|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf (US)
Random House (India)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Preceded by||The Namesake|
Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories from Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. This is her second collection of stories, the first being the Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies. As with much of Lahiri's work, Unaccustomed Earth considers the lives of Indian American characters and how they deal with their mixed cultural environment. It made number one on the New York Times Book Review list of "10 Best Books of 2008" as chosen by the paper's editors. It also won the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
The title story of the book is about the family relationships between three generations: the father, his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash. The father, a retiree and recent widower, visits his daughter's new home in the suburbs of Seattle. Ruma has left her successful legal career to raise children, and her husband works hard to support the family. Although more traditional her father tries to persuade her to continue her legal career while being a mother. The father was somewhat unhappy with his once-traditional lifestyle and is enjoying his newly found independence in his travels and a relationship with a new female friend. The father and the daughter have limited communication, both afraid to acknowledge they have moved away from their Indian culture and have embraced aspects of the American culture. Akash, the grandson, is completely immersed in American culture but becomes fascinated by his grandfather's habits, such as his language, that are foreign to him.
The story explores gender roles in America and family issues associated with Ruma's Indian heritage, including her sense of obligation to care for her father and have him live with her and her immediate family. Like Lahiri's other stories, the themes are both cultural and universal.
Pranab Chakraborty, a graduate student at MIT, is contemplating returning to Calcutta due to homesickness. On the streets of Boston he sees a little girl, Usha, and her traditional Bengali mother Aparna. He follows them and ends up befriending them. Aparna, herself homesick and lonely, empathizes with Pranab and is happy to feed him. Pranab Kaku ("Uncle Pranab") becomes a regular visitor at their house and calls Aparna as "Boudi" (meaning "elder brother's wife"). Over time Aparna looks forward eagerly to Pranab's visits and develops a unique kind of love towards him. Adding to the situation is Usha's father's (Shyamal da) aloof and detached attitude towards her mother. Aparna's love for Pranab turns into jealousy when Pranab brings home an American woman, Deborah, whom he eventually marries. Aparna continuously blames and criticizes Deborah, stating that it is just a matter of time before Deborah leaves Pranab. After twenty-three years Deborah and Pranab finally divorce. The story also recounts the unique mother-daughter relationship that develops between Aparna and Usha; after many struggles and squabbles, Aparna placates her daughter by relating her own experiences about a foolish decision that she would have made.
The title is drawn from this passage in the story: "'He used to be so different. I don’t understand how a person can change so suddenly. It's just hell-heaven, the difference,' she would say, always using the English words for her self-concocted, backward metaphor."
"Hema and Kaushik"
The story revolves around two people who, despite being childhood acquaintances and their families being old friends, lead drastically different lives. Two decades after Kaushik's family stays with Hema's as houseguests, they meet again by chance, just days before they are to enter into completely different phases of their lives, and they discover a strong connection with one another. The entire story of Hema and Kaushik is divided into three parts.
"Once in a Lifetime"
This section deals mostly with their childhood and is written in a first person address from Hema to Kaushik. It tells the story of two families who were close to each other because of shared culture and the common experience of adapting to a new culture, but who are beginning to drift apart due to reasons which become evident as the story progresses.
This part is from Kaushik's point of view and tells about his life after his mother's death as he deals with unwanted change and navigates complicated relationships with his recently remarried father, stepmother, and two young stepsisters—a situation that will ultimately influence Kaushik to lead the life of a wanderer.
The last part is related by an omniscient narrator as Hema and Kaushik meet by chance in Italy after two long decades. Hema, now a college professor, is tormented about her previous affair with a married man and plans to settle down by marrying someone she barely knows. Kaushik, a world traveling, successful photojournalist, is preparing to accept a desk job in Hong Kong. In spite of all that, they find their deep connection irresistible and must reckon it with the lives they have chosen to lead.
- Wonder Bread and Curry: Mingling Cultures, Conflicted Hearts: Review by Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times.
- "Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book continues to explore the immigrant experience" By N.P. Thompson for Northwest Asian Weekly.