Monday, April 14, 2008

UNACCUSTOMED EARTH

I have just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri's new book, Unaccustomed Earth. I chose the same title for my blog because the world she writes about - the globe-trotting, non-resident Bengalis living in the United States with their hyphenated identities - is not my accustomed world. I have never been outside India: I have never lived through the hopes and pains of those Bengali people who settle abroad, though I have friends who have done so.
I like the way the stories grow out of the metaphysical quote at the beginnning, which says that human migration is like plants growing in new soil. The stories are also about growing - siblings growing up and then growing apart (Only Goodness), growing old (Unaccustomed Earth), growing apart within a marriage (A Choice of Accommodations), growing close outside a marriage (Going Ashore).
The people in the stories belong to three generations. The older set are first generation non-resident Indians, married to fellow-Bengalis through arranged marriages, never feeling the passion of love for their spouse but growing into a sort of companionship through age and shared struggle and loneliness. The younger set are the Bengalis who have grown up in the US, who do not share their parents' nostalgia but have to undergo their own physical and mental journeys and adjustments in their own marriages/relationships, usually to white Americans. Lahiri taps her own and her parents' histories well. There is also the third generation, children born of these mixed marriages, as yet too young to understand the pulls and tugs of multiculturalism, as yet inhabiting the present only, as yet coccooned in their physicality.
The people in the stories are restless, searching for nameless, elusive things. They travel a lot - across continents, into their past, into old memories, to new terrains. They find love in bits and parts - and this love is taken away, either by death (Going Ashore), or by deception and distance (Nobody's Business).
The material comfort, the professional success masks the undefinable void lurking within the characters. This fractured hell-heaven existence is Lahiri's accustomed earth and she uses a mature, sparse style (with only a few necessary poetic flourishes) to paint its bittersweet colours.

2 comments:

Gene said...

thanks for visiting my blog =) appreciate it. I just love taking photographs, where my dream is to own a digital SLR camera.

Anyways, the book reviews that you put up are pretty interesting. I probably read them when I have the time (when my semester in Uni ends.)

Toodles.

J-Mo said...

Oh wow, a blog from a college professor teaching in India. I'm only in my first year of college, but I have high hopes for my academic career. Your blog is excellent!