Friday, September 12, 2008


The title of Jhumpa Lahiri's latest story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Custom House. In describing how human nature needs to be transplanted in order to flourish Hawthorne says: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth”. The Indian characters in all eight of these stories have been transplanted. But do they always flourish?

In the title story, unaccustomed earth refers not only to transplanted lives, but quite literally to the earth itself, as Ruma, newly settled in Seattle, is visited by her father. He plants a garden for her, and establishes a loving connection with his grandson, but father and daughter are never quite able to share their secrets. In the exquisite “Hell-Heaven”, a daughter's view of her mother changes as she moves from childhood to adulthood. The last three stories, grouped under the title “Hema and Kaishuk”, trace the lives of these two transplants from the Cambridge of their childhood to their chance encounter in Rome as adults.

In one sense the characters are quite specific – first and second generation Bengalis transplanted to the United States. But Lahiri is so talented at describing the bonds that both connect and constrain her characters – husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers – that their appeal is universal. Not all the stories are equally successful. I thought that “Going Ashore”, the final story in the “Hema and Kaishuk” section, was somewhat contrived. But the first and second stories in that section more than make up for that, especially “Year's End”, where Kaishuk, then a college student, struggles to deal with the loss of his mother and the new life his father has built. Lahiri's prose seems effortless. I never see her pulling the strings but I am drawn into her stories, wanting to follow her characters. Her stories are often sad, sometimes even heartbreaking, but always compelling.

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