Tales of love and loss amid the U.S. Bengali diasporaIn “Unaccustomed Earth,” Jhumpa Lahiri returns to her beautifully written world, one of ethnic Indians with white/foreign spouses and half-Indian babies, often set in Boston or its suburbs.
The title of this latest volume of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author comes from a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote that says human beings will flourish if planted in “unaccustomed earth.” Thus, Lahiri’s characters, all in one way or another related to the Indian diaspora, are living representations of people “striking their roots” into new soil.
In the first part of the book, five unrelated short stories, there are characters like the grown-up Amit, who as a teenager became a boarding school student after his parents packed up and moved to India, and the beautiful, modern Sang who still receives calls from unknown suitors wishing to marry a good Bengali girl.
As different as Amit and Sang and everyone else’s respective stories are, they all reflect a sense of displacement in varying degree. America, in most of the stories, becomes home to the characters, yet none of them seem exactly comfortable with where they live. These characters are transient, like Sang, who routinely jets off to London, or Ruma in the book’s first story, who finds herself a young mother transplanted from Brooklyn to Seattle.
There’s no mistaking the fact that Lahiri is a wordsmith. Her stories are addictive in their easy flow and the deep characterization of her subjects. But like in “Interpreter of Maladies,” Lahiri’s award-winning debut collection of stories, the narratives this time around leave the reader vaguely unsettled. With the exception of the author’s brilliant novel “The Namesake,” her stories are sad, consistently pulling sympathy out of readers. They usually end with some sort of broken connection, some lost opportunity, a form of separation, and they feel less meaningful than the similarly heartbreaking pieces in Interpreter.
The strength of Unaccustomed Earth comes in its second movement, “Hema and Kaushik,” three intertwined stories that provide an intimate look at two childhood acquaintances. Lahiri writes the first two from the atypical second-person point of view, originally Hema writing to Kaushik, then vice versa. The device has the intriguing ability to pique the reader’s interest about why the two would direct their thoughts to each other. Initially, Kaushik is just a teenage boy who comes with his parents, old friends of Hema’s, to stay in her home in Cambridge. Kaushik’s high-class family, which had moved to Bombay, is returning years later to resettle in the U.S.
The two remain distant for some time, despite living under the same roof, but the they begin to connect through a slowly unfolding process. Lahiri increasingly provides artful revelation of key narrative details that deepen their relationship.
The three stories of this section are so richly linked that it’s impossible to shake the feeling that perhaps the author should have turned them into a full-fledged novel. When Lahiri has ample space, she is able to craft an intricate, engrossing plot a la The Namesake, and Hema and Kaushik has all the possibility of such greatness - but it’s only three stories. The section wraps up with a resounding literary coda, but it left me wanting more.
Unaccustomed Earth isn’t of the same caliber as 2003’s The Namesake, but it does provide readers a chance to savor Lahiri’s wonderful words. They’re not her best, and the author’s fans may feel the book is a bit of a letdown. But perhaps they’ll think this because they’re all too aware of her ability to so fully capture the lives of a new, flourishing group of Americans.
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre: Short stories
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]