by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published by Knopf
331 pages, 2008
Read It. Read It Right Away.
Reviewed by Diane Leach
In Best Food Writing of 2005, in “I Married A Restaurant Critic,” Nancy Grimes describes the change in her eating habits after her husband William became the New York Times restaurant critic. Her palate sharpened to an almost painful acuity: champagne, her favorite aperitif, shifted from pre-prandial treat to test. Would it be dry enough? Adequately carbonated? She found herself scrutinizing each glass placed before her, more often than not sending them back. “As my standards for cooking soared, my tolerance for bad service withered.”
In reading and writing so much, I have experienced this very thing with books. Badly chosen adjectives makes me wince. A clunky sentence sets me moaning. Poor punctuation elicits curses. Deux ex machina plots enrage me, as do plainly unrealistic ones (granted, a subjective call). Worst of all are repeated words or phrases, which inspire me, nastily, to count. In short, like Nancy Grimes, my tastes have changed. Where I could once spend a Saturday night with a bottle of jug Gallo, now only Château d’Yquem will do.
And Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth is the literary equivalent of Château d’Yquem. For those of us worrying as the greats age -- Atwood, Oates, Roth -- wondering who might fill the gap, Lahiri is cause for hope. She gives strength to those of us quietly waiting for the pomo moment, with its eponymously named characters, drawings, and blank pages, to pass, for she need not resort to their trickery. Hers are perfectly placed words lining themselves into elegant sentences whose subject matter: family, mothers and daughters, assimilation, alcoholism, children, marital love -- touch us all.
Lahiri’s Bengali heritage informs her work, communicating worlds through the smallest of details. Saris fight slacks, a mother’s accumulated gold, intended for a future daughter-in-law, is lost to that most American of addictions, alcoholism. Food is a lush battleground of dals, rice, chocoris, bitter melon and Darjeeling tea. The drinking of tea or coffee represents more than taste; one is tradition; the other, cultural abandonment. Alcohol is tantamount to the worst kinds of assimilation, representative in all cases of disaster. But Lahiri’s God always resides in the details, transcending the particulars of immigrant experience to the universal. Take Hema, in “Once in a Lifetime” forced to wear the hand-me-down- boy’s jacket belonging to the son of family friends:
Immediately I, an American, am back in the winter of 1977, an unremittingly brutal season of storm after storm. My coat is also a hand-me-down, a thin red coat I like well enough, despite its inadequacy. But my father is out on the driveway with the snowblower, trying to clear a path for our station wagon, wearing Hema’s blue-black coat with the orange lining.
In “Unaccustomed Earth,” the opening story, Ruma struggles to accommodate Indian customs with the American life -- and husband -- she has largely embraced. Alone with her small son is a wealthy Seattle suburb, pregnant again, she prepares for her widowed father’s visit, wondering how it is she had ended up just like the mother she tried to flee:
Ruma is forgetting her Bengali, the language she spoke with her recently deceased mother. Her little boy speaks only English and has been taught to eat with utensils rather than fingers. When her father comes to visit, she finds cooking for him exhausting:
As Ruma founders, her father, suddenly freed after years of arranged marriage and hard work, also finds himself fighting Indian tradition, which dictates that he move in with his daughter, succumbing (for this is how he sees it) to her care. Though he loves his grandchild, he has cultivated a life of his own, even found a companion in the widowed Mrs. Bagchi. Yet father and daughter, absent the familiar interlocutor of mother, can only communicate in generalities.
In “Hell -- Heaven,” Pranab Chakraborty enters the lives of young Usha and her family, latching himself to them when he recognizes a fellow Bengali -- Usha’s young mother -- shopping in Cambridge. For years Usha’s mother happily feeds Pranab, reminiscing with him about their favorite Indian music and culture, going out on jaunts as Usha’s father, a remote, older professor, stands silently by. When Pranab takes up with the American Deborah, Usha’s parents are horrified, angered, finally dismissive as Pranab and Deborah marry, move to a wealthy suburb, and bear twin daughters, whom they raise as American girls. Usha, meanwhile, fights bitterly with her traditional mother, shedding salwar kameezes for jeans, utterly oblivious to her mother’s loneliness and suffering.
When, years, later, the Chakraborty marriage dissolves, Usha’s mother is sadly vindicated. But only when Usha’s heart is broken does her mother confess to her own heartbreak in those early years, and what it nearly led her to.
In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit returns to the boarding school where he spent his teenage years to attend the headmaster’s daughter’s wedding. He is accompanied by his American wife, Megan. The couple have left their daughters in the care of Megan’s mother. Amit misses the girls; Megan does not. The story is a sort of slow nightmare, that of returning to your high-school reunion, the odd one out then, with time only showing up the glaring deficiencies of the present day.
