At the end of Jhumpa Lahiri’s story Hell-Heaven, a Bengali daughter, raised in the US, is finally recognized by her mother as “a child of America as well”. So, too, is Lahiri’s new collection, Unaccustomed Earth—eight richly satisfying stories that explore the lives of second generation Americans.
The young Bengali couples who had just left India in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies have aged in these new tales; mothers have died, fathers are widowers. Their children have grown and are falling in love or raising children of their own. They no longer simply move between India and America; they travel the world, to London, Jerusalem, Latin America, Italy. And so, Lahiri has broadened her terrain, beyond the first shock of arrival, beyond the struggles of families to find their footing in a new country while maintaining their ties to India, to the lives of children who “strike their roots into unaccustomed earth”—the passage by Nathaniel Hawthorne from which Lahiri drew her title.
Author Jhumpa Lahiri at the premiere of Namesake. (Evan Agostini / Getty Images / AFP)
Their roots are still in evidence in these stories, usually in the form of a Bengali upbringing, but we find new buds as well—perhaps most evocatively, the interplay between generations. In the title story, the protagonist Ruma responds, faintly at first, to a kind of cultural echo: the understanding that she ought to invite her widower father to live with her young family in their new house, which has “rooms to spare, rooms that stood empty and without purpose”. In India, she realizes, such an offer would go without saying, but she has been raised in the US; she longs, instead, for her dead mother.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this initial predicament might spark swift, predictable conflict with her father or her American husband. But Lahiri never limits her characters to the confines of one cultural clash or another; they are fully human, saving tea bags and playing Internet scrabble. When Ruma and her father speak at cross purposes, it is politely and with affection, and their exchange is not about his future, but hers; he worries about the break she proposes to take from her career in order to be a full-time mother—worries, for reasons he will never articulate, that she may come to feel cramped in a lifestyle that resembles her mother’s. This is only one surprise in a long story filled with quiet revelation, in which the unexpected is so finely wrought that it comes to feel inevitable.
Again and again, Lahiri ushers us into the realm of what people cannot bear to say, to each other or to themselves. The subtlety with which a dramatic secret is revealed in Hell-Heaven—years later, and as an act of kindness—cannot mute its power to terrify. An older sister and her underaged brother hide a few six-packs of beer from their parents—the first, mildest secret of Only Goodness. In the virtuoso Year’s End, the second of a trilogy of stories that trace a relationship between the daughter and son of once-close Bengali families, a young man introduced to his new stepmother struggles to downplay his resentment. His grief over the loss of his mother has been tucked away, a secret that drives him from his father’s new family and into bleak landscapes, both in Year’s End and in the photographic expeditions of Going Ashore, the final story.
Familiar milieu: Many of Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis living in Queens, New York. (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg)
Lahiri is at her best when she is exploring families in any form—even the makeshift family of housemates in Nobody’s Business. She has a gift for describing intimate spaces: the insides of houses, a young girl’s bedroom, or, in A Choice of Accommodations, a disappointing hotel room that becomes “comforting” after an unsettling evening of a few too many drinks. She is precise and pitch perfect when it comes to revealing the emotional lives of her characters and complex systems of feeling are rendered with complete equanimity in a narrative voice that doesn’t bother to impress or flaunt.
Unaccustomed Earth: Random House India, 333 pages, Rs395.
Lahiri might have been describing the effect of her own sentences when one of her characters considers the strength of a new understanding: “I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering and shaping themselves in my body.” Her genius seems to lie in that plainness, in sentences that are so sound and elegant that I think of them as watertight.
In the face of such plainness, what is left to dazzle us is the life her sentences gather and shape—the humanity of her characters. Her fiction is marked by an unwavering instinct for the truth about what people hope, why they fall short, how they love; and, perhaps equally important, by a sense of compassion. No character is out of reach, beyond our understanding or sympathy. I was haunted for days by the fear of a young mother who realizes she has put her child at risk, though I felt that some of the book’s larger gestures, especially in the final story, felt less substantial. References to the violence in El Salvador or the West Bank didn’t quite have the same resonance as the storms at the centre of people’s lives.
The stories of Unaccustomed Earth are generously proportioned, evenly paced, and beautifully shaped. In the face of such seamless prose, it’s almost impossible to figure out the way Lahiri generates momentum in stories that linger over excursions to shopping plazas or the mechanics of a household. I thought of a river current whose force could not be guessed from the quiet ripples on the surface—the cereal bowl that an elderly father rinses every morning for his daughter; the glasses of Johnnie Walker a glamorous couple enjoy; a fresh coat of house paint; a postage stamp; doughnuts—what runs beneath astonishes.
(Nalini Jones is the author of What You Call Winter)
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