|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. It is about three generations, and the relationship between the three, the father, his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash. The father, a retiree, and also a recent widower, visits his daughter's new home in the suburbs of Seattle. The story explores some of the difficult gender roles in America, such as Ruma's decision to leave her successful legal career to raise children, and her husband's hard work to support the family. It also explores the 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. Although more traditional her father tries to persuade her to continue her legal career while being a mother. Also, her father is depicted as someone who was somewhat unhappy with his once traditional lifestyle. He is enjoying his newly found independence in his travels and a relationship with a female friend he recently met. What makes the story most compelling is the limited communication between the father and daughter, both afraid in some way to acknowledge that they have moved away from their culture of origin and have embraced aspects of the new culture. The themes are not predictable. Akash, the grandson, who is the third generation of immigrants, and completely immersed in the new culture, develops a strong fascination with his grandfather's habits that are foreign to him, including a foreign language. This interesting twist to the story is mixed with a look at the universal bond between a child and a grandparent.
This is a story that explores simple human emotions such as loneliness, love, jealousy and also describes how people change drastically over time. The title is drawn from this paragraph from 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".
Pranab Chakraborty, a graduate student at MIT, Boston is contemplating returning to Calcutta due to homesickness. On the streets of Boston he sees Usha, a little girl and her traditional Bengali mother Aparna. He follows them and ends up befriending them. Aparna, herself homesick and lonely, can empathize with Pranab and she is happy to feed him. Pranab Kaku (uncle) now becomes a regular visitor at Usha's house. He calls Aparna as "Boudi" (boudi means 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 keeps blaming and criticizing Deborah and keeps reiterating that it is just a matter of time before Deborah leaves Pranab. After twenty-three years Deborah and Pranab finally divorce. The reasons behind the divorce are revealed. The story also recounts the unique mother-daughter relationship that develops between Aparna and Usha, after much struggles and squabbles where the mother placates her daughter by relating her own experiences about a foolish decision that she would have made.
"Hema and Kaushik"
Lahiri changes her writing style for the first story, much of which is written in a first person address. 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.
"unaccustomed earth" is a phrase used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel The Scarlet Letter. It appears in the introductory chapter "The Custom House," and refers to Hawthorne's ancestral ties to Salem, a town that the author feels tied to; his children, however, will be free of Salem's influence since they were born elsewhere, and are now free to "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth," that is, new places free of their ancestors and the past.
- 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.