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Title: Unaccustomed Earth
Author: Jumpha Lahiri

Summary: Unaccustomed Earth is a simply beautiful collection of stories. Personally speaking, in my reading life, I don’t remember an author who can spin such a delicate, intricate web of parents and children, love and marriage, and fill it, by turns, with such palpable anguish, hope, fear, and longing. Jhumpa Lahiri makes us feel proud, and privileged, to be readers. Her words open our minds to lovely, careless, devastating, illuminating truths – and our hearts, to the crushing beauty of Life.

Unaccustomed Earth is made up of 8 stories. The first five stand alone, independent of each other. The final 3 are linked, overlapping each other to form a trilogy. They detail the relationship of a Bengali-American boy and girl whose lives weave in and out of each other’s, over a period of years, almost like an inescapable Destiny---ending, ultimately, in tragedy. All of the stories are so rich in detail, so vivid, so haunting, that each one felt to me almost like reading a tiny novel. Normally, in a collection of short stories, you find one or two that just aren’t as satisfying as the others. This is not the case, with Unaccustomed Earth. I actually found myself thinking, as I finished each of the stories, “Well, that was the BEST one”….until I read the next. I also noted the singular way Jhumpa concludes each of her tales. Her prose carries us along, as if we are passengers on a train rattling along the tracks. As we come to the end of each story, the train seems to rush breathlessly into the station, and finally, jolts to a halt: in the last few moments of each story’s journey, it feels as if the entire trip has led us to the only destination possible: to a flash of insight, to a sudden tear in the eye, to a rip in the heart---a complete and perfect fulfillment of the promise made each time we boarded the train in the first paragraphs---we’ve arrived safely home, with a consummate artist in the driver’s seat.

Author Biography: Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri was born 1967 in London and goes by pet name Jhumpa, which she got from a teacher who thought it was easier to pronounce. Jumpha is the daughter of Bengali Indian immigrants and was raised in Kingston, Rhode Island. Her father a librarian at University of Rhode Island. Jumpa's mother wanted her children to know their Bengali heritage so they often traveled to Calcutta.

She has four degrees from Boston University, B.A., M.A., MFA, and Ph.D. and in 2001 she married Albert Vourvoulis Bush, who is an editor for Time/Latin American edition. They have two children.

Jumpa's first collection of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and Unaccustomed Earth shot to No. 1 on the NYT best seller list. Generally her fiction is autobiographical because it draws on the experience of others in the Bengali community.

"I'm lucky that I'm between two worlds...I don't really know what a distinct South Asian identity means. I don't think about that when I write. I just try to bring a person to life"

Story Synopses: In the first, title story, a daughter nervously hosts her widowed father in Seattle, where she and her husband and young son live. Bengali custom dictates that the father must come and live with the daughter. Ruma, newly pregnant and grieving the loss of her mother, is terribly conflicted by the sense of obligation. The day before her father is due to leave, Ruma finally extends the invitation---and is startled to find that her father has no desire to live with her at all. –quote—“It is a good place, Ruma. But this is your home, not mine.’ “I know it would be a big move,” Ruma continued. “But it would be good for you. For all of us.” By now she was crying. Her father did not step forward to comfort her. He was silent, waiting for the moment to pass. He was suddenly desperate to leave, the remaining 24 hours feeling unbearable. He knew that it was not for his sake that his daughter was asking him to live here. It was for hers. She needed him, as he’d never felt she’d needed him before. A part of him, the part of him that would never cease to be a father, felt obligated to accept. But it was not what he wanted.”

