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Unaccustomed Earth

What makes Unaccustomed Earth a work that goes beyond the Oprah Book Club Choice allure is how it teeters on the brink of melodrama, only to be held back by the taut rope of clean craftsmanship, writes Indrajit Hazra.
Hindustan Times | By Indrajit Hazra
UPDATED ON APR 04, 2008 02:37 PM IST

One way of looking at nostalgia is to see it as a yearning for an old habit. In that sense, Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book, a collection of short stories that have the quietness and the clean1iness of a modern breakfast, is not about diasporic dilemmas, but about coming to terms with new habits and reconciling with broken ones.

Unlike in her novel, The Namesake, or in her debut collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, the stories in Unaccustomed Earth do not as much deal with the differences of uprooting oneself from one's culture and setting tentative roots in a new one, as they do about that other space-time difference: the generation gap.

What Lahiri does, in the manner of an irony-less Evelyn Waugh, is to use the (anticipated, perceived or real) effects of translocation of an older generation as fodder for embarrassment-cumconcern for their children.

The title story with which the book opens captures this second-generational mixture of worry and irritation. Ruma, with her four-year-old son and an ever-busy husband, has decided to focus her life as a mother and homemaker in the suburbs of Seatte.

In this placid setting comes her recently widowered father from Pennsylvania - a fact that effortlessly challenges and deflates the reader's automatic query, 'Where is he from?' (Certainly not for a long while from any part of India.)

Ruma's unstated notion of her father's lingering 'Indianness' makes her fret even before he sets foot in her house. "Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to. It would mean an end to the family she'd created on her own..."

It is Ruma's expectation of what her father expects after the death of his wife (to be looked after, to be included as part of the Ruma-AdamAkash trinity) that Lahiri plays on throughout the story.

While the symbolism of Ruma's father's love for gardening and teaching his grandson its basics does get a bit outre("'When will the plants come out?', Akash called... 'Soon.' 'Tomorrow?' 'Not so soon. These things take time, Akash.") the tension in the domestic landscape is palpable: a father keen on not overstaying at her daughter's house; a daughter careful not to offend her suddenly lonely father

But Lahiri takes us behind the curtains and flips everyone's expectations around. It is the father who comes across as less burdened by circumstances or 'tradition', while the daughter discovers an unsettling truth about her father and via him, about herself.

In 'Hell-Heaven' - an 'upside-down' version of the Bengali expression 'akaash-paathal' (heavenhell), that signifies a vast difference - Lahiri does her take on that chestnut: an immigrant man befriending a married immigrant woman and her husband, and entering the closed, precious world of an immigrant couple to upset its (rickety) equanimity.

The story is told by the daughter of the couple, who remembers the delightful Pranab Kaku and his special place in the household. Like Bhupati in Tagore's novella Nashtanir (The Broken Nest), the husband in this story is blind to the loneliness of his wife, and Pranab becomes more than a friend to this diasporic version of Charulata.

"It is clear to me now that my mother was in love with him," the narrator tell us. "He wooed her like no other man had, with the innocent affection of a brother-in-law." It is later in the narrative that we are told how much of her heart Boudi gave to this man, her only connection to 'home' back in Calcutta. |

Which is when Pranab starts going around with another woman - Deborah. No one, 'Boudi' included, expects the relationship to last. After all, American women are heartbreakers. So there is stil1hope that Pranab will not be 'lost' forever' - for both 'Boudi' and the ghetto filled with other Boudis and Dadas. But disaster strikes and heartbreak erupts when Pranab marries Deborah. Years later, it is the unwitting (and divorced) Deborah who comes to console 'Boudi' and apologises for their drifting away from 'Bengali friends'. It was Pranab who had cut off relations with 'Boudi' and her world, not Deborah. 'Boudi' manages to hide her visceral jealousy towards the woman who stole the only man she loved by playing Boudi.

Hinged between this story of perceived betrayal is the narrator's generational rift with her mother, which is negotiated only when she is told this very story by her when her own heart is broken by a man.

Heartbreak becomes a generational hand-me-down. In 'Only Goodness', the character of the father in 'Unaccustomed Earth' is replaced by an alcoholic brother - except that he succeeds in destroying his sister's family Lahiri is weakest here dealing with out-and-out destructive forces, and the feeble riff of the sister having led the brother to the mouth of the downward spiral when they were young smells 'HBO movie' all over.

It is the triptych in 'Part Two' of the book that finds Lahiri return to form after the rather anodyne 'A Choice of Accommodations' and 'Nobody's Business'. The 'adventures' of childhood friends-turned-erotic companions-turned Just Two People in America, Hema And Kaushik, are projected first from Hema's perspective ('Once in a Lifetime'), then from Kaushik's ('Year's End') and finally from that of an authorial third person ('Going Ashore'). The connections between Hema and Kaushik are intricate. Hema and Kaushik are first encountered in the former's memory when she is six, he is nine, and at an odd moment in a diasporic's life: when Kaushik and his family are moving to Bombay from Massachusetts.

We learn that before their births, Hema's and Kaushik's parents came from two different worlds in India, one middle-class, the other uppercrust. Kaushik and his family returns home to America after some years, but the young man is now dipped in his parents' pre-America consciousness of Anglophilic taste - only to lose any class belief as Hema and he, individually and together, soak in America. Kaushik's father, meanwhile moves in another direction, finding refuge in a second marriage that has Bengali middle-class traditions - that he had repudiated or never had before - as its bedrock. (The episode with Kaushik and his step-sisters is a gem of class-culturalviolence.) Lahiri's post-Ibsen domestic dramas have an origami firmness to them.

What makes Unaccustomed Earth a work that goes beyond the Oprah Book Club Choice allure is how it teeters on the brink of melodrama, only to be held back by the taut rope of clean craftsmanship. Lahiri builds stories by locking on to details that bloom into situations that in turn allow us to read the thoughts inside heads.

In this well-tempered daisy-chain, she presents a world peopled by characters trying to shake off old habits - of youth, of place, of people, of duties, of time not completely succeeding, even as they get hooked on to the next form of accustomed living.

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