Thursday, May 14, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories dealing mainly with second generation Indian Americans. The main characters in each story are well-defined and thoughtful young adults. There is drama including breakdowns, death, and alcoholism, but it is a very quiet and understated kind of drama. In many of the stories the family initially appears to be a model stereotypical Indian immigrant family with the fathers working in science-related careers and the mothers staying home to take care of the children. The children do well in school and attend well-known colleges, but it is when these children reach adulthood and make different choices from their parents that the stories resonate.

One of the stories that will stick with me is “Unaccustomed Earth.” It is told from the third person points of view of both Ruma, a young mother, and her father. It is an uncomfortable time for them both after the death of Ruma’s mother. Ruma’s father visits her in Seattle where she is expecting her second child. She is hesitant to ask him to move in with her family, although if it had been her father who passed away first her mother would have moved in immediately. Her father doesn’t know how to tell her he’s met someone else and has no intention of moving away from Pennsylvania. Ruma finds him unexpectedly helpful with her son and around the house and does decide to ask him to live with her family. Here are her father’s thoughts:

“A part of him, the part of him that would never cease to be a father, felt obligated to accept. But it was not what he wanted. Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact. He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage. He didn’t want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill up with things over the years, as the children grew, all the things he’d recently gotten rid of, all the books and papers and clothes and objects one felt compelled to possess, to save.”

Another story, “Only Goodness”, tells of Sudha and her younger brother, Rahul. Sudha attends and graduates from U. Penn. and heads to graduate school in London. Meanwhile Rahul fails out of Cornell and it becomes obvious to Sudha that he is an alcoholic. Her parents attempt to ignore his alcoholism for a long time. And, then, are powerless to do anything about it. Sudha attempts a reconciliation with Rahul after the birth of her first child. This failed reconciliation and the guilt she feels over being the first one to give him a beer, back when he was in high school, are powerful to read. Here she attempts early on to lend advice when he is having trouble in college:

“His words silenced her, cut to the bone. She’d always had a heavy hand in his life, it was true, striving not to control it but to improve it somehow. She had always considered this her responsibility to him. She had not known how to be a sister any other way.”

Lahiri does an excellent job at dissecting relationships between family members whether parent and child or spouses. I focused here more on the parent-child interactions, but her other stories are also well worth reading. I’m inspired to add her novel, The Namesake, to my reading list.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Yes, read the Namesake. Then you'll have to watch the movie. Then you'll have to read the book, The Overcoat, which plays an important part in the Namesake.