Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth

This is a first for me. I am like a student reviewing the master’s work. So, if there are any excesses or shortcomings, I may take the fifth amendment, even though I am not a United States citizen.

‘The Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short fiction stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. The book itself has won multiple awards — 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story award, and was a New York Times, Time and Outlook book of the year.

That was an impressive tag on the book even before I opened it. There are far more mature readers and critics who have placed the book on the high pedestal, so what do you expect here? Let us figure it out, if you have reached this point.

The book is a thesaurus of Indian-American, especially Bengali-American immigrants as they try to adjust and live the lives they dreamt in America and their roots in West Bengal. There are five short stories and a longer one, like a novella.

Characters:

The typical protagonist is a Ph.D holder or a drop out, who aspires for the higher echelons of Ivy League education on Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. Others land in the US from India after their marriage. Jhumpa’s personal experiences in the US have contributed the choices of characters.

The characters are painted through backstories and their mundane daily lives, as the day and times grow. The stories jump enabling the author to take the characters out from a particular point in time to another, making the span of the story cover the lifetimes of the characters.

With ‘Unaccustomed Earth’

Synopsis of Stories:

Unaccustomed Earth:

Ruma, the protagonist of the title story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a lawyer who has lived in Boston and shifted base to Seattle, California. Between her new life, where she struggles to adjust as a homemaker from her previous life as a lawyer, and her exchanges with her father, who, since the loss of his wife has been travelling to Europe. The core of their exchange is about his short but new found interest in his grandson, and the garden. There is a life that Ruma’s father hides from his daughter, and the discovery of the little secret turns the relationship into an open wedge, leaving the reader brooding over their future.

Hell-Heaven:

A young girl is fascinated by ‘Pranab Kaku’ who walks into their lives as a fresh relationship in an otherwise stale life with her parents. Her mother feels alive when Pranab’s around. An intimate, exciting relationship develops between them (albeit not of the romantic kind). Once Pranab gets into a relationship with Deborah, an American, the girl’s mother sees the pair differently, and is feels alienated as Pranab cuts loose. The story interposes the girl’s growing in thoughts and actions and apart from her mother, with Pranab and Deborah’s marriage coming to a full cycle, and ending in divorce. Still the characters are left intertwined, and end up in unintended places.

A Choice of Accommodation:

Amit and Megan fall in love and get married in medical college. Megan drudges through the difficult course and is now a practising surgeon, while Amit drops out to write for a medical journal. They have two sweet kids. Megan and Amit travel to Langford Academy for Pam’s (Amit’s classmate) marriage. Pam now sells literary rights and lives in New York. The story traverses through their evening stay in the vicinity, and their next day at the wedding venue. There is a subtle hint that Pam and Amit might have had a thing for each other, but it turns out to be a husband-wife duel, as Megan and Amit go through an experience that results in a quickie in one of those empty rooms behind. This turns out to my favourite story of the book.

Only Goodness:

This story caricatures the tumultuous on-and-off relationship between Sudha and her younger brother Rahul, with their orthodox parents who cannot connect with him. The burden of oversight builds as an avalanche, with Rahul disappearing a few times as they grow apart over time. Sudha goes on to be the ideal daughter, but shifts her base to London. Over the years, she falls in love with Roger in London, and the family gets together for their betrothal in the US. The aberrant Rahul has an uncomfortable tete-a-tete with Roger, and leaves in a huff. Years pass, and Roger and Sudha bear a child. Rahul turns up, at their home, albeit being reluctant, she lets him stay. Roger protests Rahul’s presence. The incidents that follow creates a three way interlock between Sudha, Roger and Rahul.

Nobody’s Business:

Paul and Heather have a new flat mate called Sang, an unmarried Bengali. Paul gets curious about Sang’s men — the phone calls that comes from men who have her parent’s blessings. But none work out, till she finds a man called Farouk, who often visits her in his BMW. Paul’s curiosity leads him to follow their trysts — he eavesdrops into their conversations, asks questions and stay in to figure things about them. Sang pushes him away. A gap widens between Farouk and her, who does not come anymore, and Sang goes through a heartbreak. Suddenly, Sang disappears. While Paul tries to push his memories about Sang away to focus on his doctoral studies, he gets a call from Deidre, who claims to the other woman of Farouk. Worried, he tries to reach out to Farouk and Sang. The intrigue that arises because of this confusion is the rest of the story.

Hema and Kaushik:

Hema and Kaushik meet as two youngsters. Kaushik’s parents leave Boston for Bombay and return after seven years. Hema is attracted to Kaushik who is not interested in their parental interactions. The high life of Kaushik’s parents is poles apart from the sedate life of Hema’s. This gap is exposed in the short stay that Kaushik and his parents in Hema’s house. The Kaushik family moves out to a sea-facing villa, post which lose each other.

The narrative jumps to Kaushik, whose mother dies in two years after they shift to the villa. Kaushik and his father are driven apart in their life after her death. Kaushik’s father enters his life again with his second bride — Chitra and her two daughters Rupa and Piu. Kaushik tries to build a relationship with his half-sisters, but ends up chiding them over their curiosity about his mother’s pictures and stuff. He drives away to the Canadian border. Finally, he stays away from the family.

Hema, now almost forty years old, has focused on academics, touring Europe, in particularly Italy addressing symposiums. Kaushik has become a war and strife photographer, his mind now numb from the blood and gore of the dead and mutilated. They meet in Italy while dining with a common friend and develop a relationship. However, their relationship does not last long as Kaushik wants Hema to go to Hongkong with him, while Hema is to be married to Navin. As they break off, Hema heads to her marriage, and Kaushik takes a trip to Thailand. Hema discovers that Kaushik is dead when the tsunami hits the shore he stays.

Style and Flow:

Jhumpa starts her story in a way that we jump directly into the lives of her protagonists. We walk, live and listen to the character’s daily chores, as much as their thoughts and feelings. Through the character’s eyes, we also get the visuals of their lives and locations like their houses, colleges, universities. The impact is that we start traversing the story with the characters, even if the narrative is in third person.

The structuring of the story is in such a way that as the point of view changes, the timeline changes, and with that the stories leap forward. This pivoting of timelines and points of view at the same time is her specialty.

The ending of each story is different. There is no finality, yet there is a full stop. We leave the plots reluctantly, as we yearn to travel further with the characters, but it is also time that we turn to the next story. This is a dilemma that we face towards the end of each story — that is a good dilemma to have.

In short:

One of the best fiction I have read, as I am picky in my reads and I need a clear head to read than to write. Jhumpa stays with us even a few days after we have read the book. I feel that I still have to go back to the book to re-read, as my mind turns curious about some of the subtleties and details of the stories.

A good pick if you love deep reading.

~Ashok Subramanian

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