An alternative title to Unaccustomed Earth could very well be-“The distraught lives of Bengali Americans”. It is no secret that Lahiri writes about Bengali Americans, their travails and search for identity. It was the prevalent theme in the much vaunted “Interpreter of Maladies.” It was the same theme expanded into a novel in “The Namesake.” In “Unaccustomed Earth”, she continues down the beaten track.
Somerset Maugham’s characters were mostly English. In the preface to “The Razor’s Edge”, he was somewhat hesitant, having chosen to write about Americans:
“I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. … I do not pretend that [the characters] are American as Americans see themselves; they are American seen through an English eye.”
Rohinton Mistry’s characters are middle class Parsis in Bombay. Thus it is only natural that Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis. But it doesn’t end there. Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis in New England. More specifically, Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis who grew up in the Boston area, often tied to academics, references to MIT, Harvard, Boston not infrequent. Also, there are two kinds of characters in Lahiri’s works – isolated, second generation children of immigrants torn between the past and the present, and disenchanted, first generation parents out of place in a society they had chosen but are unable to reconcile with. Wait, there’s a third kind – quiet, judicious Americans observant of their lives. And in “Unaccustomed Earth”, she digs deeper into this pattern, at the risk of being repetitive to the extent of regurgitation.
This is not to ridicule her writing. Her prose is meticulous, uniform, chiseled to perfection. She is particularly gifted in turning out melancholy stories that are poignant without being sentimental. To me however, most of the stories in this collection lost their resonance, simply for the fact of having read all her earlier works. The quality of her writing is not nearly enough to lift the book beyond the monotony of repetitive themes. Yet two stories stand out, signaling what Lahiri, as a serious, thoughtful artist, is capable of.
Unaccustomed Earth is a two part book, the first, larger portion devoted to five different stories in the same flavor, of which the opening story is truly extraordinary. Part two, Hema and Kaushik, is a novella, which, if surmised as a sign of things to come in the future, bears the promise of newness.
The title story is based in Seattle. Being a Pacific Northwest resident myself, scant references to its landmarks were gratifying. That of course in not the source of the story’s ingenuity. What Lahiri captures beautifully is the landscape of three very different generations – father, daughter, and grandson. We find an estranged, septuagenarian father pulled by the novelty of a relationship with another woman after the passing away of his wife, and drawn to sharing the joys of his only grandson at the same time. The pain of seeing children drifting away is powerfully expressed in a father’s rumination.
“He remembered his children coming home from college, impatient with him and his wife, enamored of their newfound independence, always wanting to leave. It had tormented his wife and, though he never admitted it, had pained him as well. He couldn’t help thinking, on those occasions, how young they’d once been, how helpless in his nervous arms, needing him for their very survival, knowing no one else. He and his wife were their whole world. But eventually that need dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap. That loss was in store for Ruma too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things.”
The story does not ponder upon life and death but merely touches them in passing. Yet Ruma’s awe in her son, and the deep loss she feels in the absence of her mother, manage to evoke something profound.
“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times-simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now-that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.”
It is portals such as these that elevate the story above its predictable, cloistered theme. Lahiri’s unencumbered prose touches a reader in the recognition of the universal, in way that is simple and powerful.
“Hema and Kaushik”, as the title suggests, is a love story, but one quite unconventional. It begins in the manner of many of her narratives-Hema’s first person reminiscence of her childhood, when Kaushik and his parents put up in their home upon their return from India. There’s a notable difference, in the inclusion of the second person, addressed to Kaushik. A trend breaker-I cannot recall her having used it earlier. But there’s more.
Chapter two of the three section novella shows a totally different point of view-with the adolescent Kaushik now in the first person, as we discover the upheavals in his life in progression. The concluding segment then switches to third person universal, where the principals in their adulthood, having grown up to be very different individuals yet similar in never having found the love of their lives, temporarily converge before the final, heartbreaking end. The final epilogue, barely a page, returns to Hema again, her realization of a permanent loss. The shadow of Kaushik in her life is obliterated by fate, as she herself steps into the mundane, by choice.
Here is a writer breaking out of the mould, with the freshness of an experimentation that is both controlled and assured. I can only hope that it is a harbinger of change-at least in narrative style if not themes, for it may lead to other things. It is about time.