Rather than read my review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (2008), I recommend getting on with your Diwali cleaning, but I know some of you will ignore this excellent advice. This one’s for you.
Several themes run through Unaccustomed Earth, most of them tales of ivy-league educated Bengali children of immigrant parents. The uneasy blend of East and West, the inter-generational expectations and pressures, the love for erudition and consequent upward mobility are all larger themes, but underlying these, are the complexities of people trying to understand each other and cope in the ‘unaccustomed Earth’ of their adopted homeland.
Hema is one of the Bengali kids who has lived up to her parents’ lofty aspirations, becoming an academic after completing a Ph.D. Other characters buckle under the weight of expectations that have become unbearably onerous. Amit has dropped out of Columbia med school, Sang out of Harvard, and Rahul has become an alcoholic. Ruma has ‘opted out,’ leaving her legal job to raise her kids, a decision that her father warns Ruma she might come to regret.
The inexorable deterioration of the flawed project of marriage is another theme. Children are time-consuming marriage deadeners in “A Choice of Accommodations.” The impossibility of being able to ultimately understand a spouse, and the resentment of being the sole care provider for offsprings feature prominently in this narrative. Loyalty to a dead parent suffuses another tale in the Hema-Kaushik trilogy. The protagonists in the short stories try to do the right thing, whether to support an alcoholic brother or to accept a younger step-mother, but ultimately the emotional tsunami that ensues from these perceived betrayals threatens to obliterate these relations
Lahiri is a writer of uncommon insight into the psyche of the Bengali diaspora. Her scope is very narrow; somewhat claustrophic, but I do think her writing is beautiful in its subtlety. Several of her characters’ observations are stunning, such as this depiction of the musings of an old man looking back at his lifetime:
“He didn’t want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill up with things over the years as the children grew, all the things he’d recently gotten rid of, all the books and papers and clothes and objects one felt compelled to possess, to save. Life grew and grew till a certain point. The point he had reached now.“
I realize at this point that Ruma’s Baba was much better than me at spring cleaning. Oh, and Diwali spring cleaning awaits. So, you can stop reading this, and go clean your house. Or you could read something else. Either way, you have learned how not to spring clean this Diwali.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. A domestic goddess, she is not.
Photo credit: a Creative Commons image by jvoves
Cover photo credit: a Creative Commons image by Soumyadeep Paul