Jhumpa Lahiri and this Unaccustomed Earth

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Devotees of Jhumpa Lahiri know that she has written three books, her Pulitzer Prize winning The Interpreter of Maladies, Namesake, and  Unaccustomed Earth. She got a well-deserved Pulitzer for The Interpreter of Maladies, a book of exquisitely woven short stories about Bengali immigrants in the West (especially America). They are all focused, disciplined books on the immigrant experience in America (from a Bengali perspective). Exile hurts in real life and Lahiri’s books fairly throb with the pain of dislocation. And she pulls it off with miraculous ease. Anyone who thinks about these things, about immigrants of color and the dislocation of exile should read at least one of Lahiri’s books. I would recommend any of her two books of short stories. The Namesake is a good novel, but Lahiri is first and foremost the czar of the short story. Lahiri’s muse knits a haunting tapestry of life in America, a tapestry glued together by relentless heartaches of the gentle kind, but relentless nonetheless. It entertains.

The other day, I bit my stingy wallet in the lip and she shrieked and gave up a few dollars for a copy of Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth (I had to buy it used, it is cheaper that way, America is very hard these days, sigh!). The book landed today looking as good as new. It is pretty; it is so pretty I did not want to open it for fear of defiling it with my peasant paws. But listen to this little quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the “The Custom House” from which Lahiri’s muse takes the book’s title:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

Wow. That is deep. Lahiri’s stories are suffused with a haunting beauty, of pretty people dislocated from the bread of their ancestral earth, stoically carrying on in exile, hoping for everything great but resigned to the cloying comfort of middle-class drudgery in America, bearing the badge of martyrdom with a quiet understated defiance. After reading Unaccustomed Earth, I think I am now happily overdosed on Lahiri’s sweet anxieties. I see saris flying everywhere, I see Bengali men, quietly, furtively willing their wives to show up from the kitchen of exile weighed down with the sweets of the past. I feel everywhere the hunger and the deprivation from missed spiritual connections; and arranged marriages mock my idealism at every bindi dot. Red bindi dots mark the foreheads of Lahiri’s fertile stories, never letting of India’s forehead. Lahiri is the Owner of Words, words that comfort, words that hurt, words that take the heart out of your soul. Lahiri examines the furtiveness of lives lived for purposes oblique to the living. Every paragraph has that something that holds you by the hand and leads you everywhere and plumbs the dark depths of your feelings.

I hope Lahiri doesn’t write another book anytime soon. I might just die of Lahiri overdose. And do you blame me? Her stories are so good, they are an addiction. One is forced to ponder the fate our children in this dispensation called exile. Lahiri paints a canvas that is ultra familiar to those of us who obsess non-stop about the condition called exile. It has to be a kind of death, to be mummified in the comforting embrace of the past, of a familiar earth. We know now that it is possible to mope around in exile with no historical recollection of the details of our sojourn. The decades fly by as we ignore our surroundings and loiter around ethnic stores buying up stale delicacies just to be connected to a desiccated umbilical cord that promises a return to a mirage. Life goes on. I find myself wondering: How do my children feel in all of this….? These long names, these meals that they never pack as school lunches, these strips of “culture” that they are force-fed by parents refusing to let go of receding memories of their ancestral lands? I hope my children treat my memories with the same tenderness that birthed Lahiri’s books. It is a tall order but one can only hope. Exile is enough punishment. I salute you, Lahiri.

 It instructs, it informs and it is quite simply, good literature. Attention to detail, exquisitely researched work, and tight, oh so tight flawless prose with not a single strand of prose astray. It is simply awe-inspiring. My two favorite short stories are the first two in the book: Unaccustomed Earth and Hell-Heaven. One or two of the stories may be formulaic, but it is easy to forgive Lahiri, her stories are so well built. If this was an evaluation, I would bleat the following: well defined, well designed, and yes, well developed!