Department of English and Modern European Languages
University of Lucknow Lucknow– 226007 India
Jhumpa Lahiri belongs to the second generation of Indian immigrant writers in United States. Lahiri concerns her writing with the consciousness of the need for regaining roots in the tradition of India and a strong nostalgic pull towards that. Her works reflect the borrowed existence of immigrants in an alien land and her characters are her own prototypes. It seems that for Lahiri the western culture forms a part of her intellectual makeup whereas Indian culture is a part of her emotional makeup. The eight sensitive stories of her second short stories collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008), evokes the anxiety, excitement and transformation felt by Bengali immigrants and their American Children. While Jhumpa Lahiri’s first-generation Indian-Americans cherish their past and its memories as an integral part of their roots and their being. Her second-generation Indian- Americans reflect a distancing from it. More particularly and naturally too since they are born and raised in America, they look forward to modes of their hybridization and cross-cultural fertilization in the multicultural space of the USA.
In Unaccustomed Earth Lahiri continues to explore the theme of the cultural dissonances experienced by immigrants caught between the culture of their Indian birthplace and the unfamiliar ways of their adopted home., this time with a focus on the lives of second- generation immigrants who must navigate both the traditional values of their immigrant parents and the mainstream American values of their peers. Lahiri says about this new book: “as opposed to the first collection, I worked on many of the stories for years while they kept evolving and evolving and evolving” (Lahiri 2007).
Unaccustomed Earth like her other books is also a reflection of life of two separate cultures and how people cope with each other. It achieved the rare distinction of debuting on the New York Times best sellers list in the number one slot. New York Times book review editor Dwight Garner stated, “It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction- particularly a book of stories – that left straight to number one, it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s new found commercial clout” (Garner 2007).
The title story “Unaccustomed Earth” is the first story of the collection Unaccustomed Earth; Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, released on April 1, 2008. The story is about Ruma and Romi and their father, who retired from his pharmaceutical company after his wife’s death. Ruma lives in Seattle with her workaholic white husband Adam and by- racial son Akash. When the story starts we come to know that her single father is about to visit their home for the first time and Ruma is distressed by the possibility that he might decide to live with them permanently. But she also knows that her father needs no care and at the end of the story, she realizes that he is not accustomed to her world, he likes to live it on his own. Her father, who, like most of the book’s male characters, is strikingly, multidimensional, has his own worries. Her father came to visit her and was affectionate to her son but he thinks that he does not belong here.
He has started dating a Bengali Indian woman, Mrs.Bagachi, who was a widow and lived on long island. “Meenakshi was her name, and though he used it now when he addressed her, in his thoughts he continued to think of her as Mrs. Bagachi” (Lahiri: 2008, 9). Her father was painstakingly ponders upon divulging these details of their relationship to his daughter. He was doubtful of what her daughter’s reaction would be thus he tried to hide the
fact. On his way back he lost the postcard he wrote for his newly found friend which falls into Ruma’s hand and she realises that her father never intended to stay with them permanently.
Throughout the story we feel that Ruma is continuously missing her mother. Although there is a strong feeling towards her dead mother and continuous remembering when her father came to visit her they both enjoyed an unexpectedly blissful week together along with her son Akash. As far as this title story is concerned Lahiri has created a gripping tale. Despite this unending bleakness-or perhaps because of it Lahiri’s writing is usually compelling. She is conscious about dialogues and there is space for imaginative descriptions.
The second story of this collection is entitled “Hell-Heaven”. This is a girl-narrator’s reminiscence of her young days in Boston. Her name is Usha. She conjures up the socio- cultural alienation that has burdened her mother. It recounts her family’s relationship with a Bengali new comer Pranab Chakraborty. Usha the girl narrator in the story looks back at her mother’s initial attachment to, Pranab who’s studying at MIT. “He brought to my mother the first and, I suspect, the only pure happiness she ever felt” (62). Usha’s mother left heartbroken when Pranab decides to marry a white woman Deborah. Usha not only tries to explore her mother’s psychological ups and downs but also makes objective comments on the past incidents.
Pranab was like a breath of fresh air to her mother’s life whose husband in effect has been married to his profession. But this sudden and unexpected happiness remains short-lived as Deborah enters into Pranab’s life. Later Deborah becomes his faithful wife, in spite of Usha’s mother’s adverse prediction. The tale concludes with the divorce of Deborah and Pranab after fourteen years of conjugal life as Pranab now runs after a married Bengali woman.
