UNACCUSTOMED EARTH by Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf. April 2008. 331 pages. $29.95.6d4926b53b3221ef7c3605613413a45e-2

 

It is altogether possible that some 20 years ago, Jhumpa Lahiri, not quite 20 herself, might have read V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, an autobiography published as a novel. Lahiri’s new collection,Unaccustomed Earth, is fiction that reads like autobiography. Both writers use powerfully quiet, unadorned language to create vividly imagined illusions of their reality. Naipaul’s reality is expressed through characters who are on the enigmatic edge of arrival—a metaphor for postcolonialism. Lahiri’s characters reflect a different reality—they have successfully put their mark on the new world only to recognize that their arrival is short-lived.

The title of Naipaul’s book is borrowed from a Giorgio de Chirico painting of a wharf in which two faceless figures have seemingly disembarked from a schooner; so much of Naipaul’s writing explores the exterior landscape of people living on distant shores. After writing about the familial immigrant experience of his native Trinidad, the Nobel Prize winner worked primarily across a broad canvas of large, political themes.

In one of Lahiri’s short stories, a character admires van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Marriage,” a painting of a bedroom in which a husband and wife are formally and exquisitely rendered; Lahiri’s world is more confined than Naipaul’s, focusing on the interior landscape of personal relationships. The Pulitzer Prize winner is a miniaturist with an eye for the highly educated children of Indian-American immigrants, living the professional’s life of upscale consumerism and downtown angst. Like van Eyck’s art, Lahiri’s writing is architected with deftly placed furnishings, clothing, and accessories. Whereas Naipaul’s characters are those anonymous individuals to be found in front-page photographs of wars and uprisings, Lahiri’s characters reside in the New York Times’ “SundayStyles” section, prominently celebrating Ivy League couplings and a few years later bemoaning their “Modern Love” breakups.

Comparing and contrasting Naipaul and Lahiri is helpful because both share a brilliant understated style, but each plows different fields. After three books, it is becoming clear that Lahiri has found her own “unaccustomed earth.” With the prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri arrived in a spectacularly precocious way. The Namesake (and Mira Nair’s adaptation of the novel to film) dispelled doubts that the young author might be a one-time wonder. The happy news is that the freshman phenom not only hurdled her sophomore slump, but has also avoided a junior jinx. In Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s preternaturally mature voice has grown even more confident.

The title short story is the strongest of the five fine pieces that constitute the first half of the book. Sensitively portraying the independent lives of a daughter and father, “Unaccustomed Earth” is the only story in the collection that is not predominantly located in America’s Northeast.

While Seattle is a stock location serving to suggest the double displacement from India and the East Coast, Ruma and her father are authentic characters that the reader cares for. They have been twice removed from each other: first by the death of their mother/wife; and then by the geographic relocation of the daughter and her non-Indian husband and son, and the European travel by the father and his sudden love interest. Lahiri’s sharp and sympathetic observations are deeply considered, using memory, dialogue, and visual detail to capture the family dynamics: there are the nearly forgotten epic trips to India, the daughter pained by her father’s criticism, the father in his baseball cap resembling an American in old age. And there is the diasporic’s lament of India fading away, as immigrants and their children make life in a new part of the earth: Ruma “had remembered the many times her mother had predicted this very moment, lamenting the fact that her daughter preferred pants and skirts to the clothing she wore, that there would be no one to whom to pass on her things.”

All the short stories are masterful in their use of metaphor. In “Unaccustomed Earth,” there is an unkempt garden tended by Ruma’s visiting father; in this natural nursery, a gentle, evanescent intimacy develops with the light-skinned grandson, who becomes brown for a moment, “his golden legs covered with dirt.” Similarly, there are recurring images in “Hell-Heaven,” “A Choice of Accommodations,” “Only Goodness,” and “Nobody’s Business” which bring pleasure to the reader: a teacup is introduced as an innocuous replacement for an ashtray, only to be revisited later as a symbol for shattered romance; a safety pin becomes a frightening symbol of an attempted suicide; and, less successfully, a secret six-pack suggests rebellious, teenage alcoholic ennui.

In her cautionary tales about precarious love, Lahiri writes about a highly educated class that transcends ethnicity. Ruma of Colgate and Northeastern Law, Pranab of MIT, Amit of Columbia, Sudha of Penn, Rahul of Cornell, and Sang(eeta) of Harvard do resemble Barnard-educated Lahiri, with her multiple graduate school degrees. And to some extent their loves—Adam, Deb, Megan, Roger, Elena, and Farouk/Freddy—do resemble, at least in European name, Lahiri’s husband, Alberto. Perhaps because of the surface similarities of these characters, there is a tiring redundancy masked by Lahiri’s exceptional competence. By the time I reached the fourth story, I felt the weariness that non-Indians (and perhaps, Indians themselves) must feel when hearing for the umpteenth time about the academic and professional accomplishments of Indian-American children.

The second part of this collection is a novella that begins promisingly. The opening two chapters of “Hema and Kaushik” are finely crafted first-person narratives introducing the intersecting lives of the title characters.

Lahiri captures the bittersweet tone of Hema’s puppy love feelings for Kaushik. Kaushik is three years older than Hema when he and his parents return to America from India and stay for a short period with Hema’s family. Thirteen year-old Hema, who has had to relinquish her bedroom to make room for the visiting family friends, conveys her infatuation by way of an imagined conversation with Kaushik: “You had successfully wiped away all the other crushes I harbored at school, so that I thought only of being at home, and of where in the course of the afternoon and evening our paths might intersect, whether or not you would bother to glance at me at the dinner table.”

Kaushik, older and more experienced, is indifferent to Hema’s feelings. He is isolated by family tragedy and by the temperament of one who likes to travel alone. It is not until five years later, when he has almost graduated from college, that he thinks of Hema: “I had hated every day I spent under your parents’ roof, but now I thought back to that time with nostalgia. Though we didn’t belong there, it was the last place that had felt like a home.” Interlaced between Hema and Kaushik’s story are touching asides about parents and their children and about adult friendships that slowly grow apart. Towards the end of these two chapters, there is a powerful scene where Kaushik must come to terms with his maltreatment of stepsisters who have recently arrived from India. He recalls that “tears fell down their faces but words continued to pour out of me, words that should not have been uttered, should not have been heard.” In shame and anger, he flees from the house and travels across a New England landscape that is psychologically far removed from the cloistered life of immigrant families.

The final chapter of “Hema and Kaushik” ends somewhat unevenly. Unlike a triptych that is integrated, the third story seems to have been hastily cobbled on. An omniscient narrator fast-forwards 20 years to a quaint part of Italy; and as in a Bollywood movie after intermission, there is a convenient reunion of the childhood acquaintances. Unfortunately, the contract with the reader is broken and the lovely tenderness of the first two chapters is forgotten.

However uneven the contents, the title of this book will not be soon forgotten. Inspired by a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” (preface to The Scarlet Letter), Jhumpa Lahiri has reincarnated from her fellow New Englander a phrase which is startlingly original:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more 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.”

After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at raj_oza@hotmail.com

 

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