Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri is perhaps best known through her novel Namesake that was made into the 2006 feature film by the fabulous director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). In Namesake she explores the adjustments Indian immigrants make in coming to America. Unaccustomed Earth takes it a step further and examines relations across 3 generations, taking into consideration the nuances of Indians born in the U.S. Nee Nilanjana Sudeshna, her Kingston, Rhode island, kindergarten teacher insisted on calling her the easier pet name Jhumpa. Although born in London, she considers herself American, having moved to the U.S. at age 3. Cynical readers have dubbed her an ABCD or American-Born Confused Desi, usually reserved for Indians born in the U.S. The term "desi" comes from the word "des" (homeland) in Sanskrit and Hindi; "desi" is used to mean anyone from the Indian subcontinent.
The short stories in this collection are by no means complex. In fact, for the most part, very little happens. The pleasure of the text, to quote Barthes, is in the art of the story teller, the mastery of language. Of course, the theme is always related to gender roles and the Bengali immigrant experience and letting go of culture and homeland traditions in a new world. Most of the stories take place in Boston and Cambridge. Lahiri knows the turf, as anyone who has lived in Boston will recognize the "view of the Citgo sign, draining and filling with color" (p. 214), a local icon which in a bizarre timing coincidence received mention (7/25) in the Sunday New York Times Sports Section (p. 3), since over 9,000 feet of lights were receiving brand new LEDs, 1200 feet from Fenway Park home plate. Back to the text - however, on more than one occasion she calls the Harvard Bridge the Mass Avenue Bridge (p. 281). Just an aside, but I got a kick out of a reference to Jan van Eyck's famous painting The Arnolfini Marriage, in which there appears "a convex mirror that reflected everything in the painting" (p.145). This optics riddle is the subject of a well known textbook problem on geometrical optics by Hecht and Zajac, Optics (1974 edition, p. 163).
In the eponymously titled opening story, a young married woman has made the choice to abandon her legal career, much to the consternation of her visiting father, a recent widower. The story is more about the fragility of their relationship, about what they fail to say to each other over the years. In the final scene, she inadvertently discovers a misplaced postcard addressed to her father's new found female companion, totally unbeknownst to her. All the meaningful conversations that never happened about her strained relation with her Latino husband and her father's life changes never take place, the reader must decide - Is it Indian culture or more universal ?
The best story, Hema and Kaushik, is in 3 parts. The first two parts are related through the minds of the young girl Hema and subsequently, her childhood friend Kaushik. The first part describes foremost the difference in cultural traits between two Indian families living in the same house with each other in Boston for one month, as a result of a second Indian family, far less conservative and wealthy, getting settled. Hema (six) is taken by the older boy Kaushik (nine). The second part relates Kaushik is a college student returning home for the holidays and his reaction to and resentment of his father's new Bengali wife, and his anguish over the loss of his mother to cancer. In the final part, the two protagonists have a chance meeting in Rome years later. Lahiri is a master at tempo and the reader feels the rush as the two childhood friends are reunited. Alas, Hema is on her way to Calcutta to wed a less than satisfactory mate though an arranged marriage - her tempestuous relation with her childhood friend is quenched but has no hope for survival. This part is much less about Indian cultural values and more about the general human condition. Here the author really transcends the themes that make up the earlier stories.
Charlie Rose interviewed her about the book (5/27/08) (http://www.charlierose.com/), complimenting her on her remarkable observational powers but floors her when he paraphrases Time critic Lev Grossman, by saying that there is no human or narration suspense in her stories. Specifically, Grossman states "Lahiri's stories are grave and quiet and slow, in the 19th century manner. They don't bribe you with humor or plot twists or flashy language; they extract a steep up-front investment of time from the reader before they return their hard, dense nuggets of truth. It's difficult to quote from her stories: they refuse to sum themselves up with a neat final epiphany, and Lahiri doesn't write one-liners" (5/8/08) (www.time.com/time/magazine).