BOOK REVIEW: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
America is truly a sizzling, bubbling melting pot. Toss in a handful of folks from India, a dash from Africa, Europe, and a drizzle from East Asia; combine and stir and this beautiful combination is just a taste of America’s diversity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. And as Atlanta contributes to this cultural feast as the diversity hub of the South, the humid heat calls for a tasty end of summer read.
Following Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Interpreter of Maladies,” and novel, “The Namesake,” the eight short stories in Unaccustomed Earth take us on an intercultural voyage across America’s upper-class suburbs, Thailand’s luxurious beaches, Italy’s Vatican cities and beyond.
Lahiri invites us to explore the beauty of several generations of Bengali-American families—breaking away from specific Indian traditions yet clinging onto others—as they assimilate to the USA, then roaming abroad. But the attractive geography and sense of travel that flow throughout the stories do not determine where the home is. Rather, I believe it is the in-depth, passionate relationships that mark and truly touch these people that direct them where to go.
The book is split into two parts, the first including five self-contained narratives. The second is three intertwining leaps through time following the lives of Hema and Kaushik.
Though diverse in culture, the characters in every story are relatable, giving an interesting twist to ethnic differences. Switch a tunic for a cowboy hat and we all have our own unique customs that make up the land of the free.
In “Only Goodness,” Sudha, the older Bengali sister, judges herself about being a responsible sibling to her troubled, alcoholic brother, Rahul. As an Americanized young student, Rahul gives in to the typical college party scene but never gets out. As second generation Bengalis living in the Northeast U.S., Sudha “regarded her parents’ separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like a cancer, Rahul was impermeable to that aspect of their life.” Yet, the nostalgic Rahul later holds onto many of the traditions including what Sudha’s half-American son calls his grandparents: “Dadu and Dadi” and Rahul exclaims, “Just like we did.”
The only non-Bengali narrator is American grad student Paul in “Nobody’s Business.” Paul follows the love life of Sang, his Bengali-American roommate. Sang is a college drop-out, receiving constant phone calls from a Bengali singles circuit where suitors, who like her parents “desperately wanted her to be married.” However, she is caught up in a raspy affair with an Egyptian sleeze. Though tempted to follow the traditional ways of her parents, Sang is overcome by a troublesome love.
“A Choice of Accommodations” follows another interracial family, Amit and his wife Megan, as they attempt a romantic get-a-way from their two daughters. The two travel to Amit’s old prep school for a wedding of one of his former crushes. Though growing up in the New England area, Amit still cherishes his heritage; “His daughters looked nothing like him, nothing like his family, and in spite of the distance Amit felt from his parents, this fact bothered him, that his mother and father had passed down nothing, physically, to his children.”
The point-of-view changes in the second half of the book, no longer thoroughly in third person but also written almost like letters in first person between Hema and Kaushik. Once in a Lifetime” begins in the ‘70s, following Kaushik’s family from Cambridge to India and back again. The transition is awkward because “Bombay had made them more American than Cambridge had.” Kaushik’s family jumps into the lives of Hema who develops a teenage crush on Kaushik. The subsequent stories follow the entanglement of passion, lies, and chance as the two grow to be successful adults with degrees from higher educational institutes.
Lahiri transitions eloquently within her stories, giving history effortlessly throughout the narratives. The plots are never suspenseful but nonetheless we are indulged in the lives of these characters. Perhaps the only disappointment is the brevity of the stories—leaving me craving for just one more page. Indian culture is sprinkled throughout the pages: flowing silk saris, “hot mango and sweet lime pickles,” and curry and dal making Unaccustomed Earth a genuine, cultural treat.