Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri – Scintillating Glimpses of Emigrant Experience

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 4, 2012

We normally speak of “emigrant experience” as something whose nature is homogenous and uniform. This view is largely misleading. The drives, motives, challenges and experiences of the first generation emigrants differ a lot from that of the second and subsequent generations of emigrants. The umbilical cord of cultural mores, shared values and blood relationships, longing for one’s land of birth, tastes and preferences starts to wilt over a period of time for the first generation emigrant. Despite this and in a way, the first generation emigrant is Janus faced. While one face is looking towards the possibilities and opportunities in the migrant land, the other face is looking, not infrequently, towards the land of birth with a sense of nostalgia. The pull of the faces in two opposite directions is long drawn and troubling. On the other hand the second generation emigrant would already have crossed over to the other side culturally and in every which way one can think of. However, they inevitably encounter two different atmospheres and value systems – one within the home and another outside of it. The reconciliation of these two value systems is mildly puzzling and frustrating at times. The issues around the sense of identity, loss, longing, value systems and belongingness are never easily resolved. “Unaccustomed Earth” – Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of short stories deals with the tensions, disappointments and frustrations of these unresolved issues in a way that is at once mature, beautiful and moving     

In a broader sense Lahiri’s characters are all unwitting victims of geographic dislocation who carry with them the burden of heavy expectations around the need for high distinction, material progress and academic achievement. Yet their trophy master and doctoral degrees from Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Stanford and LSE and the concomitant material progress for which they have migrated in the first place offer them no protection from the inherent turmoils of emigrant life. It is these turmoils that form the foundation of Lahiri’s stories. Barring a drive and desire to achieve academic distinction nothing appears to remain constant between generations. The variance in cultural values between generations actually engenders a drifting apart leading to isolation, loneliness and unhappiness. Lahiri captures these feelings with a wonderful subtlety and mastery

In the title story “Unaccustomed Earth” – a widowed father struggles with the dilemmas of the propriety of staying with her lawyer daughter who is married to an American, striking a new relationship with a widow he meets on a trip to Europe and his own need for independence that he has come to treasure during his long stay in America. The hesitation to strike a companionship prevents him from posting a card to the widow which eventually gets posted by his daughter on his behalf despite the mild feeling of betrayal of her father towards her dead mother. In the story “Hell – Heaven” – what in my view is the best story in the collection and one of the finest I have read, one gets to see the silent attraction between the mother of the narrator of the story and a long time guest who despite his closeness moves on to get married to an American. The mother is so heart-broken that she almost commits suicide but is saved by a neighbour’s greeting which distracts her from the act. There is a splendid balance and control with which this story is told. In the story “Only Goodness” one gets to see the complete drift between a once promising but presently alcoholic brother, his successful and well-meaning sister and their parents. Lahiri’s depiction of the gradualness with which the family ties unravel setting in place an irreconcilable distance among them is brilliant. The story “Nobody’s Business” is a love affair which comes to naught between a Bengali girl and an Egyptian professor of history who is a womanizer. The girl’s roommate loves her but his love is not acknowledged and she moves on to London simply fading out of everyone’s life. The stories “Once in a Lifetime”, “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” are stories revolving around the families of Hema and Kaushik, their drifting, temporary intertwining and moving away for good with the death of Kaushik

All the stories in this collection are extremely well written with the power of authenticity produced by an eye for idiosyncratic detail which appears to have been drawn from Lahiri’s own experiences as the child of a first generation Bengali emigrant. While the specific details add to the power of the overall storytelling, the stories themselves could have been the stories of any Indian emigrant and not necessarily a Bengali emigrant. Lahiri has picked up the title of her book from a passage of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” which runs as follows:

“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”

Hawthorne’s intention of embracing unaccustomed earths for his children was with the fine motive of enabling their flourishing. While Lahiri’s characters do successfully strike their roots in the unaccustomed earth of America, do they flourish in the complete sense of the word is a big question. It is in this authentic portrayal of unintended outcomes resides the power and beauty of Lahiri’s stories.

A memorable reading experience

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