By Vidya Pradhan
Reading a short story is like watching a compartment in a passing train or looking a set of pictures in an album; you get just a snapshot of a larger narrative and if done well, you get a real sense of time and place and character. In Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories and novellas, Jhumpa Lahiri returns to the metier that won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000.
While Indians may lay claim to this celebrity, Ms. Lahiri considers herself an American, having been raised here in the US since the age of 3. The Indian American characters in her story are as assimilated; there is only a mild cultural hangover that comes with having grown up in a semi-Indian home environment. Most of her characters are married to Caucasians( I was tempted to re-title the book "Mixed Marriages"!) and are comfortable in their American skins.
In Unaccustomed Earth, the title story, Ruma, the Indian American heroine, awaits the visit of her father with some trepidation; unlike typical Indian parents, hers has made an active and somewhat secretive life after the death of her mother. The visit and the mild upheaval this causes in Ruma's somewhat sterile life is lovingly etched in a series of little details.
Ms. Lahiri has a wonderful eye for the minutiae of diaspora existence in the United States. With enormous talent, she is able to flesh out complete characters in a matter of a few sentences. The stories feel like they were being told by a friend over a long 'adda' session, about characters that you had a peripheral knowledge of before. Long after the book is done, the characters exist as almost flesh and blood acquaintances whose often painful experiences have touched your heart.
After her mother's death, Ruma's father retired from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for many decades and began traveling in Europe, a continent he'd never seen. In the past year he had visited France, Holland, and most recently Italy. They were package tours, traveling in the company of strangers, riding by bus through the countryside, each meal and museum and hotel prearranged. He was gone for two, three, sometimes four weeks at a time. When he was away Ruma did not hear from him. Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadn't been a plane crash anywhere in the world.
Why then, did I not enjoy this book? Perhaps it is my fault as the reader, because Ms. Lahiri's technical virtuosity is dazzling in its simplicity. Not one word is out of place and not one concession is made to her Indian American heritage by gratuitously adding Indian words, a restraint that I find admirable.
What are missing are the three things that make the short story genre interesting for me – a cultural unfamiliarity, a sense of drama and a feeling of uplift.
Being set in the Indian American experience, the stories did not break any new ground for me as the reviewer, as it might have done for a reader less familiar with the culture. These characters could be my neighbors and their situations my own and as my dad often says about art movies and method acting, "why bother to pay money for it when I could just look out the window?"
The stories are also sad, with no sense of joy or even redemption at the end. One reviewer even commented on the "sadistic" streak in the books, but I think it it simply easier to write about unhappy people; conflict is the cornerstone of the story structure, after all. Perhaps it is just my brain on Bollywood, but I really wished at least one of the characters could have ended up at peace with his or her circumstances. The stories are ultimately cynical and dispassionate, like narratives discovered by looking through a microscope in a science lab. There is little warmth and passion and little recognition that there is much in the mundane to make life worth living.
A little bit of drama could have made up for all the angst suffered by Ms. Lahiri's characters, but that is missing too. Even a big denouement in the final story takes a while to sink in as it is presented with all the excitement of doing one's taxes. I had to reread it to make sure I was getting the tragedy, so even the catharsis was denied.
Unaccustomed Earth is a great piece of writing and Jhumpa Lahiri is a very accomplished writer. What is needed is the perspective of age. As you experience more and more of life, you see the humor and the humanity in the worst that fate can throw at you. People's foibles become less aggravating and more acceptable. Even tragedies can illuminate the central truth of life, that it is a journey best traveled with a light load. I have no doubt that every story Ms. Lahiri writes from now on can only get better and I look forward to her next book.