The second story, Hell-Heaven, is narrated by a young girl, Usha, whose mother falls madly in love with Pranab, a young, lonely and unattached Bengali whom Usha and her mother run into by chance in Harvard Yard. Pranab quickly becomes one of the family, and the mother’s quiet and repressed existence, married as she is to a silent, joyless husband, is completely transformed, as Pranab brings her to life with his youthful exuberance. Usha tells us – quote- “He brought to my mother the first and, I suspect, the only pure happiness she ever felt. I don’t think even my birth made her as happy. I was evidence of her marriage to my father, an assumed consequence of the life she had been raised to lead. But Pranab was different. He was the one totally unanticipated pleasure in her life.” Eventually, Pranab marries an American woman, and their lives drift apart. At the same time, Usha grows away from her mother, rejecting her in favor of the more exciting, teen-age American life that is beckoning. It is only at the end of the story that Usha, now a grown woman, her own heart broken by the end of a love affair, really seems to SEE her mother, in the shared, universal yearnings of the human heart.

In A Choice Of Accommodations, Amit is a devoted husband and father, married to Megan, a med student 5 years older than he. When Amit was a teenager, his parents suddenly decided to return to India. They enrolled Amit at Langford, a boarding school in the Berkshires, where he was the only Indian student. As the story begins, Amit is returning to Langford many years later to attend, with Megan, the wedding of Pam, his first love. In search of a phone, wanting to call and check on his children, Amit wanders away from the wedding reception, and ends up re-tracing steps he’d taken so long ago, when he was homesick and missing his parents. In the dark, he comes face-to-face with the specter of his boyhood self---quote- “He stopped, to listen to the serenade of the frogs that lived around the lake. It was a sound he had forgotten, one that had haunted him and kept him awake his first nights in a Langford dormitory, at the end of another August night when he was 15 years old. The deafening thrum spoke to Amit tonight as it had then, of everything in the world that teemed beyond his vision, was beyond his grasp.”

In Only Goodness, a Bengali couple, whose marriage is – quote –‘neither happy nor unhappy’ - set enormously high expectations for their two children. When their son Rahul is admitted to Cornell, their parents throw a party. Quote- “Our job is done,” their father declared, posing for pictures with Rahul and Sudha at either side.” In the end, those expectations fall away, one by one, proving themselves no match at all for Rahul’s alcoholism. In some of the most beautiful writing in the whole collection, Jhumpa describes Sudha’s love for her brother; her determination that he have a more ‘normal’ American childhood than she’d had; her growing awareness of the severity of his problems and her helplessness to fix them---and, in the end, her agonizing yet realistic decision to let him go. She might not have, had she not a son of her own to protect. Quote- “She heard Neel upstairs, stirring in his crib. In another minute he would cry out, expecting breakfast. She returned to the kitchen, opened a cupboard, took out a pack of Weetabix, heated milk in a pan. Something brushed against her ankles, and she saw that the balloon tied to the back of Neel’s high chair was no longer suspended on its ribbon. It had sagged to the floor, a shrunken thing incapable of bursting. She clipped the ribbon with scissors and stuffed the whole thing into the garbage, surprised at how easily it fit, thinking of the husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and terrifying as any other.”

Nobody's Business was first published in The New Yorker in 2001, and I remember reading it, and thinking, “Who IS this writer??’ The story became part of the Best Short Stories of 2001 collection. What struck me so is the elusive beauty of Sang--- her enjoyment of Life, her trusting nature- and the terrible sense of its being destroyed by others in her orbit. A battle is waged over her, without her being even aware of it, by her perfidious lover, Farouk, and her lonely and repressed roommate Paul. Neither one of them quite understood her, any more than the would-be Bengali suitors who’d call her on the phone, sight-unseen, looking to meet her at the suggestion of their families. I loved the description of Sang painting her room: quote- “For the walls, she had chosen a soothing sage green; for the trim, the palest lavender, a color that the paint company called “mole.” Jhumpa tells us that Sang painted barefoot, listening to Billie Holiday. We learn near the end of the story that she’d painted Farouk’s walls in the same colors. There is tender poignancy in the moment when Sang’s sister calls her from London. Quote- “Can’t talk, I’m painting my room sage and mole,” she reported cheerfully to her sister, and when she replaced the receiver of the dark brown phone there were a few of her mole-colored fingerprints on the surface.”