Usha grows up amid these relational variations and despite of her affinity to their cultural roots, she starts picking up the American way of life causing much anxiety to her mother, the conventional preserver of cultural purity. This story gives vent to schism that has been developing between these two generations. Usha’s increasing fondness for Deborah over her mother is suggestive of her adherence to the mainstream culture. Like any other white American child, she very often demands privacy, freedom and non-interference in her life and becomes defiant if these are denied. The more her mother puts restrictions on her, the more she finds pleasure in disobeying her:
I began keeping other secrets from her, evading her with the aid of my friends. I told her I was sleeping over at a friend’s when I went of parties, drinking beer and allowing boys to kiss me and fondle my breasts and press their erections against my hip as we lay groping on a sofa or a back seat of a car (76).
This is probably the effect of popular club culture encouraging among the second generation Indian American girls. This may also be interpreted as a reaction to the first generation immigrants’ oppressive effort to impose the ethnic culture where sex is a moral taboo. But there is hardly any doubt that it has emerged as a very common youth culture among the Americans.
“A Choice of Accommodations” is third story of this collection. The story illustrates the details about a married couple Amit and his white wife Megan and their two bi-racial daughters Maya and Monika. The story revolves around Amit and Megan and their relationship which was gradually deteriorating after the birth of their second daughter.
Amit and Megan decided on spending some time together without their children. Pam Bordem’s, a college friend of Amit, wedding gave them a chance to live alone for some days. They left their daughters with Megan’s parents and went to attend the marriage ceremony. The marriage was to take place at Langford academy, a boarding school where Pam’s father was headmaster, and from where Amit has graduated before eighteen years.
At Langford Amit was the only Indian student. During his stay in Langford at the end of the day there was no escape for him as he desperately missed his parents who went to Delhi leaving him there alone. “He was crippled with homesickness, missing his parents to the point where tears filled his eyes” (96). But gradually he learned to live without them.
During Pam’s wedding one of the guests Felicia talked to Amit about her and Jared’s wedding plans. When she asked Amit about his and Megan’s marriage he explained “we eloped eight years ago.” It was during their conversation about Amit’s marriage that he accepted the fact that “actually it was after the second (child) that our marriage sort of “- disappeared” (113-114). He felt that though she (Megan) lived in the apartment, she slept in his bed, her heart belong to no one but him and the girls, and yet there were times Amit felt as alone as he had first been at Langford. And there were times he hated Megan simply for this.
He left Megan alone in the party and came to the hotel room, without even telling her. When she reached the hotel room, in the morning he was sleeping and all this made her annoyed of him. Next day they had to go for a brunch on campus, organized by Pam. But when they reached at Standish hall they come to know that the brunch ended before they came. The arrangement of the room was familiar to him but things had been redone since his time here. Megan asked him about his relation with pam. He replied “It was nothing Meg. We were friends and for a while I had a crush on he but nothing happened” (125). The information fell between them, was valuable for years to share but he’d kept it from her, negligible now that he’d told her, and this was a renewal of their tiresome relationship which he was desperately living. They made love and the differences between them came to an end leading to a new start.
Death and mourning permeates most of the stories in this collection, including the three linked ones in the final section, but Lahiri’s most successful piece, “Only Goodness”, fourth story of this collection, isn’t quite so funereal.
Sudha, a Bengali-American graduate student at LSE, receives an unexpected letter from her estranged alcoholic brother Rahul. Sudha was elated by the note, but the reunification with her brother throws her relationship with her English husband as well as her infant son’s safety into peril.
Years ago when Rahul had been in his junior year of high school, it was Sudha who introduced him to alcohol. Rahul was her younger brother. They both used to drink in Rahul’s room. Sudha was again in high school at that time and gradually acquainted the habit of disobeying her parents. Though after sometime she had given up all her bad habits and started concentrating on her studies but Rahul was incapable of leaving this bad habit of drinking. This led his life towards complete destruction. He dropped out of his school and was arrested for two times for being underage while driving and that too being completely drunk. When it happened for the second time his license was cancelled. With the passage of time his attitude towards his parents kept on become harsh. His grades were gradually falling in studies.
