Book Review – Unaccustomed Earth

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.

6 thoughts on “Book Review – Unaccustomed Earth

  1. Pingback: More on Unaccustomed Earth | DesiPundit

  2. Vi

    I thought that some of the characters had found peace – perhaps not as profoundly as being with someone you love or having that ‘happy’ ending – but the father and the daughter, Ruma, made peace between themselves. The father found companionship, and the daughter accepted it.

    I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but perhaps not as much as her other works. It was the understated simplicity that carried the stories through.

    Came here via Desipundit. 🙂

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  3. Shreyasi Deb

    Vidya,
    This is one of the best reviews of this book that I have read! Beautiful.
    I can understand your familiarity with the lives of the characters and hence you have a fresh perspective.For a reader like me who has never opened a window to the lives of the Indiasn diaspora, these characters and their lives at best, are topics of much reflection.
    I agree that Lahiri can only get better from here!

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  4. Aparna Palit

    Yes Vidya, I too enjoy reading your reviews. Both CBD and JL’s books are close to my heart for their simplicity, choice of words and because we can relate to them as an Indian immigrant.
    Here is a poem written by Antara who like me can’t express our feelings in words unlike you. Lots of love to Naren and Lori.

    Feelingless [Anatara Palit 11 years]

    I don’t know whether I should smile, frown or cry,
    I don’t know if I should start to complain or let out a contented sigh.

    This feeling inside of me, I really cannot describe,
    It doesn’t make me feel ashamed or make me swell up with pride.

    You may ask me questions about this strange feeling of mine
    But you’ll get only one answer-
    “I really don’t know how I feel, but otherwise I’m fine!”

    But now as I come to think about it, I think I’ve got the word,
    Once you hear it I am sure you’ll think it’s absurd.

    I think I ‘m FEELINGLESS- a very strange thing to be!
    You’ve probabaly NEVER experienced it ‘cos it can only happen to ME.

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