The Diwali holidays at office saw me sinking into a juicy book – Unaccustomed Earth – by Jhumpa Lahiri, which I finally finished yesterday. This is my second Lahiri book after Interpreter of Maladies.
‘Unaccustomed Earth’ opens with a quote 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 is this quote that forms the basis of all the stories. It is the thread that unifies all the characters of the book – unaccustomed earth – foreign soil, and their experiences on it. As I went on with the flow of the book and peeped into the minds of the characters, I could feel how strange and difficult it must have been for them in the initial stages of their leaving their home country and beginning life anew in a foreign place.
The first story in the book has the same name as the book i.e. Unaccustomed Earth, which tells us about a father and daughter, the daughter Ruma eventually turning to the same kind of lifestyle her late mother had had, a lifestyle she used to despise when she was young. Lahiri has wonderfully brought out the way the father-daughter relationship changes over time, and how the father ultimately refuses Ruma’s invitation to move in with her after her mother’s death, attributed largely to his turning to another widowed Bengali woman for companionship.
The second story ‘Hell-Heaven’ is about a Bengali couple settled outside India, the wife developing feelings for another younger man from their own country, ultimately to be disappointed. ‘A Choice of Accomodations’, the third story, deals with the inter-cultural marriage of Amit and Megan, which is slowly ‘disappearing’, in Amit’s own words.
The next story ‘Only Goodness’ is the story of Sudha, the daughter of a Bengali family settled in USA, who introduces her brother Rahul to alchohol and unwittingly becomes the cause behind his unshakeable drinking problem. ‘Nobody’s Business’, the last short story, speaks about Sangeeta, a beautiful Bengali girl, who prefers to call herself ‘Sang’, and who shares a house with Paul and Heather. It is about Sangeeta’s exasperation on being constantly hunted down by young Bengali men for matrimonial purposes and Paul’s gradually developing an attraction for her, only to find Sang in a draining relationship with her boyfriend Farouk.
The book ends with a novella called ‘Hema and Kaushik’, consisting of three separate but inter-connected stories, narrated alternately from the viewpoints of Hema and Kaushik, again two Bengalis caught up in a foriegn lifestyle. It begins with their acquaintance as very young children, when Hema develops an unspoken affection for Kaushik. The story goes on to build up over the years when Hema and Kaushik grow up and develop their careers, circumstances separating them from each other. Finally, they do meet through a common friend when they are both mature, responsible adults. There is instant recognition and attraction between them, flaring up into a full-blown affair, though Hema is engaged to be soon married to Navin. The novella ends on a rather tragic note, with Hema choosing her arranged marriage over her passionate affair with Kaushik.
I liked the way Lahiri has dealt with the emotions of the characters. Like I felt in Interpreter…, I could feel each of these emotions and it was almost as if I was with them, watching them lead their lives. Hema and Kaushik’s story was my favourite out of all the beautifully woven ones.
Lahiri’s Interpreter of maladies and Unaccustomed Earth are similar in several aspects. Both consist of short stories, narrated in the hauntingly melancholic style that Lahiri has, and both deal with characters who are largely Bengali and settled out of India. The choice of the story subject is also more or less similar. Like I found in Interpreter…, I found the narration, the characterisation and the attention to detail by Lahiri beautiful. She definitely has a way with narration.
I find Lahiri’s works masterfully crafted, but melancholic, leaving a morose feeling behind, sometimes bringing to the fore the dark shades of human nature and life. I wish she would write about other things, more diverse, rather than the theme that is recurring in her books – the experiences of Bengali families in foreign lands.
My verdict for Unaccustomed Earth is good. I enjoyed the book and would like to soon catch up with Lahiri’s most famous novel – The Namesake, something that I have not done though I have had the book with me since ages.