Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth

When I read the title for Jhumpa Lahira's collection of short stories..... I did not make the connection, but when I read the epigraph where she used a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, I was grinning like the cat who ate the canary. :)

Aww. The Scarlet Letter.


The quote, taken from "The Custom House" an introductory chapter to the novel, references Hawthorne's family ties to Salem, Massachusetts, a connection that finds its beginnings in the late 1600's with his Puritan ancestor and leads to his great grandfather, a judge at the Salem witch trials, both men remembered "not for the good they did, but for the curse they incurred."

Hawthorne, embarrassed by his family's dubious history, believes the tie to Salem an unhealthy one and determines that his own children will "strike roots in unaccustomed earth." Thus, the connection to Lahira's short stories basic themes -- all of her characters are "unaccustomed" to America, especially the generation whose sons and daughters are unfamiliar and not necessarily desiring of their parents' cultural roots.

Unaccustomed Earth is divided into two parts: the first five short stories, unrelated to each other, the second three about two characters, Hema and Kaushik.

Lahira writes flawlessly about the Indian who finds himself living in America and liking it. Whether the character is a professor at MIT or Harvard, an arena that Lahira favors for her Indian characters, or a pregnant daughter displaced to Seattle whose widowed father comes to see her and warns her not to give up her day job, that of lawyer, Lahira's characters are successful -- professionals who succeed in American colleges and turn their backs on the homeland , even though the pull is there --- in favor of this one that they have grown "accustomed" to -- despite their parents' generation who scurry back to Calcutta to see "the family" -- to see "the roots."

Just because they are professionals, of course, does not save them from untimely deaths, alcoholism, betrayal, bad decisions, and disappointments --

Each of the stories paints the difficulties of living, despite the optimism of American culture, wealth, and convenience, and she layers (no pun intended) her stories with a focus on the preparation of Indian cuisine -- the table prepared for the lover who doesn't show, the cancer ridden mother who can only sip broth, to the prodigal son who ignores the meal prepared by his mother for a nip of beer or vodka hidden in his room. The food is a part of the story -- it plays, and when it's not savored, the reader is disappointed, for it has been prepared with such care.

The last three stories, overlapping, tell of Hema and Kaushik, two unhappy characters, whose lives intertwine.... a sad story of "what ifs" and "how comes" that resonate with all of us....

Lahira has the flair, the formula, the style, and the depth.

She is a writer who will hold up to time because she writes about what is real, what is life, what it is like to live and be uncertain even though we live in America -- the land where dreams can become reality if life does not mess it up.


  1. I loved "The Namesake." I'm going to have to add this book (really all of her books) to my ever growing book list.

  2. you should read "Walking from East to West" by Ravi Zacharias.

  3. I haven't heard of the Ravi Zacharias work, but I have just recently heard of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders -- Daniyal Mueenuddin .. have you heard of it?