Unaccustomed Earth is Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, published in 2008. It includes five stand-alone stories in part one and three interlinked ones that comprise part two. These narratives are populated with husbands and wives and their children who immigrate to the United States from India (and sometimes back again), recreating their identities as they learn to navigate and adjust to an “unaccustomed earth,” a phrase first used by National Hawthorne in 1850 in The Custom-House:
A "Cruel Shock"
“He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at MIT Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of a week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute.” (p. 62)
Other characters experience similar “shocks” as they try to acclimate. Although the Indian parents in “Only Goodness” once considered their immigration from India to London an adventure, when they across the Atlantic to begin life in a small New England town they feel as if they are facing “a life sentence of being foreign” (p. 138). The Indian stepmother in “Year’s End” won’t allow her two daughters outside of their suburban American home without her supervision and admits that she is afraid to be home alone. In “Once in a Lifetime” Hema’s mother encourages her to sleep in the same room with her parents, a traditional custom in India, and considers “the idea of a child sleeping alone a cruel American practice…” (p. 229).
For some of the characters in these stories, acclimating to an “unaccustomed earth” doesn’t require a transcontinental journey. In “Year’s End” Kaushik is displaced from his own bedroom to make way for his father’s new family from India. The presence of his new stepmother taking his mother’s place and the continual memories of his mother dying there ultimately make living in a place he once considered home unbearable. In “A Choice of Accommodations” Amit remembers his adolescent angst when his immigrant parents decided to return to India without their son, abandoning him in a Massachusetts boarding school where he was the only Indian, friendless and “crippled with homesickness” (p 97).
The children of immigrant parents in these stories, some born in India and some born in the United States, generally fare better in this often shocking “unaccustomed earth” than their parents. They reject arranged marriages in favor of mixed marriages (Hema is a surprising exception in “Going Ashore”), speak more English than Bengali, wear skirts and pants instead of saris, and eat boxed mararoni and cheese instead of chochori. Ultimately some of their parents decide to return to the “accustomed earth” of their homeland to live, but their children invariably stay even if they feel alienated and lonely.
Men and women face challenges in their relationships whether their marriages are arranged (“Hell-Heaven”) or not (“Unaccustomed Earth”, “A Choice Of Accommodations”), Longings are often unfulfilled (“Hell-Heaven”, “Nobody’s Business”) and hearts break (“Hell-Heaven”, “Going Ashore”). Indifference sets in ("Only Goodness"). Trust erodes (“Only Goodness”).
Parent-child conflicts often stem from unrealistic expectations of parents imposed upon their offspring. The father in “Only Goodness” pressures his son and daughter to excel academically by taping newspaper articles about gifted adolescents to the refrigerator. He requests an application to Harvard Medical School for his daughter when she is only 14. As the father in “Unaccustomed Earth” encourages his only daughter to keep her career while raising two small children, Ruma feels she has “always felt unfairly cast, by both her parents, into roles that weren’t accurate: as her father’s oldest son, her mother’s secondary spouse.” (p.36)
If mothers and fathers leave their homeland in search of better opportunities for their children, as many of these characters do, then they often expect unrealistic happiness from their offspring in return. In “Only Goodness” the daughter pities her parents for not being able to see the unhappiness that underlies their son’s alcoholism:
“Her parents had always been blind to the things that plagued their children: being teased at school for the color of their skin or for the funny things their mother occasionally put in their lunch boxes, potato curry sandwiches that tinted Wonderbread green. What could there possibly be to be unhappy about? her parents would have thought. ‘Depression’ was a foreign word to them, an American thing. In their opinion their children were immune from the hardships and injustices they had left behind in India, as if the inoculations the pediatrician had given Sudha and Rahul when they were babies guaranteed them an existence free of suffering.” (pp. 143-144)
The loss of a mother profoundly affects the son in “Year’s End” and daughter in “Unaccustomed Earth.” One of the book’s most powerful scenes comes close to the end of “Year’s End.” Kaushik, who cannot bear to look at the images of his mother, drives to the easternmost state park in the country and buries her photos in a box overlooking the sea where her ashes are scattered. In another powerful scene which ends “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma affixes a stamp to a postcard which she will mail to her father’s unacknowledged companion, symbolizing her acceptance of her mother’s death and widowed father’s need for companionship.
“’This (waiting) is the worst part,’ she told me once. ‘You’re holding your breath, thinking it’s still ahead, but this really is the worst of it, for you and for her.’ At the time her words had not soothed me; I could imagine nothing worse than the moment my mother longer drew air in and out of her lungs, no longer took us in through her weary eyes. I could imagine nothing worse than not being able to look at her face every day, its beauty growly distorted but never abandoning her. But in the days after her death I realized Mrs. Gharibian had been right, there had been nothing worse than waiting for it to come, that the void that followed was easier to bear than the solid weight of those days.” (pp. 267-268)
Regardless of the “unaccustomed earth” issues that challenge and sometimes defeat Lahiri’s characters, their individual stories “realistically depict the complexity of the human experience in a world of increasing demands and change, while reminding us,” as Hawthorne did 164 years ago, “of the importance of experiencing new environments as a way for all of us to grow. “
In an interview, Lahiri indicated it took her a long time—a “lifetime” in her words—to write the first story in the trilogy, “Once in a Lifetime.” But once that story was completed the second one—“Year’s End”—was written very quickly. “I just saw the whole thing in my head,” she said, “which is rare. The more time I spent with these characters, the more they become part of you, and I had a hard time emotionally letting go of them.”
One of Lahiri’s many strengths is the emotional connection that she forges between her fictional characters and her readers. Like her, we often have a hard time “emotionally letting go.”
Jumpha Lahiri's Writing Style
Lahiri experimented with a creative narrative style in part two of the collection that makes these emotionally intense stories very personal. The first two stories are written in the forms of long letters, Hema to Kaushik in “Once in a Lifetime” and Kaushik to Hema in “Year’s End.” Each story-letter reveals events that have shaped Hema and Kaushik’s lives Kaushik and their reflections from an adult perspective. Lahiri reverts to a traditional third-person narrative form in the last story of the trilogy, “Going Ashore,” which brings together Kaushik and Hema in a passionate but short-lived burst of happiness following their long separation.
All of Lahiri’s stories rely on the strength of her skillfully crafted characterizations. Although all of her characters walk a tightrope between two cultures, she brings an originality to each of them that assures each character and each story its own identity. As Victor F. Kralisz writes in his review, “It would be great and possible to imagine the characters from one story here running into another set of characters from another story and not only understanding each other but forming yet a new story.”
It is easy and intriguing to imagine just such a meeting.
About Jumpha Lahiri
Lahiri writes with empathy and compassion about the immigrants because she is one. The daughter of Indian parents who immigrated to London prior to her birth, Lahiri was born there but moved to Rhode Island with her parents when she was two years ago. She was educated in the United States, earning Lahiri was educated in the United States, earning three masters degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative studies in literature and the arts and a doctoral degree in Renaissance studies. She lived and wrote in the United States until 2013 when she immigrated with her husband and two children to Italy. In an interview with Vogue, Lahari discussed the motivation that led her to want to explore the immigrant experience herself:
“I write a lot about people who leave one place behind and go to another—that’s been my work from the beginning—but I personally never really experienced that. I came to the U.S. when I was two years old, and while I’ve observed close at hand what it means to be an immigrant, I’ve never had to get to know another country in which I clearly don’t belong and to speak in a second language and to do all of those things that my characters do and that my parents did and that my husband, Alberto, has done. I felt that there was something missing. So I convinced him to quit his job and off we went. And it’s been the most incredible year of my life.”