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.
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.