Jhumpa Lahiri’s new stories continue her incisive exploration of the Indian-American condition. Andrea Walker sees Lahiri’s ﬁction expanding its range as her focus shifts to a third generation of immigrants.
Jhumpa Lahiri has made her reputation producing clear, subtle prose that explores the predicament of people caught between two cultures: India and America. Many of the stories in her 1999 debut collection Interpreter of Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize, focused on the lives of first-generation American-Indian immigrants. Her 2003 novel, The Namesake (made into an award-winning film by Mira Nair), tracked the life of a family – a couple who emigrated from Calcutta in the 1960s, and their two Boston-born children – who struggle to balance the demands of their new environment with what seem like the distant constraints of an Indian past.
Lahiri’s new collection represents an evolution in form and subject: her new stories are longer, taking in complex shifts in time and perspective – one might usefully call them novelistic – while shifting their focus to a younger generation of Indian-Americans. The children in Lahiri’s previous works have grown up in Unaccustomed Earth, and now have children of their own.
But what makes their situation different, Lahiri seems to asking, from those who came before them? In the title story Ruma is a Pennsylvania-born, mid-thirties homemaker who has recently relocated to Seattle. Her husband Adam has taken a job working for a hedge fund, and Ruma is relieved to abandon her own career as a New York attorney after her mother dies from complications in routine surgery. As a young girl Ruma scorned her mother’s example – “moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, tending children and a household” – but now finds she has followed it, looking after her young son and preparing for a second child on its way. After her mother’s death, Ruma feels she must invite her father to live with her family – in India, she observes, “there would have been no question.” But it is in America that Ruma’s father has lived his adult life, and it turns out that he has his own ideas about how his future should proceed.
Lahiri elegantly weaves the narration between Ruma and her father, demonstrating how painfully they misunderstand each other’s motivations. Ruma worries that “her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to.” On the other hand, “not offering him a place in her home made her feel worse.”
It is a bind that her American husband doesn’t understand (“‘We’ve been over this a million times, Rum. It’s your call.’”) even as he attempts to be sympathetic, trying to console Ruma over her mother’s death “by allowing her to leave her job, splurging on a beautiful house, agreeing to have a second baby.” When her father’s self-sufficiency is distinctly established during the course of a visit, Ruma is not relieved: “she knew her father did not need taking care of, and yet this very fact caused her to feel guilty.” The freedoms Ruma has been afforded – to pursue a career and then abandon it, when she feels her energies would be better directed – have not made her any happier than her mother, a woman “trained all her life to serve her husband first.”
In Only Goodness Sudha, a successful economist living in London, is married to an attentive British art historian and infatuated with her newborn son. But a cloud hangs over Sudha, in the form of her younger brother Rahul, who developed an alcohol problem as a teen and later cut off ties with his family. Sudha feels a particular guilt because she was the one who gave Rahul his first drink, when he visited her at a college party. But in a more general sense she feels responsible for her brother’s well- being, believing that her own childhood “slipped through the cracks” of her parents’ migration (from India to England to America) and determined to provide him a different, western, experience.
Sudha, “sought out all the right toys for him, scavenging from yard sales the Fisher Price barn, Tonka trucks, the Speak and Say that made animal sounds. . . . She asked her parents to buy him the books she’d been read by her first teachers, Peter Rabbit and Frog and Toad. . . . She told her parents to set up sprinklers on the lawn for him to run through in the summer, and she convinced her father to put a swing in the yard.” Rahul is as unmoved by these things as he is by Sudha’s sense of obligation to their parents – she talks to repairmen on the phone because her English is flawless, explains to her father that he needs to bag the autumn leaves instead of just raking them into the woods opposite their house – but while Sudha internalises her parents’ grief, experiencing their “separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like a cancer,” Rahul feels no such sympathy. “‘No one dragged them here,’” he says. “‘Baba left India to get rich, and Ma married him because she had nothing else to do.’” When a supposedly rehabilitated Rahul shows up on her doorstep in London, Sudha finds that she must choose between her loyalty to him and to her husband and child.
In the moving triptych that closes the book, Lahiri presents two Bengali teenagers born in America, brought together through the friendship of their families. In Once in a Lifetime Hema is an awkward 13-year-old girl whose bedroom is taken over by an aloof 16-year-old boy named Kaushik. Kaushik’s parents are friends of Hema’s from the time when the men were pursuing their doctorates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Choudhuris have returned, inexplicably, after a seven-year hiatus in Bombay (a place that “made them more American than Cambridge had,” Hema’s mother observes), and are staying with Hema’s family while they look for a new house. The story, narrated in the first-person by Hema, and addressed to a “you” that is the handsome and moody Kaushik, ends with a revelation about the reason for his family’s return. It is a secret about his mother that makes Hema “furious that you had told me, and that you had not told me, feeling at once burdened and betrayed.”
Year’s End, the story that follows, is told in the first-person by Kaushik, and when the two characters are shown as adults in the book’s final story, Going Ashore, the third-person narration alternates between the male and female perspectives. It takes nothing away from the startling and sad ending to reveal that Hema, now a classics scholar, and Kaushik, a photojournalist, fall in love after a chance encounter reunites them in Italy. They are drawn together because of their history – the first night they spent together Hema is aware, “without having to be told,” that she is the first woman Kaushik has been with who knew his mother, “who was able to remember her as he did” – but as in the book’s previous stories their past cannot be smoothly incorporated into the present. Hema is in her late thirties by the time they reconnect, and has consented to an arranged marriage with a man in Calcutta.
At times the characters in Unaccustomed Earth seem beset by an anomie that is greater than that of their parents – what Sudha experiences as “an overwhelming sense of regret, for what exactly she did not know” – but other stories are more hopeful, and show a tentative bond between characters of different backgrounds. In Nobody’s Business an insecure American graduate student learns to assert himself, through his friendship with a glamorous Bengali roommate. In A Choice of Accomodations a stalled marriage is reinvigorated between an easily contented Indian-American man and his exceedingly driven, formerly working-class American wife.
The most sophisticated rendering of this trajectory occurs in the story Hell-Heaven, where a Bengali woman raised in Boston comes to understand the complexity of her mother’s relationship with a man thought to be a family friend. Here, the sought-after synthesis of disparate lives occurs in a moment of understanding between a conventional Indian mother and her modern American daughter, about the compromises made for the sake of family. This insight comes at the expense of an innocent woman – an unassuming Radcliffe student – and suggests an unpleasant truth: that some forms of kinship can only be achieved by the exclusion of outsiders.
And yet those outsiders are necessary, these stories suggest, because they create a friction that allows for growth. It is a sentiment exemplified in a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne, which both opens Lahiri’s book and provides its title: “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted . . . in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and . . . shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” Lahiri’s latest collection shows the sacrifices that are involved in this effort, and the vibrant blooms that can result.
Andrea Walker is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker