In Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri turns a laser-like eye on the experience of Indian expatriates. Back and forth they go, these characters, from India to America and back again (with occasional stopovers in London, the author’s birthplace). If they are not traveling in actuality, then their restless spirits are traveling instead, searching constantly for a way to accommodate the sundered parts of their existence.
In the title story, Ruma is twice exiled, having moved from New York to Seattle. Adam, her American husband, works for a hedge fund and travels frequently. Mother of little Akash and once again pregnant, Ruma is lonely and isolated in her new home. She has mixed feelings about an upcoming visit from her widowed father. “Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to.” But her father’s week long sojourn becomes a quiet revelation.
I can’t resist observing, with regard to “Unaccustomed Earth,” that the portrayal of Akash is one of the least sentimental depictions of a fictional child that I have ever come across. All right: to put it bluntly, he’s a nearly insufferable brat! At least, that’s how he struck me, at first.
In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit and his wife Megan, a physician, have traveled to the Berkshires to attend the wedding of Amit’s old school friend, Pam Borden. They have left their daughters with Megan’s parents so they can have a romantic getaway, but instead, the trip exposes fissures in their relationship.
Five stories comprise the first part of this collection. Each is like a small novel, filled with discreet pleasures that are inevitably overshadowed by anguish, guilt, and sorrow. Problems that commonly face all families are magnified and complicated by cultural ambivalence.
The second part of Unaccustomed Earth consists of three interlinked stories. Each concerns Hema and Kaushik, a woman and a man who are brought together by destiny more than once. The pain of an irreconcilable loss hovers over these tales. At one point, Kaushik flees his family, working his solitary way up the coast of Maine in the middle of winter:
“I had never traveled alone before and I discovered that I liked it. No one in the world knew where I was, no one had the ability to reach me. It was like being dead, my escape allowing me to taste that tremendous power my mother possessed forever.
I can’t say enough about Lahiri’s gorgeous, gorgeous writing. This book helped me to understand why I pick up, and then just as quickly put down, so much contemporary fiction. IMHO, it can’t hold a candle to this. With this book, Lahiri has raised the bar very, very high.
(I just have to throw this in at this point: one of the ways in which I judge writers of fiction is how well they handle writing about sex. There’s a scene in one of these stories that totally erased my doubts on that score – it was a “Wow!” And now, I’m going to monitor the library’s reserve list on this title…)
In 2000, Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpeter of Maladies. She followed this story collection with the novel, The Namesake. I recommend both highly, though for me, the former has a slight edge. Lahiri is a master of the short form narrative. My only question about her at this point is whether, in her future work, she will be moving outside the sphere of the Indian-American experience, which clearly constitutes her comfort zone. On the other hand, it won’t bother me if she doesn’t. She has made that world so real, so vivid – and so universal.
And now, I give you Jhumpa Lahiri:
My husband just walked by the computer and exclaimed, “What a jaw-dropper!” I figure if she gets worn out from all that writing, she can make movies instead! (In fact, she appears in the film version of The Namesake, which i have not yet seen.)