Sudha was now living in London and now she was going to do a course as she explains “LSE had one of the best programs in developmental economics that she was thinking of doing NGO work” (133). Here she met Roger Featherstone, wandering through National Gallery. “He had a PhD in art history.” He had been married in his twenties to a girl he’d known at Cambridge; after two years she left him. Sudha decided to marry him.
Years after when all this happened Sudha’s son Neel born. Being unaware of his birth Rahul sent a letter to Sudha to which Sudha replied through a letter telling him about her son. When Rahul came to meet them she found out that he has left his drinking habit from years and he was very happy with Neel. One day Rahul suggested to both Roger and Sudha to go for a movie together leaving Neel, her ten months child with him, so that they will be able to spend some time together. When he insisted they went for movie but she was aware of Rahul’s habit and she never told Roger about Rahul’s arrest. Sudha was completely nervous
and worried about Neel. When they came back home they didn’t listen any sound from any of the two. It was late at night. When she searched she found that Neel was alone in the bath tub. He was sitting without the plastic ring they normally put him in so that he wouldn’t tip over. Rahul was nowhere around. They found Rahul in Roger’s study, drunk and asleep. This whole incident threw up her relationship with her husband Roger. This story towers over other in the collection not only because of Lahiri’s skillfulness, but also because the author liberates her writing from the simplistic cultural baggage. She allows her characters to breathe as individuals. What the characters in “Only Goodness” have in common with the rest of Lahiri’s universe, however, is the fact that they all inhibit the most elite culture of North American society. Many of her characters are immigrants or are involved in intra-racial romances. They go to Harvard and expensive boarding schools; they study at Columbia’s Butler library and discuss Homer. They are doctors and academics – apart from Bengali housewives.
“Nobody’s Business” is the fifth and last story of the first part of the book as the division of chapters is in two parts. Sangita, a second generation Bengali-Indian immigrant, is the chief protagonist of this story. Though her name is Sangita Biswas she loves to be called as Sang. Sang is of marriageable age. Therefore every so often men called for her with the desire to marry her. She studied philosophy and graduated from New York University. She was getting her doctorate at Harvard University. But she dropped out after a semester and was working part time at a book store.
Paul and Heather are Sang’s housemates who always tell her when there was a prospective groom on the phone. Once her boyfriend was standing on the side walk with Sang, looking up at the house he said “keep away from the window. When you change your clothes,” Paul heard him say. “I see through the windows” (185). Paul observed that her boyfriend wore perfectly faded jeans, a white shirt, a navy blue blazer, and brown leather shoes. His name was Farouk as Sang introduced him to Paul but he went for Freddy.
Paul observed that “suddenly Sang was never at home, when she was, stayed in her room, often on phone, the door shut” (185). It was something of a shock to find Farouk in the house. Whenever she was not with Farouk, she did things for him. She used to read through proves of the articles he’d written, checking it for typographical errors. She scheduled his doctor’s appointment etc.
During one winter break when she went away to London to see her sister and her baby boy, a woman called at their house several times to know about Sang. She asked to Paul whether Sang and Freddy are cousins. And began crying when she stopped crying she said that “she love him” (193). She told him that she is Freddy’s girlfriend. When Deirdre asked again about whether Sang and Farouk are cousins? Paul told her the reality that they are boyfriend and girlfriend. When Sang was back she asked Paul about Deirdre, he told her everything. Now she started avoiding him, she blamed Paul of making all these stories about what he told her about Deirdre. Paul didn’t say anything to Sang. One day he finds out Deirdre’s number and called her and left a message on the answering machine, asked her to call him back. When she picked up the phone she said she will call him later the same night at ten. Then the idea came to him immediately, he brought a phone and an adopter with two jacks. When Sang came home Paul told her that he called Deirdre and she will call him at ten o’clock and if she wants to listen she can listen without her knowing as he has hooked up another phone to their line, and she agreed. Exactly one minute past ten, both the phone rang. They slowly picked up both the phones. Deirdre told that she made Paul into a liar because it was Freddy’s idea; he was furious because she called Paul. He refused to see her and talk to her. She said that Paul should tell everything about Freddy to Sang because she has the right to know that she is not the only girl in Freddy’s life. Next morning Paul woke up on the noise of a car, Sang was going to London. She left a note on the kitchen table which said, “Paul
thanks for yesterday.” Farouk called many times to know about Sang and Paul told him that she left the country. At the end we come to know that Paul has passed his exams and two of his professors took him to the Four Season Bar for drink and celebrate. After celebration when he moved out he saw Farouk and a woman. He directly looked at Farouk and thought: “for this man, Deirdre had called a perfect stranger; made fool of herself. For this man Sang would rush from the house, had refused all her suitors” (218).
