Sunday, April 06, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I had no idea about Jhumpa Lahiri's latest release until I got many of those promotional mails from Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon offering an attractive discount. It was a perfect way to start the month. Obviously, my first intention was to check up at the local library, and on finding out that I was 81st in the queue, I quickly went to the nearest Borders store, swiped my Amazon (what an irony!) credit card for $15.75 (inclusive of tax), and there I was clutching the beautiful hardcover bound book as if I was the proud author.

Even though Interpreter of Maladies was her first publication in the literary world, I latched onto this only after I had finished reading The Namesake. The Namesake has left a lasting impression in me (link). The feeling lingered on for some days, as the emotional aspect of the book ebbed on to me in seamless fashion. Her topics are not out of the world; on the contrary, they have got a lot to do with day to day situations that we conjure in our daily existence. It is this deft handling of simple situations that enable us to fit into the character's shoes, and get a first hand perspective of the way we tackle problems when faced with a similar scenario.

In her latest offering Unaccustomed Earth, she plunges herself into the world of short stories once again, after beginning her career with a well timed Interpreter of Maladies, shifting onto a classic in The Namesake before bringing back a classic sequence of narrations, simple anecdotes with a beautiful touch of finesse and flair; an elegance that bowls me over when I read her books. It was this eager anticipation that propelled me to buy her latest book without a second thought. If The Namesake was about immigrants, there is no surprise to find similar entries stitching the pages in her new book. As she herself puts it across in various interviews (link), she likes to handle only issues that influence her to write, and there is no way that she is going to come out of these issues which impact so many people, and more importantly enable so many of her readers to identify themselves through the book. There is nothing wrong in sticking on with a single genre, if you can convey the message convincingly and in simple style. Let there be no doubts about it; she delivers these aspects in style. It is easy to place her style alongside RK Narayan, and it is a treat to read what she feels about the master (link).

Unaccustomed Earth is all about emotions; the characters fit in neatly to the situation. Her words leave a big impact on you, and at times certain quotes set you thinking. She tours the world from Seattle to Italy, keeping the basic setting confined to the New England Boston area. Malden, Medford, Andover, Mass Avenue, MIT, Harvard, Cambridge Area, Commonwealth Avenue and the T stations; the unique perspective of Boston filled me with a tinge of excitement as I read on. The book has a collection of eight long stories, fitted in 352 pages, striking a rich emotional bond between different characters. She has explored every aspect of the relationship; her first story Unaccustomed Earth deals with the fragile bond between a father and a daughter. This to me is the story of the book as she beautifully brings to the forefront the unspoken relationship between the two protagonists leaving you with a tear jerking emotional ending. The Bengali connection presents a nice Indian touch to the elegantly composed sentences.

Her take on life and happiness is very neatly worded as the daughter reflects on what her dad signs off with every letter,

“Be happy, love Baba,” he signed them, as if the attainment of happiness were as simple as that.

Similarly, her dad contemplates about the futility of migration to a foreign land leaving loved ones behind,

And yet he knew that he, too, had turned his back on his parents, by settling in America. In the name of ambition and accomplishment, none of which mattered anymore, he had forsaken them.

Her other stories deal with relationships; between a sister and brother, between family and friends, between a husband and a wife, between a brother and his little step-sisters. Her deft handling of these characters leave an enriching experience making it an entertaining read as you progress from one short story to another. Her last three stories fall under the sub-section Hema and Kaushik having a sense of convergence and divergence of these two characters. As Lotusreads in her blog rightly points out (link),

Lahiri writes about the everyday life of immigrant (Bengali) families using simple prose that starts oh so quietly and sedately but which almost always holds a big surprise at the end. Definitely give "Unaccustomed Earth" a whirl.

It is this repertoire; a collection of meaningful and strikingly worldly events in life that leaves the reader with an uneasy contemplation. It is as though you want to be involved in it, and at the same time detached from the vagaries of it. Jhumpa Lahiri carefully treads on the fine line striking a delicate balance between the certainties and uncertainties leaving the readers with a sense of attachment and detachment through her brilliantly created characters. So, in order to enjoy the finer nuances of this beautiful book, the best thing would be to grab a copy from the nearest book store or the library and get mesmerized in an intricate web of emotions and relationship.


  1. Hi, Praveen!

    Thank you for such a gorgeous review. Having read the book myself I think you do it immense justice. It is possible that Lahiri's writings might become synonymous with the migrant experience, but like you say, if she does it well, why should that be a problem. Frankly, I prefer authors to write about what they know (it is always more convincing to the reader I find).

    You are right when you say that the stories in "Unaccustomed Earth" deal with a vast landscape of emotions. My favorite stories are the Hema and Kaushik trilogy (it sends shivers of delight up my spine every time I contemplate the story as a whole), my other favorite is that of the widower father and his daughter. The story of the alcoholic son was very moving as well. The way she writes these stories makes you really feel for the characters like they were friends or relatives, true?

    I can't wait for her next book, let's hope it's not too long in the making!

  2. Lotus Reads,
    Thanks a lot for the wonderful comment! It was a treat reading her book. The Hema and Kaushik trilogy was definitely a one of a kind experience. The first story dealing with the relationship between the father and daughter, according to me, was the best story of the book.

    She has this uncanny ability to roll out characters that we can figure out in our everyday lives. As you say, we can't help but feel for the characters as if it has affected one of our know-hows personally!!!

    A very delightful and an insightful read!!!

  3. Hey Praveen, great review! And thanks for the links, too..I have read 'The Interpreter...' and 'The Namesake' and needless to say, the theme of immigrants trying to fit in is ingrained in most of her writing. But, as you mentioned, the resemblance to RKN's work is striking - the description of everyday activities, the atmosphere of melancholy..
    Great going, Buddy! Will definitely pick up the book soon!

  4. You are write when you say that it is a beautiful book. I am int he process of reading it and I think it is very well written too. Also the Boston factor make sit more enjoyable. I feel that an author is good, when you feel the emotions he/she tries to convey in the writing. And I think she manages to do that every singe time.

  5. Hi Sowmya
    Yup! That's exactly what I felt after reading her books; she is so RKNish :-) More than enough to appease my little literary interests! Considering what you said in the email, I totally agree with you about her penchant for the seventies. But then, it is very difficult to write about something that you just cannot identify with. Though she writes about the migrants, it is easy to identify with the characters :-)

    Hey Shubhika,
    True, it is an awesome book, but "I am not sure whether you will like it" :-) Grab hold of The Namesake after you are through with this one :-)

  6. I enjoyed er Interpreter of Maladies, will be reading this one as well.