Nov 10, 2009
Reviewing ‘Unaccustomed Earth’
It’s been a while since I read a book I found hard to put down. I mean, I read a lot… I’m always reading more than one book at a time. Some books I keep reading because I simply want to know what happens next but there is no real urgency; some I keep reading because I like the book but it’s not hard to put down or anything; some I keep reading only because I started it and can’t bear an unfinished story and then there are those I keep reading because I can’t bear to put it down and as much as I want to know what happens at the end, I keep wishing the book doesn’t finish because it’s so good. Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ fell into the last of these “keep reading” categories… so not surprisingly, I finished the book in 2 days.
I have neither loved nor hated Jhumpa Lahiri before this. I honestly can’t remember much of ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ so I’ll leave it out of this discussion. I read ‘The Namesake’ long after it came out and had heard rave reviews from friends and family. Despite these or maybe because of these reviews, 'The Namesake' failed to live up to my high expectations. Coming from a Bengali Indian background like the characters in the book, I think most of my family and friends liked it because the book was about Bengali characters more than anything else. I liked it but I didn’t think it was all that fantastic. In fact, I liked the movie more… may be because the actors did such a great job.
‘Unaccustomed Earth’ however has been a different experience. It is a collection of short stories about the Bengali immigrant’s life in USA. I love the name – in two simple words, Lahiri explains her book – a book about living and growing up in a culture that you adopt, but somehow doesn’t become your own. The book is depressing, no doubt but it is very real too. I love how the author concentrates on various human characteristics and traits in each of her short stories. Some of them are very typically Bengali, some characteristic of most Indians while some others more universally human.
My immigrant experience has been very different from the characters described in the book… for many reasons, some of them being:
a) I am a first generation immigrant of the 21st century… the characters are a generation or two ahead of me. Many of them suffer the identity crisis second generation immigrants do.
b) I don’t live in the USA… Bengalis haven’t adopted Australia (yet) the way they have USA & UK.
c) I don’t limit my social interaction to a Bengali/ Indian crowd only.
d) My upbringing hasn’t been as traditional and orthodox as of the characters.
Yet despite these differences, I can relate to these characters, not just because they are Bengali, but also because they are immigrants. I miss India but I don’t think I could go back to living there. I love being in Australia but there IS a reason I call myself a Legal Alien ;-). Therefore on some level, I can identify with the characters a little.
I love it when authors paint a vivid picture… but I love it more when they create strongly etched characters. I think what I liked most about this book is that in each of the short stories, Lahiri not only creates a beautiful picture of the surroundings, the culture and the general atmosphere the characters inhabit but also creates strong, real characters and situations that one can identify with. Usha, Hema, Kaushik, Sang, Rahul and all the rest are not just destined to live within the pages of the book – to be forgotten once the book is closed but come to life and tend to stay with you.
When Lahiri describes the close-minded & judgmental Bengali, the loveless but respectful marriages, the haunting sense of “duty” that plagues parents and children, the head-in-the-sand approach to family problems… etc… I did find myself thinking of my own family (immediate and extended) and friends and that is what made me realise that Jhumpa Lahiri has done an amazing job of creating fictional stories to portray cultural issues that are very real and very much the norm. Through her stories, she courageously talks about various cultural issues that Bengalis (and Indians in general) prefer to brush under the carpet.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and true to form, find myself wishing there were more stories in the collection. Stories of immigration and the identity crisis that follows… what’s new you may ask? I agree it does get old if you don’t create a new twist; if you don’t tell the story from a new angle. But if you open a new window for the readers to look through, it doesn’t matter how many such stories have been told, yours still stands out from the rest. I believe the short stories in 'Unaccustomed Earth' have managed to do just that.