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In each of these stories, there are two or three settings. In fact, you could say that one of the defining factors of these stories and the characters in them is that they are shaped by multiple locations. One of these is always India, which looms in the background of...

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In each of these stories, there are two or three settings. In fact, you could say that one of the defining factors of these stories and the characters in them is that they are shaped by multiple locations. One of these is always India, which looms in the background of all of the tales like a great anchoring dreamscape. None of the stories are actively set in present day India. However, people continually come from India or return there. It hovers in everyone's memories, and at least one major character in each story is from there, visits there, and/or remembers its food and customs as the setting of childhood. India is the past.

The second setting is the specific geographic location of the various stories. These settings range in importance and specificity. In "Unaccustomed Earth," for example, the Seattle setting is left largely generic, and it is mainly important because it is far from anyplace Ruma and her father have been before. London functions much the same way for Sudha, though there are a few exotic features like the museums that play a larger part. By contrast, the cities in the "Hema and Kaushik" section play a much greater role. Boston is important because it is markedly, emphatically not Bombay in "Year's End," and there is a definite sense of the alien nature of Rome in "Going ashore."

The third and most important setting in each location, though, is one or more of the domestic settings that Jhumpa Lahiri makes resonant and real. In "Unaccustomed Earth," it is the garden that Ruma's father plants while he is visiting. In "Year's End," it is the home that Kaushik's new stepmother is making over in her own image, exorcising his mother's presence. And in "Nobody's Business," it is the house that Paul and Sang share, and even the room that she paints, the room Paul invades that seems so intensely her own. In this collection, the domestic settings are real, vivid, and immediate.

Unaccustomed Earth

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“Indians are everywhere these days,” observes a native of Calcutta after returning home to Pennsylvania from a tour through Italy. South Asian Americans and their children populate and animate Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of short fiction, a gathering of eight exquisite stories. If her Indians are everywhere, they are at home nowhere. “He was furious that we left,” says a father who moves his son from Massachusetts to Bombay and back to Massachusetts, “and now he’s furious that we’re here again.” Unaccustomed Earth is a wistful record of people who, even while retaining traces of their ancestral customs, have lost their roots.

In addition to one billion in south Asia, Indians have a diaspora numbering some twenty-five million worldwide, three million in the United States. Authors of Indian backgroundincluding Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, and Anita and Kiran Desaiare prominent and proliferating. With her first book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a story collection that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, Lahiri emerged as the Bernard Malamud, Aleksandar Hemon, and Junot Diaz of Indian emigrant experience. The Namesake, a 2003 novel that was adapted into film by Mira Nair, consolidated Lahiri’s reputation. Unaccustomed Earth arrived next as that rare phenomenon, a triumph both commercially and artistically. It debuted as number one on The New York Times best-seller list, and critics have been virtually unanimous in its praise. Lahiri’s third book has earned the admiration it inspired.

Unaccustomed Earth takes its titleand epigraphfrom the essay that serves as preface to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). In “The Custom-House,” as the preface is titled, human nature is compared to potatoes, which cannot flourish if planted and replanted “in the same worn-out soil.” Hawthorne’s narrator declares: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” Lahiri’s characters strike their roots in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington State, corners of the earth unaccustomed to Bengalis. However, the transplantation does not produce the vigor Hawthorne expects in relocated tubers. Most of the characters in these pensive stories are transplants who never find a soil in which to thrive.

Lahiri was born in London, to Bengali parents, but she has lived in the United States since age three. Her characters belong to generation 1.5; children of immigrants, they were either born in the United States or arrived too young to have formed an Indian identity. They tend to be affluent professionalsdoctors, lawyers, engineers, professorseducated at prestigious American colleges such as Harvard, Swarthmore, Columbia, and Princeton. Though dragged along on family visits to Calcutta, they lack an appetite for Indian foods, languages, and spouses. In “Hell-Heaven,” when Pranab Chakraborty, an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announces his engagement to an American named Deborah, it so upsets his parents back in Calcutta that they disown him. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit Sarkar is deposited in a New England prep school when his ophthalmologist father decamps for a position in a Delhi hospital. The only Indian at Langford Academy, Amit falls in love with the headmaster’s daughter, Pam, and later with a medical student named Megan. In the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma, a lawyer who cannot read Bengali and has lost the Asian habit of eating with her hands, marries a hedge-fund manager named Adam. Though Adam adores the Bengali dessert called mishti, Ruma’s mother, who met her father through an arranged marriage, regards her daughter’s conjugal choice as treason: “You are ashamed of yourself, of being Indian, that is the bottom line.” In “Hema and Kaushik,” the sequence of three connected stories that concludes the entire volume, Kaushik, who spends his childhood shuttling between Massachusetts and Bombay, becomes a professional nowhere man, a freelance photojournalist who wanders the world recording others’ misfortunes and expunging any evidence of his own existence. The final pages of the book take Lahiri’s chararacters beyond the United States and India, to Rome and Thailand, where a catastrophic historical event links them at last, tenuously, to other victims.

For Lahiri’s characters, the tension between Old World and New World identities is often embodied in the generation gap between parents who look back to India for models of behavior and of thought and of children who strive, however futilely, to pass for unhyphenated Americans. “Unaccustomed Earth,” the story that leads the volume, turns on Ruma’s unsuccessful effort to persuade her widowed father, a retired biochemist who clings to the customs of the country he was born in, to move in with her family in Seattle. The discovery of her father’s secret romance, with a Long Island Bengali named Mrs. Bagchi, reinforces the realization that, despite the rapport he establishes with his young grandson, father and daughter inhabit separate solitudes. The narrator of “Heaven-Hell” lacks sympathy for her mother, trapped in a loveless marriage in the suburbs and missing India, as well as the Indian student, Pranab, who had not reciprocated her affections: “I began to take my cues from my father in dealing with her, isolating her doubly. When she screamed at me for talking too long on the telephone, or for staying too long in my room, I learned to scream back, telling her that she was pathetic, that she knew nothing about me, and it was clear to us both that I had stopped needing her, definitively and abruptly, just as Pranab Kaku had.” In the volume’s final fictional sequence, after Kaushik’s widowed father imports a second wife and her two daughters to the United States, Kaushik maintains a glacial distance from them all.

