Thursday, October 23, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

This octave of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is connected by its focus on Indians who move from the sub-continent to different countries. The book states what many have observed, that “Indians are everywhere these days.” But how do they survive and do they succeed?

This book examines Nathaniel Hawthorne’s thesis penned in The Custom-House and from which Lahiri obtained her title:

“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.”

Lahiri does not swallow Hawthorne’s argument hook, line and sinker but she allows her readers to consider its validity through the characters whose stories she tells. Lahiri looks at Bengalis who become replanted and raised in the soil of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and those who visit Italy and Thailand. She looks at representatives from different generations and subtly asks what is happening to them through their journey of migration, the seesawing of the heart between India and the new homelands, their movement through the predictable stages of life and the kaleidoscope of grief, memory, lament and celebration.

For instance Ruma’s father is an elderly man who pops up in several of the stories. Now based in the USA he visits Ruma (who is married to an American) and her family. His grandson asks his mother why Grandpa takes his shoes off before coming inside the house. This custom is one of many examples about which readers ask, “In this transplantation process what customs do they retain in the new soil? What do they shed? What do they miss? What do they gain?”

The author is a traveler who has gained much from her journeys for her descriptions and drama draw heavily on close observation in such Italian locations as Volterra and Siena. Lahiri’s exquisite detail is attractive and adds charm to her writing. She writes not about whiskey but about a bottle of Johnnie Walker, not about sitting in front of the television but watching The Brady Bunch, not about perfume but Chanel No. Five (whose fragrance readers can recognize), not about cooking but the heavy smell of curry on the kitchen stove.

In addition to her observation powers is Lahiri’s depth of reflection. Consider the wisdom in this cameo:

“There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.” (p27)

Ponder these thoughts of Ruma’s father who had been invited to stay permanently with Ruma and her family but who at the end of his visit was coming to this conclusion:

“Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact. He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage.” (p53)

Like delphiniums or hydrangeas, whether these representative characters fail or flourish depends upon their commitment to personal care, the tending they receive from others and the harshness of the elements that make up their new sphere.

But what is the mark of successful transplantation? American university degrees framed and hung in the family gallery? Possessing a well-paid job with a reputation that others admire? Getting married and nurturing your growing brood? Will an Indian (or Italian) who has successfully negotiated the migration process feel at home in the new country or is it an achievement and an advantage to feel like Edward Said always felt, ‘out of place’?

Lahiri writes of Bengalis who have moved from Calcutta to Chicago where they spend much of their time attending ‘Bengali cultural circles’, and their American-born grandchildren who like KFC more than curry and who cannot speak more than a greeting in Bangla. But beyond the more noticeable customs of language, food and removal of shoes Lahiri grapples with how the transplantation affects morals and values. She writes of a Bengali-American family whose children do not stay at home until they get married but who leave home to go to College. In this new rite of passage there is anxiety and excitement for the young men and women as they encounter much consumption of Budweiser and sexual experimentation. The delight and dread and the love-hate feelings of the older generation in America are expressed by Sudha’s mother:

“That’s the problem with this country. Too many freedoms, too much having fun. When we were young, life wasn’t always about having fun.” (p143)

Unaccustomed Earth is about soil and sunlight, flowers and weeds, uprooting and replanting. This is a book to relish, an octave that stretches and twangs the emotions, an open-ended thesis that calls readers to provide the answers, a mirror to observe one’s growth and vitality.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (New York, Toronto: Alfred A Knopf, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 90.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Jhumpa Lahiri; Front cover of Unaccustomed Earth.