The final three stories are grouped under the heading “Hema and Kaushik.” Jhumpha has been quoted as saying that those two characters had lived with her- inside her head- for ten years. That doesn’t surprise me - her portraits of the two characters are so detailed and real that it feels as if she could be writing about her own family members. Interestingly, she mixes it up with narration in these three stories. I found that choice, in and of itself, to be inspired. In the first story, Once In A Lifetime, she uses first-person narrative. It’s Hema’s voice that speaks directly to Kaushik, letting him – and us – experience the Cambridge winter when Hema was 13, and Kaushik and his parents came to stay in her home. In those awkward weeks, Hema develops a crush on the older, completely oblivious Kaushik. She tells him – quote- “I did not know what to make of you.” We hear how much more sophisticated and American Kaushik’s parents seem to Hema, compared to her own – they drink Johnny Walker every night; his mother sneaks cigarettes in the bathroom; they go out to dinner and order steak and baked potatoes. There is the scene when Kaushik’s mother buys Hema her first bra in the lingerie department of Jordan Marsh. Hema says, - quote- “Normally, we went to Sears.” Hema sees Kaushik’s mother’s breasts, as she stands beside Hema in the fitting room, both of them trying on bras. Quote- “Perfect,” your mother said, running her finger below the elastic, along my skin, adding, “I hope you know that you’re going to be very beautiful one day.’ Near the end of the story, Kaushik tells Hema that his mother has breast cancer. Hema is shocked, and begins to cry. She speaks to Kaushik here- quote- “Perhaps you believed that I was crying for you or your mother, but I was not. I was too young, that day, to feel sorrow or sympathy. I felt only the enormous fear of having a dying woman in our home. I remembered standing beside your mother, both of us topless in the fitting room, disturbed that I had been in such close proximity to the disease. I was furious that you had told me, and that you had not told me, feeling at once burdened and betrayed, hating you all over again.”

In Year's End, Jhumpa gives the role of narrator to Kaushik. He is now a senior at Swarthmore College, and the story centers on Kaushik’s trip home for Christmas vacation. His mother has died, and his father has married an old-fashioned Indian woman half his age, with two young daughters. Kaushik tries to accept that his father has moved on---he tries to be respectful to his step-mother and kind to his step-sisters--- but the memories of his mother, in the last months of her life, there in the same house now occupied by his father and his brand- new family, overwhelm him. He leaves the house and drives for days up the coast of Maine, taking with him a shoebox of photographs of his mother. Finally, he stops and walks deep into a forest, where he buries the photos. The story is really a long, painful, tortured good-bye …not just to his mother, but to his identity as a son.

Going Ashore reverts back to third-person narration. Hema and Kaushik are adults now. Hema is a Latin professor at Wellesley, and Kaushik is a photojournalist, traveling to war zones all over the world. Hema, after a lengthy affair with a married man, agrees to a traditional arranged marriage. Against all odds- again, there is that sense of Fate, or Destiny –Hema and Kaushik meet each other in Rome, just days before Hema’s wedding in India, and embark on a passionate affair. I found myself willing them to stay together; to call off the wedding; to honor their shared history, and treasure the incredible gift of having found each other again. But Jhumpa knows her people! Of course, they parted---Hema motivated by her own need to be safe and settled; Kaushik with anger and longing. Hema flies to India for her wedding, and Kaushik, tragically, to Thailand, where he’s asked by a tourist, quote- “You felt your bed shake this morning? They said, in the hotel, a small earthquake. It’s over now.” In the last few pages of the story, the narration is taken up by Hema, and she speaks directly to Kaushik. Quote- “I returned to my existence, the existence I had chosen instead of you. It was another winter in Massachusetts, 30 years after you and your parents had first gone away. I needed no proof of your absence from the world; I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering and shaping themselves in my body. It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.”

