I’ve heard so much about Jhumpa Lahiri in recent years, from praise for her debut (Pulitzer Prize-winning) collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, to the film adaptation of her novel The Namesake, that it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. The publication of a new collection of stories in a fine edition and praise by trusted commenters on this blog, was the kick in the backside I needed.
The epigraph, and title, of Unaccustomed Earth comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom-House’:
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.
It’s perfect for the book: here are eight stories of people who struck their roots into unaccustomed earth, either themselves or by their parents: typically Indian roots in America, sometimes via England (as in the case of Lahiri’s own parents). Contrary to Hawthorne’s prescription, not all of them are thriving.
All this is beautifully illustrated in the title story, the longest in the book at almost 60 pages. Here Ruma, in her late 30s, struggles to balance independence and family loyalty when her widowed father comes to visit.
“You’re always welcome here, Baba,” she’d told her father on the phone. “You know you don’t have to ask.” Her mother would not have asked. “We’re coming to see you in July,” she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.
What Lahiri does so well in the story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is present people who are perfectly individual yet utterly recognisable, particular to their culture but universal in their character. She really does have families down pat. She knows how a father is never quite the same as a mother: “[Ruma] had never been able to confront her father freely, the way she used to fight with her mother. Somehow, she feared that any difference of opinion would chip away at the already frail bond that existed between them.” She understands the greatest unrequited love of all, that of parents for their children, when she expertly slips into the mind of Ruma’s father (who has a few surprises in store for his daughter too in the course of the story), who remembers how “tormented” he had been by his growing children’s appetite for independence:
That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things. He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion that he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.
(In a later story, another parent is “plagued by his daughters’ vulnerability,” without seeing his own.) Loss and frustration takes a more familiar form in ‘Hell-Heaven’, a contender with ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ for strongest in the book. Here we have not only a tale of unspoken love which keeps its powder dry right up to the last page – and then catches fire – but the recurring question of belonging. Just as Ruma in the opening story cannot understand her father’s handwritten postcards (“her own Bengali was slipping from her”), here the daughter-narrator protests when her parents make her wear a shalwar kameez, making her American friends “assume … that I had more in common with other Bengalis than with them,” whereas she feels herself to be not only her mother’s daughter “but a child of America as well.”
If I had a criticism of these early stories, all of which are superb, it’s that I would have liked some balance of emphasis on the older generation, those who feel less attached to America and more of a pull with their homeland. We get this only a little, with Ruma’s father in the title story.
The later stories delighted me less. ‘Nobody’s Business’ seems too glib and clever with its tale of housemates, dodgy boyfriends and mysterious callers (though it’s a measure of how well Lahiri executes her effects elsewhere that this story would have pride of place in many other authors’ collections). The three linked stories which close the book, under the umbrella title ‘Hema and Kaushik,’ somehow failed to engage me at all, putting me off partly I suspect with the first story’s curious use of first/second person narrative. This may have been a simple case of story fatigue on my part – 330 pages of stories is somehow more demanding than a novel the same length – and I did wonder if some of the stories should have been shorter. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth average 40 to 50 pages each, which for me makes it a struggle to read each in a sitting (surely the means for getting the best out of any story). I see that Lahiri’s previous collection managed to fit nine stories into 200 pages, so the stories were half the length of these. One commenter did recommend reading the closing trilogy first, and that might have helped. Meanwhile, I’ll be grateful for the considerable – the unaccustomed – pleasure I had from it, and try that reverse order next time around.