Second part of this story collection is entitled as “Hema and Kaushik” which consists of three stories interlinked with each other. The main theme of all the three stories is related with the main protagonists Hema and Kaushik and their life, and family. While dealing with this part of the collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008) Lahiri has changed her style of writing. The entire story is based on two people Hema and Kaushik who were once mere acquaintances in childhood; with a big difference in their life style. Two decades after they met again, just days before they were going to enter into completely different phases of their humble life and yet felt attracted to each other. Then they went separate ways, and stayed separate for a lifetime.
The first of the three stories “Once in a Life Time” unravels the interaction between two Indian immigrant families from the point of view of a thirteen years old girl, Hema. The story goes seven years back to a farewell party hosted by Hema’s parents for another Bengali family, that of Dr. Choudhuri who decided “to move all the way back to India. Hema, like Lilia in Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and many other second-generation Indians, is caught between insider-outsider syndromes. She is well accustomed to the American way of life which she maintains in the public sphere. Robin E. Field in his essay, “Writing the Second- generation: Negotiating Cultural Borderlands in Lahiri’s Works”, analyses the predicament of this generation. The influence of American culture is obvious in their lifestyle and they rarely subscribe to the polarized cultural identities their parents bear. This does not mean that they are completely out of touch with their ancestral lineage. Their physical closeness and familial interaction with their parents as well as their occasional visits to the parental hometown creates in them a sense of familiarity with their parents’ culture. This, according to Field, facilitates the condition of being at ease with ‘two homelands’ on the one hand and causes them to suffer from ‘dual alienation’ on the other. They feel a gradual physical and psychological distance from the obligatory cultural rites they need to perform at home or in the community festivals. Again this second-generation is yet to be considered as ‘real’ Americans due to their ‘visible colour’ in a country implicitly dominated by white citizens.
In the story Hema is too young to understand this ‘pernicious system of racial difference’ but she knows that the boy for whom she nurtures secret infatuation was and would remain unaware of her existence. Lahiri is aware of the gulf that separates the two worlds that the children of immigrant encounter in their daily life. The narrative reaches its pinnacles when Mr. and Mrs. Choudhuri and their sixteen years old son, Kaushik return to America to resettle and put up at Hema’s house. Hema, in contrast to her parents, begin to silently appreciate their acculturation to American lifestyle in spite of their long stay in India. Such an attitude is palpable in the members of the second generation which results from proximity to the mainstream culture Education in ‘American’ schools initiates them to a cultural world that is overtly different from the one they find in the Bengali community. Unlike Lahiri’s other child characters such as Usha in “Hell-Heaven”, Gogol, Moushumi and Sonia in The Namesake (2003), Hema is not much rebellious in spirit, she is rather very submissive. She observes how Kaushik, just three years older than her, goes beyond the control of his parents. She envies him for this fact. She represents those second generation Indian American adolescents who balance between dual pressures: the pressure for Americanization and of retaining the ancestral culture.
The second story of this part of the Unaccustomed Earth is entitled as “Year’s End”. This part of story is from Kaushik’s point of view, about his life after his mother’s death due
to cancer and how that has changed his as well as his father’s life. He was devastated by his mother’s death and his father’s second marriage which has stumbled his relationship with his father, his newly step-mother and her two daughters.
Lahiri silently depicted the affectionate relationship between Kaushik and his little step- sisters, and how one day it washed away, leaving Kaushik wandering off to different places. He drives north ward, aimlessly towards the desolate, craggy country near the Canadian border. Lahiri’s latest collection of short stories, storms out of the wealthy suburbs of Massachusetts. After journeying through pine forests and contemplating ocean that was the most unforgiving things, he’s able to sense an elusive power, a power he believes his diseased mother now possesses. For Kaushik the great American wilderness is a kind of temple.
Lahiri, a Bengali – American who’s been lauded as a teller of immigrant tales, is at core of an old-guard New England writer. Her previous books, both ground breaking in their own way, chronicle the pain and loneliness experienced by Bengali immigrants in the north eastern US, and this latest collection also treads the similar ground but from different point of view.
