stay with the newly defined family, struggling to suppress his emotions poorly. Eventually, he breaks free, driving away aimlessly with his mother’s photographs towards the desolate North Atlantic shores. Going Ashore is mostly told from the author’s perspective. Both Hema and Kaushik have transcended beyond their Indian or American identities and are more of global citizens. Hema is now a professor of Latin. She is visiting Rome, taking advantage of her colleague’s unoccupied apartment. Kaushik has evolved into a war photographer and is reported to have visited violent Latin American destinations and Salvador. A map of Gaza strip is a permanent fixture on the wall of his apartment in Rome. The two run into each other like fish to water. However, Hema’s marriage with Navin has already been fixed and Navin is scheduled to move to Hong Kong on a new job. Eventually, they break away to their respective cosmoi.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a master of captivating narratives. Her language flows with purpose and grace without many swirls and ripples. Her style is minimalist and restrained. Sentences are precise and measured but suffused with nuances and a casual reader risks overlooking the undercurrent. “It was colder than Rome, a cold that emanated from stone, and instead of her leather jacket Hema now wore a peacoat of Kaushik’s, grateful for the weight over her shoulders, remembering that other coat of Kaushik’s she’d so hated wearing when she was a girl, back when they were nothing but already something to each other.”
She doesn’t bank upon a floral diction and yet the prose is not bereft of imagery and symbolism. Planting flowers in unyielding soils has a deeper meaning in the title story. Sarcophagi appear twice in Going Ashore and aptly hint at the futures in store for Hema and Kaushik.
The progress of stories in the collection marks an evolution in the concepts of home and belongingness. The further we move, the more we find home and identity becoming fluid concepts for the cast. “It didn’t matter where she was in the world, or whether or not she was dying; she had always given everything to make her homes beautiful, always drawn strength from her things, her walls. But Kaushik never fully trusted the places he’d lived, never turned to them for refuge. From childhood, he realized now, he was always happiest to be outside, away from the private detritus of life.”
Strangely, Lahiri’s stories betray barest of traces of people of Indian descent facing adverse societal attitudes in the adopted countries. The range of her focus is often elitist; her characters gravitate towards whiter partners as if to reinforce their status. One wonders if there aren’t groups of less fortunate immigrants with entirely different experiences. That said, the dilemmas and agonies haunting the characters of The Unaccustomed Earth are global rather than limited in appeal. The conflicts and alienation of the chosen diaspora are representative of human suffering regardless of the geography.
The Unaccustomed Earth
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Random House India