Nevertheless, even if they savor salads instead of chorchoris or refuse to embrace a match made in Asia, Lahiri’s Indians in America are expected to make their parents and siblings proud of their achievements. However, in “Nobody’s Business,” not only does Sangeeta, a graduate-school dropout who works part time at a Harvard Square bookstore, rebuff all calls from eligible Indian suitors but also she loses her heart to a callous Egyptian philanderer. In “Only Goodness,” Lahiri offers an even more acidic portrait of an Indian American ne’er-do-well. After dropping out of Cornell and moving back home, where he works in a Laundromat, Rahul disgraces himself through public drunkenness: “And so, he became what all parents feared, a blot, a failure, someone who was not contributing to the grand circle of accomplishments Bengali children were making across the country, as surgeons or attorneys or scientists, or writing articles for the front page of The New York Times.” My son the slacker is not a boast that Lahiri’s Old World mothers are eager to make about their American children.

Nevertheless, even those children who manage to attain worldly success are haunted by a sense of loss. In “Hell-Heaven,” though Pranab sacrifices his family ties to make Deborah his wife, the marriage ends in divorce. After the breakup, Deborah confesses that she envied a Bengali friend “for knowing him, understanding him in a way I never could,” as if Americans and Indians who long for concord are doomed to failure at achieving it. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit Sarkar, attending a wedding, reveals to a stranger the hollowness of his own marriage to Megan. Though Hema, in “Hema and Kaushik,” grows up to become an accomplished scholar, resourceful and independent, she accedes to a traditional arranged marriage to a Punjabi, one that she realizes will not bring genuine fulfillment. However, the problem for Lahiri’s characters is only in part an unbridgeable chasm between cultures. She depicts a world in which to be human is to fail.

In an interview with Bookforum, Lahiri explained that “bits and pieces” of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth are drawn from her own family and acquaintances. However, though she is fated to be categorized as an author of the Indian diaspora in the United States, she also insisted that the characters and experiences she depicts are universal:The thing I took for granted when I was growing up is that I was living in a world within a world. It was a tight world, but I knew a lot of people and was privy to the whole spectrum of types and personalities and characters. To me, they don’t represent immigrants or anyone specific. They just represent the human condition.

Built upon the patient accumulation of detail and spare, incisive sentences, Lahiri’s stories lack the spectacular effects found in Rushdie or Roy. Her style approaches tragicalnot magicalrealism, a clinical but gracefully poised account of lives unmoored and thwarted. The devastating epiphany that concludes “Only Goodness” is downright Chekhovian in Lahiri’s ability to expose a universal anguish not unique to Indian Americans. At the conclusion of the story, when the full extent of Rahul’s failureas a son, brother, and responsible adultis exposed, the reader is suddenly left with: “the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other.”


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Flynn, Gillian. "Passage to India: First Time Author Jhumpa Lahiri Grabs a Pulitzer." Entertainment Weekly. April 28, 2000. This brief article announces Lahiri's first major award, but also includes useful comments from the author.

Grossman, Lev. "The Quiet Laureate." Time, 5/19/2008, Vol. 171, Issue 20. This brief bio-critical sketch summarizes Jhumpa Lahiri's life and places her in a literary context.

Kachka, Boris. "The Confidence Artist: Jhumpa Lahiri Isn't Afraid to Provoke Tears, or Calls of Deja Vu." New York 41.12 (April 7, 2008): 67(2). A useful article blending biography, context, and critical evaluation of this collection.

Metcalfe, Anna. "Small Talk: Jhumpa Lahiri." Financial Times. London (UK): Jun 21, 2008. p. 19. A brief but useful interview with Lahiri.

Seaman, Donna. "Unaccustomed Earth." Booklist. 2/1/2008, Vol. 104, Issue 11, p. 5. A brief but useful synthesizing review that is full of insightful praise.

Sawhney, Hirsh. "No Place Like Home: Hirsh Sawhney Hears Echoes of Salinger in Jhumpa Lahiri's New Collection of Migrant Tales: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri." The Guardian. London (UK): Jun 7, 2008, p. 11. Sawhney does a fine job of putting Lahiri in context as a short story writer.

"Unaccustomed Earth." Atlantic Monthly, April, 2008, Vol. 301, Issue 3. This brief review focuses on Lahiri's control of detail and sums up the themes running through the collection.

"Unaccustomed Earth." Publishers Weekly, January, 2008, Vol. 255, Issue 4. This brief review sketches the collection's contents and praises it as "stunning."


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Booklist 104, no. 11 (February 1, 2008): 5.

The Boston Globe, April 6, 2008, p. C6.

The Christian Science Monitor 100, no. 88 (April 1, 2008): 17.

Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 2008, p. 64.

Library Journal 133, no. 2 (February 1, 2008): 65.

Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2008, p. R1.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 8 (May 15, 2008): 28-29.

The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2008, p. 1.

Newsday, April 20, 2008, p. C24.

People 69, no. 13 (April 7, 2008): 49.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 4 (January 28, 2008): 39.

USA Today, April 3, 2008, p. 5D.

The Washington Post Book World, April 6, 2008, p. BW06.

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