Saturday, April 05, 2008

Notes on Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking time out for a very rare and precious activity - reading for pleasure, without worrying about having to put down a book every few pages to make review-notes. Since old habits die hard, I might post mini-reviews later of some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed in this period, notably Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, Indra Simha’s Animal’s People and Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season, and some I didn’t like so much, such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, a strangely prosaic, bloodless telling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. But for now, some notes on a book I liked moderately, the new Jhumpa Lahiri collection.

Inevitably, any discussion of Lahiri’s work must be headlined by a mention of the type of writing she specializes in: about the immigrant experience, more specifically the lives of first-generation Bengalis and their alienated children in the US. This sort of thing draws mixed responses. Many readers of Indian writing in English have come to be suspicious of the sub-stratum popularly known as “Diaspora fiction”, a common allegation being that such writing panders to a Western readership by creating an exoticised picture of Indians and their adjustment problems. However, this amounts to tarring all such writing with the same brush, implying that all such authors deal with the clash of cultures in a simplistic or patronizing manner. The related allegation that there is little variety in Lahiri’s work isn’t particularly useful from a critical perspective either. Many authors have built great careers by writing only about the people and settings that they know about, and they have done this thoughtfully, intelligently, and with a display of versatility and variety that transcends the limited definitions of these words. As ever, the question that should be asked while appraising their work is not “what” but “how”.

In my view Lahiri still has a way to go as a novelist (poignant and perceptive though The Namesake often was, it tended to ramble and break up into a disjointed series of vignettes), but when the question “how” is applied to her short stories, the answer is that the best of them are notable for their restraint, for their economical character portraits and for quiet, seemingly effortless insights into people’s thoughts and actions. Many of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth have these qualities. At first glance, the book’s title appears to be about a shift to a foreign country (which is what many readers familiar with Lahiri’s earlier work would expect), but reading the stories one realises that it can refer to many other actions or experiences that bring a sense of dislocation with them: moving to a new house shortly after the death of a beloved parent, for example, and trying to think of the place as home despite knowing that the deceased person had never even seen it.

In the title story, a woman nervously awaits a visit by her widowed father with whom she has rarely been alone in the past (her mother having always served as the go-between). In “Only Goodness”, a rehabilitated alcoholic, estranged from his family, attempts to return to the fold by getting in touch with his elder sister. The tentative interactions between these sets of people show us how circumstances can lead even the most intimate relationships into unaccustomed territory. This is also the case in the intriguing “A Choice of Accommodations”, in which a man named Amit travels with his American wife Megan to the mountain town where he once went to school, to attend the wedding of an old friend (and onetime crush). This story has a dreamlike quality that contrasts with Lahiri’s usually straightforward narratives. Initially we don’t sense much wrong between Amit and Megan beyond the ennui that can settle in after several years of marriage, but soon little details accumulate: they are disappointed by the hotel they have booked for their two-day stay; a tear in Megan’s dress seems like a bad omen; the setting recalls the loneliness of Amit’s youth and his failure to pursue the things he was really interested in; at the wedding, he forgets the name of an old classmate and upsets someone with a casual remark about how most marriages “disappear” after some time; he goes back to the hotel room to make a call and falls asleep, leaving his wife alone. Here, as in Lahiri’s most subtle work, nothing is spelt out but we sense how interior lives can impinge on mundane daily routines and threaten relationships.

There are a few weak links. “Hell-Heaven” – about a housewife’s attraction towards a younger man, supposedly a brother-figure – is mildly engrossing, without ever demanding much of the reader. The main point of interest in “Nobody’s Business”, where a student named Paul gets involved in the personal affairs of his housemate Sangeeta, is that the perspective here is that of a non-Indian. And the gardening analogies in “Unaccustomed Earth” are laboured (“he had toiled in unfriendly soil, coaxing new things from the ground”), providing just the right ammunition for critics who would dismiss Lahiri’s work as, dare one suggest, coaxing new clichés from the soil of immigrant fiction.

The good news is that the book ends on a strong note with the elegiac three-chapter novella “Hema and Kaushik”, which brings together many of Lahiri’s ideas about lives that have been set adrift. One of the central characters here is a photojournalist who travels around the world but for whom unaccustomed earth, the place where he feels most like an outsider, is his own home in Massachusetts, where his father’s new family has supplanted memories of his late mother. It’s another reminder that sticking the Diaspora tag on these stories amounts to limiting them, even if most of the characters are Indians abroad.


  1. I read "Hell-Heaven" on the online edition of the New Yorker...about an year ago,I think.I thought that it was moving while being predictable.But then Lahiri's writing has always been poignant.

    I think she is a much better writer than her critics give her credit for.Even this story gives us flashes of the vintage Lahiri,
    especially in the denouement.

    And yes,the pigeonholing of writers of Lahiri's calibre under ridiculous terms like "Diaspora fiction" is a gross injustice,to put it lightly.

    P.S. Hope to grab a copy of
    "Animal's People" soon.

  2. read " hell-heaven" in brunch, very interesting marketing was good but had the same bengali expat-getting assimilated -in -western- culture , theme which is recurring in most of her work.

  3. Read "Hell-Heaven" in Telegraph's Graphiti. To be honest, I too felt the theme to be recurring when I read it. I liked her writing, but felt it was getting too predictable.

    But your words - As ever, the question that should be asked while appraising their work is not “what” but “how”. - make me think. I might read her work with a different perspective when I read next.

  4. "It’s another reminder that sticking the Diaspora tag on these stories amounts to limiting them, even if most of the characters are Indians abroad. "

    And who comes up with these labels? Is it fair to say that it is mostly reviewers/critics/press generated at the launch of a new book/ marketing people in publishing/chain bookstores to decide which shelf to plonk them in and to predict what kind of sales and target audience they should expect?

    You guys come up with these tags, and then you go about dissecting the writing based on these tags. Seems a little futile, the whole exercise.

  5. Talking about the "how" - what would you call the genre of these tales? They lack the tight economy and crafted surprise of a short story, while not indulging in the breadth and depth of a full fledged novel. Initially I liked the slow, langourous telling, but after sometime that palled and there was a noteable lack of pace - often the momentum dropped to an almost sleepy narrative.

  6. I think most authors write about a life they know, or about a life that interests them. So I wouldn't fault Jhumpa Lahiri's choice of subject. But what I like most is her rather simple style of story-telling: no cleverness, no superfluous words, no pretentiousness.

  7. I recently finished reading this and on the whole I liked it a lot, I totally agree with u on Amit's story... there is so much to feel and understand....

  8. i hate her work. it is so boring. yu

  9. Hell-heaven was, to me, "Charulatha in Central Square."

    I am sure most of your readers have seen the Satyajit Ray movie or read Tagore's short story Nashtar Nid.

  10. I agree with most of the comments here - to label Lahiri's work is gross injustice, indeed. The strength of her writing lies in the fact that she treats immigrants as normal people and not something exotic. I was not a big fan of her writing when I was living in India; as an immigrant in Australia, however, I find her writing brilliant. With the exception of Zadie Smith, there haven't been many writers who have captured the immigrant experience so poignantly. Also, I think your point on 'western readership' is invalid in Lahiri's case because she was born in London, brought up in the States and considers herself American.

  11. Here is my post on Unaccustomed Earth:

  12. I am teaching this book in a reading class to international students here in the US, and I have to say it is a challenge as so little happens, the description is methodical and endless and it is very difficult to make this writing interesting, relevant perhaps, but so little actually occurs. Her use of pronouns is also distracting and difficult to follow. something I warn my foregin born writers about all the time. Not my favorite book, I do not recommend it...