Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of stories by Jhumpa Lahiri published in 2008. The book will definitely remind you of ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. Though this collection has no story set in India.

Well, as customary, Jhumpa Lahiri serves us with Bengali protagonists in America, their identity crisis, generational gap and relationship issues in the foreign land. The typecast Bengali women in saris, wearing vermilion in their hair, living with the sole objective of visiting Calcutta once every year, form the backbone of every story.

Unaccustomed Earth, the first story in the collection, also the title of the book is the highlight of the book.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

The story is about Ruma living in Seattle. She is married to Adam, an American and has a three-year-old son, Akash and is expecting their second child. Ruma is juggling with a lot of things at present, her mother passed away recently. This setback made her quit her job; focus on her son while trying to settle in the new house amidst her difficult pregnancy while her husband travelled a lot for professional purposes.

Ruma’s father had planned to visit her for a week. She realizes how different it would have been to have her mother visit; it would have been so much helpful. Now she had to plan for meals and some visits to keep her father engaged. She is also apprehensive of her father planning to move in to her place, now that he is alone.

But her father has changed in the time after his wife’s death. He has taken to traveling. And, keeps sending her postcards from the places he visits. During one of these trips, he met Mrs. Bagchi, an independent Bengali woman living in America since her husband’s death, decades back.

Ruma’s father no longer wanted to be part of a family, another family, his daughter’s family. Yet, he was in a turmoil thinking of his responsibility as a father. His one week stay is supposed to bring great emotional change in everyone’s lives.

Hell-Heaven is the story of Pranab Chakravorty and Aparna. When Pranab had first seen Aparna and Usha, her daughter in the University campus, he follows them, just to be acquainted with Bengali people. The narrator of the story is Usha, born in America and hence growing up with a sort of disconnect with her parents’ affiliations for Calcutta.

Soon, Pranab is part of Aparna’s household. He visits the house regularly, devouring the delicacies served by Aparna and befriending her husband. It is a strange relation that Pranab, Aparna and Usha enjoy for a long time. Until, Pranab meets Deborah at Radcliffe in the fall of 1974.

It is the loneliness in Aparna’s life that the story explores. “He wooed her as no other man had, with innocent affection of a brother-in-law.” There is infatuation and betrayal and a strange emotional connect between Aparna and Deborah.

Amit and Megan’s post marriage relationship, tilting on the bitter side, is the subject of ‘A Choice of Accommodation’. The two attend Pam’s marriage. Amit had a crush on Pam in college. The evening doesn’t go as smoothly as Amit had thought. He is drunk and wakes up late the next morning.

He remembered sitting on the toilet seat, just minutes ago, it seemed, inspecting Megan’s skirt. Then he remembered watching Pam Borden getting married and waiting in a long line for drink, and a conversation at dinner with a woman who was engaged.

Did the old flame light up once again?

Only Goodness explores the sibling relationship of Sudha and Rahul. Sudha introduces Rahul to drinks but in no time, her younger brother turns out to be an addict. Rahul is in complete ruins after dropping out and unable to chart a career. And, Sudha lives in the guilt at the thought how Rahul had refused to drink beer and coffee but she had insisted him.

Nobody’s Business is Sang or Sangeeta’s story of love and facing betrayal.

Part Two of the book is a novella, ‘Hema and Kaushik’ with three chapters that read like short stories with continuity in characters and narrative. The first story is narrated by Hema and the second by Kaushik while the third part is told by an omniscient narrator. The narrative technique is quite good; the first story is very heart-touching though the next two stories read not so great.

Hema and Kaushik’s mothers had become friends in a foreign land. Kaushik’s mother was the daughter of one of the prominent lawyers of Calcutta and spoke fluently in English. On the other hand, Hema’s mother was the daughter of a Head Clerk. In Calcutta, these two could have never crossed their paths owing to their different socio-economic background but in America, they were equals.

Kaushik was born in America but moved to Bombay and then came back. In the few weeks that Kaushik’s family is busy resettling in America, they live with Hema’s family. Hema is thirteen year old, while Kaushik is three years elder to her. The story takes you on an emotional journey with these two characters and their families and how their lives turned out in complete disconnect to the Bengali roots.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s work is testimony to the lives of first generation Bengali immigrants of 1960’s-70’s and their children in America. As Ruma’s dilemma in the story, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, ‘…she tripped over words, mangled tenses. And yet it was the language she had spoken exclusively in the first years of her life.” The generation after this phase has more in common with the American way of life than to the lifestyle of the past from their own country.

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet U

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