Super Shorts 2: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

It wasn’t until I was a graduate student that I had any real exposure to Indian culture. One of the things about it that raised a lot of curiosity in me was that it was a culture that even in the late 20th century seemed to function pretty seamlessly with a good deal of arranged marriages. As a young 20-something American, the idea of not choosing your own spouse seemed preposterous. What about true love? What the hell are they thinking? Along this theme, during those years, I watched several budding relationships between an American man and an Indian woman painfully break to pieces on the rocks of her family’s cultural expectations.

It is this often rocky intersection between Western society and Indian culture that at Jhumpa Lahiri explores in her wonderful short story collection: Unaccustomed Earth.

In it, the Indian (more precisely, nearly all of Lahiri’s characters are Bengali) experience in America is examined from the perspective of adults, seniors, and children – including both the initial immigrants and their first generation children. Throughout the stories, the themes of duty, expectation, self-denial, and longing are juxtaposed against their more self-indulgent and self-expressive American counterparts.

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Bengali characters constantly do what is expected of them: have good careers, raise smart children, marry them well, behave in honorable ways – no boat-rocking or scandal is permitted.  In the titular story, a widowed father travels cross-country to visit his daughter and their awkward relationship is both sad and beautiful, as she gropes to please him and he hides his affection for a new woman in his life – hides it both out of shame and a desire not to “bother” his daughter with it. In “Hell-Heaven”, the strong pull of expectation and suppressing your own desires is heartbreakingly explored in the decades-long experience of a wife and mother in an arranged marriage who falls for a family friend she cannot have.

I think what I liked so much about these stories is that Lahiri is able to convey so much emotion and insight into what seem like such mundane situations. A weekend getaway to a wedding becomes a lens through which to view a flagging relationship. A teen taking his just-arrived-in-America child cousins to a donut shop provides a mirror for the disaffected boy to see the excitement and anxiety of being an immigrant – feelings he’s tamped down in himself.

It strikes me that by and large Americans know very little of India and its peoples beyond Hollywood and Bollywood stereotypes they see on television and in films, which is a real disservice. That’s something that makes a book like Unaccustomed Earth such a rare accomplishment: a collection that informs while it stirs.

Five stars out of five.


21 thoughts on “Super Shorts 2: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

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  2. Lahiri’s books depress me by their accurate portrayal of reality. That way they are fantastic. Yes, Lahiri is a better introduction to India and Indians than Rushdie (and heaven forbid, Arundhadhi Roy or Arvind Adiga, whose books you should run away from), If you are able to get hold of R. K. Narayan, his books (especially “Malgudi Days” or “The Financial Expert”) will give you a feel for South India, which although sentimentally the same as the North, is culturally very different.

    • LG — I am very curious as to what you’d think about this collection. I, too, thought it felt very “real” in all the small (and too often, depressing) ways. The diversity of Indian cultures is sorely under-represented in the US. I will have to look for some of those other books, too — thanks for the tips!

  3. India has a great literary heritage from what I can tell. I remember when I went there (late 1980s), you could get all these great books in English by Indian writers that were printed on really cheap paper so even poorer people could afford to read. That really impressed me as I am more used to Indonesia where people don’t really read much and books (even those in Indonesian) are really expensive. I bought a few of these books (can’t remember any of the authors now) and they were really good.

  4. Nice, Steve. I never would have known about this book had you not posted a review. I was lucky in prep school to have a history teacher who spoke about arranged marriages (in Japan). His point was, why not? The idea is that friends and family often know us better than we do, and people often grow to love each other over time instead of a hot and heavy romance that fizzles out right when everyone expects you’re supposed to get married. It was a good point and opened my eyes at a young age.

    I also was lucky enough in between college semesters to live with an ex-Fiance of an Indian man who was living in New Hampshire with his grad school buddies. We all hung out and they were nothing at all like the stereotype I had of them. I figured they were good looking and could cook wicked Indian food. But they were also very modern, fun and had pretty dry humor. And big time varying personalities.

    I also wonder about television stereotypes. Big Bang has several Indian characters, and you have to wonder what people from India think of that. Oh, and have you seen Outsourced? I really wonder about that one.

    • Amelie — well, I’m glad to bring something truly good to your attention. It’s funny about the stereotypes of Indians (or maybe it’s not). When I was growing up, Indians were presented as motel managers and 7-11 workers (think Apu from The Simpsons). Now, they’ve moved from those jobs to be tech geeks. I suppose that’s an improvement, and hopefully it won’t be long until we see more well-balanced complete characters.

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