“Only Goodness” begins: “It was Sudha who’d introduced Rahul to alcohol” unfolding from there into the nightmare of alcoholism. Rahul is handsome, intelligent, gifted and a hopeless drunk. He is also the pampered baby, the only boy, the greatest pain and puzzlement of his immigrant parents’ lives:
Sudha, six years older, adores her baby brother, taking it upon herself to give him the American upbringing she never had. For Rahul there are children’s books and American toys Sudha scrounges from garage sales, permission to wear shorts, the Doors and the Clash. Sudha’s rebellion, when it comes, is relatively quiet -- a few too many drinks at college parties, the wrong boys. But she earns her master’s and decides to study at the London School of Economics.
Sudha’s visits home are increasingly alarming, as the underage Rahul, scoffing and sarcastic, badgers Sudha into buying him liquor, which the two hide from their parents.
In London Sudha meets Roger, a quiet, slightly older Englishman. The couple fall in love and get engaged; Sudha returns home, nervously, to inform her parents, but her news is overshadowed by Rahul, who, dismissed from Cornell, is languishing at home. Their perplexed parents asked Sudha to speak with him; he brushes her off, vanishing soon afterward, his mother’s gold in his pockets.
Sudha marries Roger and soon has a son; the couple acquire a home and set about building a life. It is then that Rahul appears for a visit that moves from auspicious to disastrous, as only visits from addicts can. Lahiri nails the hope, despair, and confusion of all relatives who must cope with the immense destruction alcoholic family members wreak.
Threaded through the book are themes of mothers and daughters, particularly deceased mothers. In “Unaccustomed Earth” Ruma’s mother has died unexpectedly, during routine gallbladder surgery. In the second section of the book, a linked set of stories, Kaushik’s mother has died of breast cancer, a death that has hollowed the family. In all cases, mothers and wives are marginalized figures, often in arranged marriages that are not entirely happy, clinging to Bengali ways. Daughters are to be watched and worried over, lest they act indecently or end up unmarried.
“Nobody’s Business” is the story of one such girl, the unmarried Sang, a beautiful college dropout, now 30 years old, fielding telephone calls from Indian suitors who have acquired her number from the vast Cambridge Bengali network. Narrated through the eyes of her American housemate, the besotted Paul, the glamorous Sang is quickly rendered pathetic by her love for a selfish man. As in all her stories, Lahiri refuses to tie “Nobody’s Business” up in a happy ending. Her eye is fixed on the multiplicity of reality: family life and love have moments of joy and contentment. They are also painful, difficult, and often unresolved.
The second half of Earth, “Hema and Kaushik,” is comprised of three stories: “Once in A lifetime,” “Year’s End,” and “Going Ashore.” They are linked, Hema narrating the first, speaking to Kaushik, the second by Kaushik, responding to Hema, “Going Ashore” bringing them together.
The children of Bengali immigrants, Hema and Kaushik have known each other since childhood. Each has experienced the wrenching divisions of Bengali and American cultures. Kaushik’s family moves back to India, losing contact with Hema’s parents, only to mysteriously reappear in America years later, asking Hema’s parents if they might stay until they can find a house. Bending to both the good old days of friendship and the Bengali custom of welcoming houseguests, Hema’s parents are shocked by their old friends, who wear American clothing, sneak cigarettes, and have an open bottle of Johnnie Walker nearby at all times. Kaushik’s mother, Parul, has changed dramatically, spending money on scent, cosmetics, clothing, fussing over the right house.
Hema has a crush on the teenaged, sullen Kaushik, even after he confides that Parul is dying of breast cancer. The family has returned to America at Parul’s behest: she wants to die alone, far from her hovering Indian family.
“Year’s End,” narrated by Kaushik, picks up from Hema. It is a few years later. Kaushik is away at college when his father remarries a young widow with two small daughters. Kaushik’s holiday trip home is disastrous, leaving him permanently distant from his father. His lifelong passion for photography becomes his lifework: he travels the world, photographing war, famine, devastation of all kinds. When coincidence brings Hema and Kaushik together in “Going Ashore,” the stories thread together. Here, after all, are two people who truly know one another. Hema is the only person Kaushik knows who knew his mother, who truly understands his life. The couple spend a few passionate weeks in Italy, but force of circumstance, of things left unsaid, keep them apart. The ending is inexorable, dreadful, and made me weep.
What? my husband asked. What’s wrong?
The book, I choked, passing it over to him. Read it. Right away. | April 2008