‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is the third book by Jhumpa Lahiri published in 2008. I remember when ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ had come out in the year 1999; Jhumpa Lahiri’s name had created a huge buzz in the modern literary circles. Jhumpa Lahiri further cemented the place for her with ‘Namesake’ in 2003.
Her third book came after 5 years, there was much anticipation and I am not sure if this one met the benchmark. Firstly, the format is a bit vague. There are five short stories and the last three short stories are interconnected, read more like a novella. Secondly, Lahiri moves away from the stories of first-generation Indian migrants in America to the second-generation living in America as victims of forced dislocation in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’.
My copy of the cover is the picture of a woman with her back to the readers and I find it quite intriguing. This image is of an Indian beauty queen sitting in an Indian restaurant in New Jersey taken in the year 2002. The picture was a part of the exhibition ‘The Americans’ by Gauri Gill, an independent photographer who presented the visual landscape of South Asian American migration in the post-1965 times. Therefore, this design connects the central theme of ‘migration’ and ‘Indian identity’ by collaborating an author and a photographer on the cover.
In the first story by the title ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, Ruma, a young mother of a three-year-old boy and expecting her second child has recently moved to Seattle. She is visited by her father, about which is apprehensive especially after her mother’s death. Though, the reality turns out quite contrary. Her father keeps himself to her garden, where she later unearths her father’s love affair that he was keeping away from her.
‘Hell-Heaven’ in a sort of story that reminds you of ‘Mrs.Sen’ from ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. It is narrated by Usha, the young daughter of Shymlal and Aparna. As Pranab Chakravorty enters their life, a strange emotional turmoil grips Aparna.
In ‘A Choice of Accommodations’, an Indian-American couple’s married life is tested as they attend a weekend party. In ‘Only Goodness’, a woman eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish, and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family.
Then, there is ‘Nobody’s Business’. This is Sangeeta or Sang’s story who is in a relationship with Farouk, an Egyptian man. Their relationship gets muddled, there is a hint of Farouk’s infidelity but Sang decides to live in denial.
This second part with the title ‘Hema and Kaushik’ comprises three short stories and overshadows the preceding stories in the book. The first story ‘Once in a lifetime’ is narrated by Hema, telling the story of how her family and Kaushik’s family had met. Their Bengali mothers had become friends in America where there differing economic statuses didn’t matter.
In ‘Year’s End’, Kaushik narrates his story of living in America, moving to Bombay, and then again coming back. In the few weeks that Kaushik’s family was busy resettling in America, they live with Hema’s family. In the final story, ‘Going Ashore’ Hema and Kaushik meet after twenty years. Life has taken a different course for the two but here they intersect and yet, leave them in confusion.
The book covers have shown the fascination to converge on the reference to the 2004 Tsunami that lends an emotional highpoint in Hema and Kaushik’s story.
‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is rich with Jhumpa Lahiri’s natural gift for writing prose, emotional narratives, and subtle renderings. Though if I have to recommend, I would rather say ‘The Lowland’ which I feel has been Jhumpa Lahiri’s best book so far.