Unaccustomed Earth

by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

The eight stories in Unaccustomed Earth fall into two groups. The first five share only themes; the characters and settings are independent of one another. The last three can be read independently, but work better as they are designed: as a triptych telling the story of Hema and Kaushik. The first story focuses on their meeting as children; the second follows Kanushik when his father remarries; the third focuses on their reunion as adults.

However, no matter how distinct the plot twists or character circumstances in any of the stories, as a collection Unaccustomed Earth is markedly unified. All stories focus on members of Bengali families dealing with England or America. All are richly detailed, painting portraits of the complexity of these families' lives; all deal with making and remaking lives, loves, and identities in the wake of radical disruptions. Often families reform after a family member has died. Sometimes they must learn to function again after an ending of another kind, as when Rahul Mukherjee becomes an alcoholic in "Only Goodness." However, in addition to these disruptions, which could happen to any family, there are always ripples of culture shock. The gap between India and America, or rather, between traditional India as it was, and America as it is coming to be, is brought vividly to life. The result is a set of lovely and accessible stories that blend the cultural and the individual, the exotic and the strikingly domestic.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1300

There are five unconnected stories in Part One, and three connected stories in Part Two: "Hema and Kaushik."

Part One

"Unaccustomed Earth"
Ruma, her husband Adam, and their son Akash live in Seattle. Ruma's father comes to visit them after his travels in Europe; he started traveling after Ruma's mother died. When he comes, Ruma is afraid he wants to move in with them, something that had been common in Bengali families. She has to face this issue largely alone, because Adam is away on a business trip. However, her father has gotten used to living alone. What is more, recently he has started dating Mrs. Bagchi, a Bengali widow he met while traveling. When Ruma suggests he move in, he declines the offer. While he is there, Ruma's father puts in a garden. Just before he leaves, he writes a postcard to Mrs. Bagchi in Bengali. Her young son Akash ends up taking the postcard. Ruma realizes her father is dating someone, even though she cannot read the message.

This story tells about the relationship between Pranab Chakraborty and the narrator Usha's family. Pranab, who Usha comes to call Pranab Kaku (uncle) is essentially adopted by Usha's family because he is so alone in Boston when he moves there for graduate school. They take him in, feeding him daily, and Usha's mother falls in love with Pranab. Usha's parents had an arranged marriage, and it is one of duty, rather than passion. This makes Boudi all the more vulnerable when Pranab meets an American woman named Deborah, falls in love, and marries her. Boudi predicts they will divorce, and they do, but not for twenty-three years, and then only because Pranab cheats on Deborah. By this time, Usha's family has become like foster parents to Deborah as they had to Pranab.

"A Choice of Accommodations"
Amit and Megan go back to Langford Academy, where Amit went to school, to see his old friend Pam get married. While they areĀ  getting dressed for the wedding, Megan realizes she has a burn on her dress. They plan to attend anyway, but for Amit to stand near Megan to keep people from seeing the burn. As they walk through the grounds, Amit notices what has changed about Langford and what has not and remembers his time there. After the ceremony, while they are socializing, Megan flirts with one of Amit's former classmates, and he ends up drinking too much. When he is looking for a pay phone to call their girls, he walks and walks, and ends up going back to the hotel and passing out. When he wakes up, Megan is there, but they are emotionally distant, since he abandoned her at the party. They walk, talking clumsily, looking for the brunch. They do not find it, but they end up in one of the school dorms, where they have sex.

"Only Goodness"
This story focuses on the toll alcoholism takes on a family. When Rahul Mukherjee visited his sister Sudha at college, she introduced him to alcohol, giving him his first beer. Later, when he was in college and she was visiting, he asked her to buy beer and vodka for him. As they moved through their lives, with her six years older, the drinking takes its toll. Rahul first did poorly at Cornell, then dropped out. He ends up unemployed and living back at home with their parents. Meanwhile, Sudha flourishes, finishing school and going on to masters' degrees. She goes to the London School of Economics, where she meets Roger, the man she marries. After a while, Rahul contacts her, claiming he is in rehabilitation and not drinking. He visits her in London, and gets along well with the family, including Sudha's ten-month-old son Neel. On his last evening there, Rahul volunteers to baby sit Neel so Sudha and Roger can have a night out. When they return, they find Neel in the bath, and Rahul passed out. Roger is furious because Sudha had never told him Rahul was an alcoholic.

"Nobody's Business"
"Nobody's Business" follows Paul and Sang during the times when their lives intersect. Paul and a law student named Heather are sharing a house in Boston when Sang moves in. Lots of Bengali men calls Sang to ask her out or even propose; her parents give them her number. Sang has dropped out of Harvard and is working in a bookstore; Paul is a doctoral student in literature who failed his exams the time he attempted them and is now studying to take them again. Paul is drawn to Sang but Sang is involved with a man named Farouk. She and Farouk are lovers, going through highs and lows until Paul arranges for Sang to listen in on his phone conversation with Dierdre, a woman who had called to ask Paul about Sang and Farouk. Dierdre and Farouk had been having an affair, and when Sang learns about it, she breaks up with him. She moves out. Paul passes his exam.

Part Two

"Once in a Lifetime"
Hema's parents and Kaushik's parents had been friends when both families were living in Boston. Kaushik's family moved back to India for years but they were now coming back to America. They stayed with Hema's family while they looked for a house, with Hema having to surrender her room to Kaushik. His family has changed while they were gone, and the families grew apart. Just before the story ends, he reveals that they had to come back because his mother has breast cancer and they wanted to consult a new doctor at Mass General. After they moved out to their new home, Kaushik's mother's declining health gives the families an excuse to not see one another again.

"Year's End"
When Kaushik's in his final year of college, just before he comes home for winter break, his father tells him he has remarried. It is an arranged marriage to a widow with two daughters. When Kaushik gets to his father's home, his new stepmother and sisters are there. At first relations are stiff and awkward, but they start getting along better, and Kaushik is getting along well with the daughters. Things are progressing well enough that he volunteers to stay home with the girls so his father and stepmother can go to a New Year's Eve party. However, while the parents are gone, Kaushik discovers the girls have gotten into a box of old pictures of his mother. They are sorting through them and talking about them, and Kaushik explodes with anger. He yells at them abusively, then abandons them and drives away for the rest of his school vacation. The girls are fine when the parents get home but their relationship is forever damaged.

"Going Ashore"
The story opens with Hema vacationing in Rome before going through with her arranged marriage. She is now a classics scholar in her late thirties. She has lied to her husband-to-be, claiming she has a "visiting lectureship" at a classical studies institution in Rome. In truth, however, she is taking time for herself, just reading Latin and seeing Rome before she must finally get married. Not long before, she had broken off a longstanding illicit affair with a married man. A friend of a friend invites her to dinner, and his wife invites Kaushik, who had worked with her. The two of them become lovers, forging an unexpectedly deep and passionate connection. He asks her to come with him to his next assignment as an editor in Hong Kong. She declines the offer and Kaushik goes away, stopping for a few days recreation in Phuket. He is there when a tsunami hits, wiping out the area and killing him. Hema goes on to marry the man she had arranged to wed.

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