New Lahiri collection explores immigrants' path to assimilation
In her relatively brief career, Jhumpa Lahiri already has carved out a distinctive literary niche. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and author of a critically and commercially successful novel, The Namesake, her tales of Indians encountering contemporary American life have resonated with a wide swath of readers. Her latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, will only burnish that estimable reputation. It's an emotionally astute, character-driven assortment of stories that carry forward and deepen the themes she's explored in her previous works.
Except for some fleeting glimpses, Lahiri has abandoned the Indian settings that formed the backdrop for several stories in Interpreter of Maladies. Most of her characters have settled into a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle in affluent suburbs from Boston to Seattle. Allusions to the symbols of their success, Ivy League colleges and luxury automobiles chief among them, are sprinkled generously throughout these pages. Indeed, but for occasional references to Indian foods like luchis or dal, or a description of one character's closet full of saris, these stories might be those of any upwardly mobile Americans. If there's a unifying theme in Unaccustomed Earth, it's the way these immigrants have assimilated so quickly and effectively into American life.
The collection's title story tells of Ruma, a vaguely dissatisfied housewife who's raising a young son with little assistance from her husband, a hedge fund manager. When her widowed father comes to visit and quickly bonds with the young boy, she wrestles with the decision of whether to invite him to live with her family, discovering only after he departs that he's involved in a relationship with another woman. "A Choice of Accommodations" examines the simmering tensions in the marriage of Amit and Megan, as they return to Amit's New England boarding school to celebrate the wedding of a female friend from his school days. In "Only Goodness," Lahiri writes poignantly of Sudha, a woman trying to rescue her younger brother Rahul from his descent into a life of alcoholism, and her "fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other."
Part Two of Unaccustomed Earth consists of three linked stories, following the lives of Hema and her childhood friend Kaushik over more than 30 years. In "Once in a Lifetime," Kaushik's family comes back to America after several years in India when his mother develops breast cancer. They move into Hema's home, where they spend several awkard months. Five years later, Kaushik's father has entered into an arranged marriage with a woman some 20 years his junior and the mother of two children, and in "Year's End" Kaushik recounts his struggle to accept the new domestic arrangement. Finally, in "Going Ashore," Hema and Kaushik meet by chance in Rome. She's a Latin scholar on sabbatical and he's an accomplished photojournalist. Their encounter kindles an intense love affair, which ends when Kaushik leaves for a magazine position in Hong Kong. The story's climax, at a Thai resort on December 26, 2005, is haunting and almost unbearably sad.
Lahiri's prose style is graceful, elegant, understated. It's awkward to call these pieces "short stories"—the shortest is 24 pages—and, like Alice Munro, Lahiri is adept at handling chronology, ranging backward and forward in time, compressing lifetimes into a single artfully crafted paragraph. Relish this gorgeous collection and contemplate the prospect of the work she'll produce as she reaches her artistic maturity.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.