Jhumpa Lahiri

"Unaccustomed Earth"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 24, 2008)

Jhumpa Lahiri is easily one of the best American writers of contemporary fiction. She has always had acute powers of observation and has used them to interpret situations and processes that captivate her imagination. Even better, Lahiri bestows her uncanny powers of observation on her characters as well. 

Lahiri has said in interviews that her parents' arranged marriage continues to fascinate her, and that it is a question that has preoccupied her in all the books she has written. In her latest story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, the question occupies prime real estate in my favorite story—Hell-Heaven. The story speaks simply yet amazingly eloquently to the intense desperation felt by the primary characters, the narrator's mother and Pranab Chakraborty—a young flamboyant newly-arrived graduate student in Cambridge, so very different from the narrator's more staid father. Over countless delicious Bengali dinners, Boudi (as Pranab respectfully calls the mom) develops a slow and lingering crush on the young student who eventually grows wings and leaves to marry an American woman. The emotional nuances in this—and all of Lahiri's stories—for that matter, are so beautifully realized that they take your breath away.  “I did not know, back then, that Pranab Kaku's visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance,” says the narrator. In her best stories, the most touching realizations come from what is left unsaid, and here too, in Lahiri's signature style, the narrator slowly pieces together the nuggets of information leading to the stunning conclusion in the end.

Lahiri's subjects—Bengali immigrants and their American offspring—continue the path of assimilation she has described in her previous writing including in her Pulitzer-prize winning story collection The Interpreter of Maladies and her novel, The Namesake. This new collection feels more mature and the topics Lahiri tackles reflect more complicated issues that the immigrant community must deal with in a new land. Topics such as teen alcoholism that she explores beautifully in the story “Only Goodness” are especially sensitive for the usually conservative Indian American community—one that is often labeled a “model minority.” The second generation's role in this immigrant community (as in many others) is to serve as a bridge between the Old World ways of their parents and the new American ones. And as Lahiri shows, the young ones are not always comfortable with this arrangement. In “Only Goodness” when Rahul slowly takes to alcohol dropping out of Cornell without finishing his studies, it is up to his sister, Sudha, to confront him and set him back on the straight and narrow. The parents would never know what to do. “Depression was a foreign word to them, an American thing.” Lahiri writes. “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 from suffering.” The kids often rebel against the inverted caretaker role or at least resent it a lot.

The children Lahiri talks about are also conflicted to find themselves leading the lives they tried so hard to rebel against and leave behind. In the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma has trained as a lawyer but is plunked in Seattle taking care of her child, Akash while her American husband manages hedge funds and travels frequently. “Growing up, her mother's example—moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, tending children and a household—had served as a warning, a path to avoid. Yet this was Ruma's life now,” Lahiri writes.

The final trio of stories together track a couple Hema and Kartik over many years. In the first story the two meet as teenagers having been thrust into a shaky friendship because their parents know each other well. In the second story, Kartik is introduced to his step-sisters after his bereaved father marries again and in the final story, Hema and Kartik strike up an intense and short affair after they bump into each other in Italy.

One minor complaint about the collection is that three of the eight stories have appeared in the New Yorker before. Even if it seems trivial to complain about it, this reviewer felt cheated in a small way to find so many repeats.

The phrase “Unaccustomed Earth” is a phrase borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne and it encapsulates the plight of the immigrant's child: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” Whereas Lahiri's first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, largely showed its characters sending out very tentative feelers in a new land, this latest volume has Lahiri's characters delving further into the immigrant experience. In her new story collection, Lahiri focuses mostly on the children and delivers her best work yet. The inherent complexities of the children's dual lives shows us just how difficult assimilation can be. It is no easy task to strike roots into unaccustomed earth. Luckily for us, Lahiri has trained her eye on the process time and again and illuminated its attendant trials in exquisite prose.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 243 reviews
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"The Namesake"

(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte SEP 07, 2003)

When Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories first appeared in The New Yorker four years ago, I became among her avid fans. Later, when published as the collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, they won her the 2000 Pulitzer. The title story was selected for the O. Henry Award and for Best American Short Stories. Therefore her second book and first full-length novel The Namesake must meet extravagant expectations. When I read an extract from The Namesake in The New Yorker, I already knew that Lahiri had done it again.

Once again she gives us the same treatment as her short stories did, a few characters exiled between India and the United States leading otherwise mostly unremarkable lives. The difference, of course, is that here we get to live with these characters through an entire novel.

Lahiri knows the terrain like the back of her hand: the community of expatriate Bengalis in the Boston area; their peculiarly lonely lives with ersatz extended families made up of fellow expats; the customs and world view through which they see their own everyday experience; and the struggle of their American children with their own questions of identity and belonging.

The protagonist, Nikhil "Gogol" Ganguli, a young man about the same age as the author, born like her to immigrant parents from West Bengal, grows up in New England in the seventies and eighties, moves out, and struggles to find himself through successive ill-fated relationships. His inner thoughts are the vehicle through which the author explores the other characters, including his parents and sister.

Lahiri has a gift for inhabiting the emotional space of her characters while describing the most mundane occurrences. Combined with her authentic familiarity with the lives of the Indian diaspora, this gift lets the reader identify with her characters. As children, Gogol and his sister Sonia accompany their parents to live in India for eight months. When they return, their American friends "ask them nothing about where they've been." This little observation, thrown in casually toward the end of a section, speaks volumes about the children's condition and the experiences from which their sense of identity is built.

In a Newsweek interview after her first book, Lahiri said, "I like to write about people who think in a way they can't fully express." The extract in The New Yorker is an example. Ashoke Ganguli names his son "Gogol," after an old Russian author. The reasons are complicated. They involve a horrendous 1961 wreck of the Howrah-Ranchi express that almost killed Ashoke in his youth, his subsequent recovery, and his move to the United States to pursue an education at MIT. Ashoke often struggles to express his reasons. When at last he tells his son the story, it has a profound effect on the boy, who until then has hated his strange name, and it marks a change in their relationship.

The beginning of the book is a series of episodes that could stand on their own as short stories, but they serve to introduce and build up the characters of Ashoke and Ashima and of their son Gogol. After he moves away from home, the narrative takes us with him on his lonely journey through a rather unfair share of bad luck and tragedy. Eventually, as he begins to find answers to some of his deepest held questions, a fresh breath of optimism enters his life.

It is easy to mistake Lahiri's style of recording minor everyday observations for just another novel employing exotic Indian-American backdrops (breaded chicken cutlets, chickpeas with tamarind sauce) to peddle ordinary storylines. But nothing could be farther from the truth. She has a keen sense of what makes her characters and their dilemmas unique, and an extraordinary talent for empathy. If, like me, you were waiting for a novel-length version of one of her short stories, look no further than The Namesake.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 526 reviews

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About the Author:

Jhumpa LahariJhumpa Lahiri was born 1967 in London, England, and raised in Rhode Island. She is a graduate of Barnard College, where she received a B.A. in English literature, and of Boston University, where she received an M.A. in English, M.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Since 2005, Lahiri has been a Vice President of the PEN American Center, an organization designed to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their two children.

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