The fact that Jhumpa Lahiri was hailed as “one of the twenty best young writers in America today” in The New Yorker’s 1999 “Future of American Fiction” issue but was neither included nor even mentioned in the highly touted collections published by Granta, Penguin, or The New Yorker just two years earlier to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence demonstrates the speed with which the Indian literary scene is expanding. Although benefiting from the enormous interest in Indian writing generated by the publication of Salman Rushdie’sMidnight’s Children in 1981, Lahiri neither relies on the ethnic exotica nor cultivates the florid faux Indian style that have become hallmarks of the decidedly lesser Rushdies who have found favor with American publishers and book buyers. In this, Lahiri’s achievement is striking but as unassuming as her style, which is not only surprisingly accomplished and assured, but marked by a Chekhovian subtlety, restraint and clarity well suited to her major themes of cultural disorientation and “the dilemma, the difficulty and often the impossibility of communicating emotional pain to others, as well as expressing it to ourselves.”
Lahiri’s almost self-effacing strengths are especially evident in the collection’s opening story, “A Temporary Matter.” The title specifically refers to the disruption of electrical service for however many evenings needed to repair a damaged line. “It’s good of them to warn us,’ Shoba conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar’s.” Shoba works as a proofreader and keeps fit by working out at a gym. Her husband, Shukumar, “still a student at thirty-five,” works at home on his dissertation on agrarian revolts in India, a land with which he, unlike Shoba, is only distantly familiar. The geographical distance pales, however, compared with the emotional gulf between husband and wife caused, Lahiri slowly reveals, by the stillbirth of their child some months before. That he was at an academic conference at the time only compounds their situation; that she insisted he go to the conference complicates it even more.
The temporary disruption of electrical power forces them together, forces them to eat dinner together by candlelight rather than separately, as had become their custom, he in front of his computer, she in front of the television. Awkwardness gives way to intimacy, but an intimacy fraught with as much risk as promise. Forced back on themselves and their severely depleted stock of emotional resources, they pass the time by telling stories they never told before. Painful, embarrassing, even shameful, but touching as well, their game becomes “an exchange of confessions—the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves.” The game ends when the line is fixed, and presumably their marriage with it. Like Shoba, who had always kept their cupboard well-stocked, ready for any emergency, only to find herself and her husband so ill-prepared for the death of their child, the reader, lulled by the story’s promise of a happy, if somewhat sentimental, ending, is similarly ill-prepared when Shoba returns one night and announces that she is leaving. Nor is the reader prepared for the revenge Shukumar exacts, telling her what she had never wanted to know after either the ultrasound or the stillbirth: the child’s sex. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Little or none, Lahiri’s ending seems to suggest:
Shoba looked at him now, her face contorted with sorrow. He had cheated on a college exam, ripped a picture of a woman out of a magazine. He had returned a sweater [she had given him] and got drunk in the middle of the day instead. These were the things he had told her. He had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise.
Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening was still warm, and the Bradfords [their neighbors] were walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for the things they now knew.
The other eight stories play variations on the opening work’s theme of disappointment and dislocation. What surprises is not that a young writer should be so narrow in range but that she should prove so adept at handling this theme with such complexity and from so many perspectives. The narrator of “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dinner,” for example, is a woman in her thirties looking back at events that took place in 1971 when she was ten. Her narrative focuses on a man she found both familiar and strange: Mr. Pirzada, a visiting scholar writing a book on the deciduous trees of New England who speaks her Bengali parents’ native...