The last part of this section “Going Ashore” is depicted by both of them: Hema and Kaushik as they met again in Italy after two long decades. Here Hema is tormented with her dishonest married Boyfriend Julian and her parents trying to get her back into family life by planning her marriage to Navin, a man she hardly knows, while Kaushik planning to travel different places in the world as part of his work of photography. In spite of all that they felt reattached and spend their days together, even though Hema is going to be married very soon.
Lahiri’s stories are about ‘exile’, about people living far away from home or moving to a new home. In her earlier works the focus was generally on Bengali moving to America but Unaccustomed Earth is often about people moving to new place within America or characters going to London, Italy and all over the world .What Lahiri thinks of putting people in new physical circumstances is:
It interests me to imagine characters shifting from one situation and one location to another for whatever the circumstances may be. In the first collection, characters were all moving far more or less the same reason (which was also the reason my parents came to United States): For opportunities or a job. In this collection there’s a similar pattern of movements but the reasons are more personal, somehow- they’re reasons of family dynamics or death in the family of things like that. In this book I spend more time with characters who are not immigrants themselves but rather the offspring of immigrants, I find that interesting because when you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always-or at least. I was very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself. One is conscious of that without even having ever done it. I knew what my parents had gone through-not feeling rooted (Chotiner 2008).
Diasporic literature like immigrant literature mirrors a ‘double vision’ at once of ‘yearning backward’ and ‘looking forward’. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction too reflects this return to the past through memory. Her first generation Indian-Americans often confirm this ‘yearning backward’ with their recurring sense of loss and longing of displacement and nostalgia for their native land. Rushdie seems to endorse and advance this thinking in his own specific context when he opines that writers “remake the past, using memory as tool, “and adds that while leaning on memory, the writer exercise his imagination and creates a ‘new memory.” While Jhumpa Lahiri’s first-generation Indian-Americans cherish their past and its memories as an indispensible, integral part of their roots and their being. Her second-generation Indian- Americans reflect both proximity and distancing from it; as it seems in Unaccustomed Earth; the characters seem to perceive and adopt ‘new angles at which to enter this reality.’ More particularly and naturally too since they are born and raised in America, they ‘look forward’ to the concerns and modes of their hybridization and cross-cultural fertilization in the
increasingly multicultural space of the USA, and not more absorption in the dominant culture. They refuse to be marginalized as the ‘other’ and ‘anonymous’.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s narratology unfolds the complexity of diasporic life in terms of variations and diversities as also the contrasts and contradictions of human experience. The language she uses is relaxed and sparkling, and carries nuanced notations of layered significances and enriched meanings with effortless ease. She depicts not merely the uprootedness of her diasporic characters from their homeland and their loneliness in an alien geographical location, but also indicates that one’s home is wherever one lives or has lived; in the present case, the USA. In almost all her stories there is a longing for the native land, the life led in India before their migration to the US. Even the second-generation settlers are not free from the connection they have with the country of the birth of their parents. Politically and nationally they are Americans but the ‘added baggage’ of their parents’ memories of their country is something that they have to contend with. The first-generation settlers fear that the children may forget the traditions and culture of their parents and become completely Americanized. Thus they have to keep alive the traditions of their fore-fathers in the “Little- India” that they create in their apartments. The occasional visits to India also keep them in touch with their ‘roots’ and the magic that India possesses keeps them bound to her.
The second-generation members of the community who, according to the sociologist Alejandro Portes, are “native-born children of immigrant parents and children born abroad who came at a very early age,” suffer from existential crisis. Lahiri evokes the layered tension in the experiences of the first and second-generation Indian Americans arising out of their divided affiliations towards their original and adopted homelands. Her characters act as interpreters of both the Indian culture and the culture of the United States. As a sensitive American writer, well aware of and closely linked with Indian heritage, Lahiri unfolds her characters’ fractured double perspectives.
Lahiri’s fictional interpretation of the immigrant situation carries authenticity because it reflects her keen observation and understanding of the characters caught between their traditional past and the modern present. Lahiri’s characters, located as they are at the intersection of Indian and western cultures, struggle to survive in the baffling new world where the old relationship and old mores and manners are out of place.
A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri: http://www.hougtonmifflinbooks.com/readers_guides interpreter_maladies.shtml
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