In her debut Pulitzer-winning short story collection “Interpreter of Maladies” and her novel “The Namesake,” Jhumpa Lahiri conceived of the Indian-American family of the 1970s as the product of India and America. These earlier works portrayed intergenerational conflict between Americanized children and their first generation parents, who, while desirous of the educational opportunities life in America afforded, tended to cling to traditional values. But in “Unaccustomed Earth,” Lahiri complicates these relationships. Using a more expansive format for the eight new stories that comprise the collection, she turns her anthropological eye on our own era of increased complexity and globalization, and suggests that the double consciousness she identified in her earlier works might actually be treble.
This more complex worldview is evident from the first page of the title story. When we meet the protagonist Ruma, a young mother recently relocated to Seattle, she’s nervously anticipating the arrival of her father, who, having taken to travel after losing his wife, is filling his time between European tours by visiting his daughter. Ruma worries that her father’s visit is an indication that he wants to claim his traditional right to live with her as paterfamilias. When she sees him planting hydrangeas—“They were always your mother’s favorite...in this country, that is”—her fears are confirmed. However, confounding all tradition, he has no intention of staying. Unbeknownst to Ruma, her father has already found surrogate female companionship in a widowed fellow traveler, and when she discovers she actually cherishes his company and asks him to stay, he refuses.
Lahiri’s simple, direct prose belies the careful plotted nature of her narratives; all is revealed in a single telling detail and the relationships that seem so stable are upended. When Ruma discovers a postcard that her father had written to his lady friend that her son borrowed and attempted to plant in the earth, she gazes again at the hydrangea. She now correctly reads the hydrangea’s signification as her father’s attempt to ground his itinerant lifestyle choice, his affirmation of a self that doesn’t fit neatly the prototype of the Indian-American widower: “It did not prove to Ruma that her father had loved her mother, or even that he missed her. And yet he had put it there, honored her before turning to another woman.”
This theme of learning to live, love and lose transnationally—introduced in the work’s opening story—crystallizes in the closing trio of linked stories, which together from a sort of experimental novella. In alternating first-person narration, we’re told a tale of reverse immigration: “Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon,” Hema says of her schoolgirl crush, Kaushik. Hema and Kaushik’s story speaks to the mutability of possible futures and the tenuousness of forged connections. Thrown together briefly during the period of Kaushik’s childhood spent in Cambridge, when the two fortuitously meet in the middle of their lives in Rome among “an international crowd of journalists and photographers and academics, always three or four languages spoken at the table,” it’s evident that following the nomadic lifestyle choices of his parents, Kaushik has come to define himself as a man without a state, a globe-traversing war crimes photojournalist.
Though the Etruscan scholar Hema knows that in two weeks she is to return to India to wed in an arranged marriage, she feels, in the liminal space of Rome, “free of her past and free of her future in a place where so many different time stood cheek by jowl like guests at a crowded party.” Attempting to live only in the present, the two sense “a newborn connection that could not be left unattended” and embark on a bittersweet affair. Their identity as a couple is fragile, though, and soon broken apart, as Hema moves on to her arranged marriage in India and Kaushik to Thailand for a brief vacation en route to his new job in Hong Kong.
While the longer format of the stories in “Unaccustomed Earth” allows Lahiri to more thoroughly investigate her themes, occasionally her structure collapses underneath the weight of the accumulated detail. Fortunately, such lapses do not detract from the work’s overall achievement. It remains a beautifully crafted collection that is able to express the nearly inexpressible: our shared worries about identity, belonging, and life itself. Hema, gazing at a group of villagers on the day before she is to depart Italy, remarks wistfully, “I’ve never belonged to any place that way.” But, Kaushik reminds us, “In the end, that was life: a few plates, a favorite comb, a pair of slippers, a child’s string of beads.”
—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at email@example.com.