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.
“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...
(The entire section is 2,129 words.)