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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

American Children

Published: April 6, 2008
New York Times

Quaint and antique, the cry for love of country that Sir Walter Scott made in his poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” is something schoolchildren quit memorizing a century ago. Its stirring theme rouses a patriot’s yearning: “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land!”

It’s easy to forget, given the sensitivities that have been awakened in this country since 9/11, thrusting lifelong citizens under suspicion for having foreign-sounding names and subjecting visitors to the indignity of being fingerprinted, that America was conceived in a spirit of openness, as a land where people could build new identities, grounded in the present and the future, not the past. This dream, despite current fears, has in great part been made real. And the fact that America is still a place where the rest of the world comes to reinvent itself — accepting with excitement and anxiety the necessity of leaving behind the constrictions and comforts of distant customs — is the underlying theme of Jhumpa Lahiri’s sensitive new collection of stories, “Unaccustomed Earth.” Here, as in her first collection, “Interpreter of Maladies,” and her novel, “The Namesake,” Lahiri, who is of Bengali descent but was born in London, raised in Rhode Island and today makes her home in Brooklyn, shows that the place to which you feel the strongest attachment isn’t necessarily the country you’re tied to by blood or birth: it’s the place that allows you to become yourself. This place, she quietly indicates, may not lie on any map.

The eight stories in this splendid volume expand upon Lahiri’s epigraph, a metaphysical passage from “The Custom-House,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which suggests that transplanting people into new soil makes them hardier and more flourishing. Human fortunes may be improved, Hawthorne argues, if men and women “strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” It’s an apt, rich metaphor for the transformations Lahiri oversees in these pages, in which two generations of Bengali immigrants to America — the newcomers and their hyphenated children — struggle to build normal, secure lives. But Lahiri does not so much accept Hawthorne’s notion as test it. Is it true that transplanting strengthens the plant? Or can such experiments produce mixed outcomes?

As her characters mature in their new environments, they carry with them the potential for upheaval. Geography is no guarantee of security. Lahiri shows that people may be felled at any time by swift jabs of chance, wherever they happen to live. Uncontrollable events may assail them — accidents of fate, health or weather. More often, they suffer less dramatic reversals: failed love affairs, alcoholism, even simple passivity — the sort of troubles that seem avoidable to everyone except the person who succumbs to them. Like Laura, the well-meaning narrator of “Brief Encounter,” the men and women of Lahiri’s stories often find themselves overwhelmed by unexpected passions. They share her refrain: “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” Again and again, the reader is caught off-guard by the accesses of emotion and experience that waylay Lahiri’s characters, despite their peregrinations, their precautions, their concealments.

Each of the five stories in the book’s first section is self-contained. In “Hell-Heaven,” the assimilated Bengali-American narrator considers how little thought she once gave to her mother’s sacrifices as she reconstructs the tormenting, unrequited passion her young mother had for a graduate student during the narrator’s childhood. In “Only Goodness,” an older sister learns a sharp lesson about the limits of her responsibility to a self-destructive younger brother. “A Choice of Accommodations” shows a shift in power dynamics between a Bengali-American husband and his workaholic Anglo wife during a weekend away from their kids — at the wedding of the husband’s prep-school crush. And the American graduate student at the center of “Nobody’s Business” pines for his Bengali-American roommate, a graduate-school dropout who entertains no romantic feelings for him, spurns the polite advances of “prospective grooms” from the global Bengali singles circuit and considers herself engaged to a selfish, foul-tempered Egyptian historian.

In the title story, Ruma, a Bengali-American lawyer, repeats her mother’s life pattern when she gives up her job and follows her husband to a distant city as they await the birth of their second child. “Growing up, her mother’s example — moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, caring exclusively for children and a household — had served as a warning, a path to avoid. Yet this was Ruma’s life now.” The nurturing force field of pregnancy shields Ruma from the sting this reflection might be expected to provoke, but it doesn’t protect her widowed father. When he visits her in Seattle from his condo in Pennsylvania, he asks her a very American question: “Will this make you happy?” Urging Ruma not to isolate herself, to look for work, he reminds her that “self-reliance is important.” Thinking back on his wife’s unhappiness in the early years of their marriage, he realizes that “he had always assumed Ruma’s life would be different.” But if his daughter chooses a life in Seattle that she could have led in Calcutta, who’s to say this isn’t evidence of another kind of freedom?

Ruma is struck by how much her father “resembled an American in his old age. With his gray hair and fair skin he could have been practically from anywhere.” Seeing his daughter, Ruma’s father has the opposite reaction: “She now resembled his wife so strongly that he could not bear to look at her directly.” Ruma’s identity, Lahiri suggests, is affected less by her coordinates on the globe than by the internal indices of her will. She is a creature of the American soil, but she carries her own emotional bearings within her. What are the real possibilities for change attached to a move? Lahiri seems to ask. What are the limits?

While tending Ruma’s neglected garden, her father shows his grandson how to sow seeds. The boy digs holes, but plants Legos in them, along with a plastic dinosaur and a wooden block with a star. Emblems of the international, the prehistoric and the celestial, they are buried in one garden plot, auguries of an ideal future, a utopia that could be anywhere or nowhere. How can it grow?

Lahiri’s final three stories, grouped together as “Hema and Kaushik,” explore the overlapping histories of the title characters, a girl and boy from two Bengali immigrant families, set during significant moments of their lives. “Once in a Lifetime” begins in 1974, the year Kaushik Choudhuri and his parents leave Cambridge and return to India. Seven years later, when the Choudhuris return to Massachusetts, Hema’s parents are perplexed to find that “Bombay had made them more American than Cambridge had.” The next story, “Year’s End,” visits Kaushik during his senior year at Swarthmore as he wrestles with the news of his father’s remarriage and meets his father’s new wife and stepdaughters. The final story, “Going Ashore,” begins with Hema, now a Latin professor at Wellesley, spending a few months in Rome before entering into an arranged marriage with a parent-approved Hindu Punjabi man named Navin. Hema likes Navin’s traditionalism and respect: “It touched her to be treated, at 37, like a teenaged girl.” The couple plan to settle in Massachusetts. But in Rome, Hema runs across Kaushik, now a world-roving war photographer. “As a photographer, his origins were irrelevant,” Kaushik thinks. But how irrelevant are Kaushik’s origins — to Hema and to himself? And which suitor will Hema choose? The romantic who has no home outside of memory? Or the realist who wants to make a home where his wife chooses to live?

Except for their names, “Hema and Kaushik” could evoke any American’s ’70s childhood, any American’s bittersweet acceptance of the compromises of adulthood. The generational conflicts Lahiri depicts cut across national lines; the waves of admiration, competition and criticism that flow between the two families could occur between Smiths and Taylors in any suburban town; and the fight for connection and control between Hema and Kaushik — as children and as adults — replays the tussle that has gone on ever since men and women lived in caves.

Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration. Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.

Courtesy:The New York Times

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