Discussion: The first words that greet you, as you open Unaccustomed Earth, come from a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House.” Jhumpa Lahiri chose them as a sort of epigraph, a way of communicating to us the over-riding theme that connects the 8 stories in her collection. Here is the Hawthorne quote:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birth places, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

I don’t know under what circumstances Jhumpa Lahiri first read those words of Hawthorne’s, but having read and loved her three masterpieces - The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and now, Unaccustomed Earth - I can almost feel the force with which the words resonated for her. Hawthorne expresses the belief that leaving the familiar---leaving home, and going out into the world, where nothing is ‘accustomed’---teaches us, improves us, challenges us, and ultimately, re-creates us. Jhumpa Lahiri is herself of Bengali descent. However, she was born in London, raised in Rhode Island, and today, lives in Brooklyn. It seems to me that Jhumpa Lahiri is fascinated and inspired by the concepts of home and nationality---of blood ties, birthright, and heritage---and how the transplanting of such powerful yet basic definitions of us, as humans, alters our lives in a myriad of different ways.

Each of the eight stories in Unaccustomed Earth centers around two generations of Bengalis. There are the immigrant husbands and wives and parents who leave India to come to America---- and there are the children they bring with them, or birth here, in their new country. The stories are like inter-twining blocks in a child’s Lego set - eight different narratives, eight different plights, desires, hopes, needs - but there are deep, underlying threads that unite them, and weave them together to form a stunningly beautiful tapestry. In each story, we feel the isolating strangeness of the new land to the parents--- their struggle to adapt and make good lives for themselves and their children in the ‘unaccustomed earth’ of the United States. They are brilliant people!--- hard-working, diligent, and highly educated. Scientists, and engineers, who bravely seize the opportunities they have earned to teach at MIT, or research at Harvard. They have been gifted---and so they accept the gift. They want the American dream for their children---the upper-crust Prep Schools, the Ivy League colleges, a spacious, modern home with a swimming pool. And yet, there remains a longing, deep in their hearts--- a sad and melancholy sense of loss for the language, customs, culture, and family they left behind. For their children, the earth so ‘unaccustomed’ to their parents is the only earth they really know. They see America with American eyes--- but there is also a deep, living presence of the old Bengali life they have barely experienced, hands-on, that forms their consciousness, and both expands and narrows their vision.

The book was released on April 1, 2008. Upon its publication, it achieved the rare distinction of debuting on the NY Times Best Seller List in the Number 1 slot. NY Times Book Review editor Dwight Garner stated- “It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction – particularly a book of stories- that leapt straight to Number 1.” I think the reason for her success is, simply, that Jhumpha Lahiri is a genius – and, once you’ve read her, you can’t wait to read more. She is a quiet writer. There are no fireworks in her prose. She patiently unfolds the narrative, guiding her beautifully crafted characters along their paths. She imbues both her story-lines and characters with such an unearthly sensitivity to the wonders of Life, in all its muted suffering and cautious joy, that she mesmerizes us, and dazzles us in ways more flamboyant writers cannot. To put it succinctly: she knocks your socks off! Critics have said that her style of writing is extremely un-self-conscious, not at all showy. In an NPR interview, Jhumpa responded to that. She said – quote- “I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more. There’s form, and there’s function, and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn’t comfortable. I don’t want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. I just want to get it LESS---get it plainer. When I re-work things, I try to get it as simple as I can.”

Observations and Questions:
1. How do her stories include the motif of loneliness and the search for fulfillment?

2. How do her stories explore being between two worlds?

3. Asian immigrants are often seen with the stereotype of being over-achievers. Does this book support that stereotype? Isn't it simply an immigrant's ambition? How do people in American-Bengali community measure people in terms of their success or failure?

4. The immigrant experience also deals with the expectations of the parents overruling the desires of the children, yet in America, these desires often triumph. How is this born out in her stories?

Related Information:

Interviews with Jumpha Lahiri

Questions and discussion provided by Naton Leslie and Maria Riccio Bryce.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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