Friday, April 18, 2008

Spring '08 Book Reviews

Unaccustomed Earth By Jhumpa Lahiri: A Note

Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of short stories, titled Unaccustomed Earth, has the span and thematic breadth of a novel, and yet each story is distinct and self-contained. Lahiri's study of displaced lives that started with her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, continues, but undoubtedly, in a deeper and sombre tone. In this book Lahiri, like in her novel, The Namesake, delves into darker territories of family life in dislocated existence. Here her focus is mainly on the second generation of migrants where hybridity is personifies in the number of cross-cultural relationships like those of Ruma-Adam, Pranab-Deborah, Amit-Megan, Sudha-Roger, and so on. Lahiri's eye for detailing the immigrant experience, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, is moving. In fact movement is the quintessence of all the stories. In the first story, which gives the name to the collection, Ruma's father, as a world tourist in his old age, decides not to stay put in a place and in the last story the very earth itself is found to move diabolically.

The book I divided into two parts. Part one has five stand-alone stories whereas part two, subtitled "Hema and Kaushik", has three interconnected stories. The story "Hell-Heaven" from part one is the shortest of the collection. Usha, a second-generation migrant, narrates about the visits of a family friend, Pranab "Kaku", to her home when she was a child. It depicts the friendship between Pranab and Usha's mother, Aparna, Pranab's eventual marriage with an American named Deborah, and Aparna's disapproval of the match. The story shows the strain in the relationship between Usha and Aparna because of their differing lifestyles as American and Indian respectively. Aparna sustains herself in the strong belief that Deborah will one day leave Pranab. Years later, it is Pranab who leaves divorces Deborah when he falls in love with a married Bengali woman. Deborah surprises Aparna by revealing to her that all the years of her marriage she had been secretly jealous of her because Aparna knew a part of her husband's life from which she had been shut out by Pranab. But a still darker confession comes to the fore – the confession of Aparna's jealousy, not made to Deborah but to her daughter, Usha. The horror of it shows the depth of Aparna's desires and her intense angst, something that brings the story into a new perspective. It sets the mood for the volume.

Secrets and surprises loom at every corner and yet nothing is apparent. Unexpectedly, Ruma discovers through a misplaced letter the secret of her father's new love interest after the death of her mother in the short story "Unaccustomed Earth." Unexpectedly, a couple rediscover their love for each other in a dorm room at an old friend's wedding in the short story "A Choice of Accommodations." Amit and Megan's marriage has almost "disappeared" as they have transformed themselves into just parents of two growing girls and yet they surprise themselves in the weekend of from parenting. In the short story "Only Goodness", Lahiri explores sibling relationship in diasporic life in such a resonant way that even in a brief space she can be dense in the intricacies of depiction. Sudha finds herself helpless as she watches her brother, Rahul, succumb to alcoholism and the gulf between him and their parents increasingly widens. She is reluctant and incapable to tackle the situation, and takes an escapist view of it. But some years later when Rahul comes to London to visit his newborn nephew, she sees signs of his redemption. And yet again Rahul betrays her belief leaving her no choice but to reject him finally. In the last story of part one, "Nobody's Business", Paul, an American housemate of Sang/Sangeeta, finds himself getting involved in the sticky web of love-relationships of Sang, her Egyptian boyfriend Farouk, and Diedre. Paul is a confidante of both Sang and Diedre, and unwittingly becomes Farouk's rival.

The first story of part two, "Once in a Lifetime", is narrated by Hema, whereas the second story, "Year's End", has Kaushik as the narrator. "Once in a Lifetime" deals with the tragic death of Kauhik's mother due to cancer. When Kaushik's family moves back to America from India, they stay with Hema's family for sometime until new house is got. Hema, when six years old, had not liked Kaushik, but now as a thirteen year old, she is infatuated by him. She also learns to appreciate the sophistication of Kaushik's mother. Then one day Kaushik confides to her about his mother's illness, revealing the pain that hides behind the glamour of their life. The next story, "Year's End", is about Kaushik's coming to terms with the presence of his step-mother, Chitra, who is nearer his age than his father's, and lacks all the elegance that his own mother possessed. More intriguing is Kaushik's growth of affection for his kid step-sisters, Rupa and Piu, until the girls retrieve from its hiding place the taped box that concealed Kaushik's mother's photographs purposely banished from sight. The girls' mischief enrages Kaushik. All affection drains out of him and he acts emotionally and rather cruelly to abandon the girls alone in the house. Far away he digs the earth and buries the box.

The thread does not end here. A chance meeting in Rome, when Hema and Kaushik are in their late thirties, ignites a ephemeral but passionate relationship. The last story, "Going Ashore", is an excess – an excess that shows Lahiri's power of imagination, an excess that consummates the theme, an excess that would have been too sweet had it not been tragic, an excess that has the air of inevitability. Hema and Kaushik's union comes at a time when they are on the verge of settling down – Hema in marriage with Navin, and Kaushik in his new job in Hong Kong. They separate. Hema goes to India and Kaushik, on a holiday, to Khao Lak in Thailand. But now it is the turn of the continental plates of the earth to shift. The last few pages lead excruciatingly to the inevitability of the tsunami. Thereafter, the narration reverts from third person to the first person of Hema, bringing the story and the book towards its closure. Lahiri revels in the craft of story telling. The book is a tour-de-force and a document of the age and time seen through the human experience and how!


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