The underlying theme of Jhumpa Lahiri’s sensitive new collection of stories is if men and women “strike their roots into unaccustomed earth. : Unaccustomed Earth (Vintage Contemporaries) (): Jhumpa Lahiri: Books. The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains.

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The era of the global nomad seems to have arrived in the United States. Both leading presidential candidates—not just Barack Obama but John McCain, too—grew up shuttling between cultures and learning “to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places,” as Obama’s sister summed up the sunny cross-cultural lahirri of the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, a pre-eminent chronicler of the hybrid consciousness has emerged as well: Jhumpa Lahiri, a Bengali-American who writes about darker transnational shadows. The same character’s husband can’t escape an awareness of “all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world.

Unaccustomed Earth

The legacy of growing up in the grip of a globally mobile heritage is once again Lahiri’s theme in her third book, Unaccustomed Earth. In a collection of lahigi as limpid yet complex as her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladiesshe returns to familiar terrain—most of her Indians are highly educated, upper-middle-class suburbanites on the Boston-New York corridor—and to her well-honed role.

Lahiri is an unillusioned anatomist of the greatest immigrant success story in the United States. Born in Britain inraised in Rhode Island, and regularly taken on long visits to India, Lahiri grew up feeling, she has written, “intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new. And it seemed that nobody appreciated her plight. Her father and sari-clad mother, lairi the Bengali social circle that defined her home sphere, certainly didn’t.

Nor did her peers, parochially focused on their own American meritocratic dreams. But Lahiri was right in step with a globalizing world. In the late s, she veered off her ethnically correct academic track B.

By then, accumulated brain drain and boundary crossings and intermarriage had made hyphenated heritages “part of this country’s identity,” as she put it.

Lahiri was already probing the aspirational strains, the blend of professional drive and personal unease, when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Her subject—the barriers and fears that haunt even the well-off in a newly porous world—had become, in laahiri way, the subject. And her Bengali background bequeathed her a perspective she’s been developing ever since.

What Lahiri never fails to miss is how the very wariness that isolates her Indians from their American neighbors, aerth divides custom-bound parents from their anxiously assimilating children, also inspires a common quest for a sense of kinship. In a time when borders—between genders and generations, not just nations—are more permeable than ever, no one can count on feeling fully at home in the world. Assimilation, in Lahiri’s fiction, is about coming to terms with disorientation. It is about not fitting in or settling down, not starting over from scratch and freely forging a new identity or destiny.


Her characters balance precariously between two worlds—not just Asian and Western, but inner and outer, traditionally circumscribed and daringly improvised, unwilled and willed—and they do so not just transitionally, but permanently.

A Reading Group Guide for Unaccustomed Earth

In fact, The Namesake was animated by the counterintuitive insight that the second generation’s sense of dislocation can be, in its way, harder to deal with than the full-fledged transplantation traumas of the foreign-born parent pioneers. In her new stories—which have grown longer—Lahiri pursues that theme. In various stages of setting up house, her mostly thirtysomething Bengali-Americans feel half-betrayed yet awed by their parents.

Not that they ever let them know. Part of the burden they live with is unspoken ambivalence about elders who, against great odds, managed a feat that daunts their offspring. Well-aware of their own advantages—not least accent-free English and freedom from the old world custom of arranged marriage—these U. Lahiri is a narrator subtly in tune with her poised yet highly sensitive characters.

She sets store, as they do, by emotional reserve and a studious display of control—all the while alert, as they mostly are, to powerful tensions coiled beneath the surface. They are well-aware of profound gaps in perspective, yet where they have trouble bridging them, Lahiri excels at just that.

In the title story, and in the three linked stories that close the collection, she maps the divergent angles of vision jhummpa emotion that obstruct, even as they broaden, her characters’ search for a sense of belonging.

In “Unaccustomed Earth,” year-old Ruma, with a 3-year-old in tow and another baby on the way, has recently moved from Brooklyn to suburban Seattle, where her husband, Adam, jhumppa a new job that has him on the road a lot.

It’s a classic American scenario, to which Lahiri adds a twist by having Ruma’s father pay a visit, alone; Ruma’s mother died suddenly the year before.

Jhumpa Lahiri -Unaccustomed Earth Reading Guide

Father and daughter, together eart apart, are embarking uneasily on new stages of life untethered by a woman whose traditionalism had cramped yet also anchored them in different ways. Lahiri shifts throughout between Ruma’s and her father’s points of view, and between oblique Bengali generational strains and the more familiar affluent American family fault lines they can’t help resembling.

The father, who unbeknownst to umaccustomed daughter has met a Bengali widow on one of the European tours he has started taking, worries that Ruma risks being marooned in Seattle. He’s haunted by echoes of his wife’s predicament decades before: He had always assumed Ruma’s life would be different.


But she finds herself peculiarly unmoored without the mother whom she had vowed not to take as her model. Ruma had also assumed that, balking at Jhumoa custom, she would never want her parents to come live with her.

So, she is surprised to end up hoping her father will move in. And she is bereft to discover what he, like the secretly autonomous adolescent she once was, doesn’t dare admit to her: In her inspired concluding section—three stand-alone stories, with separate titles, grouped together as “Hema and Kaushik”—Lahiri again has younger Jhumpaa unexpectedly pulled back into the old ways, only to find that the bonds they forge, unlike the ties their elders submitted to, don’t rescue them.

As she has before, Lahiri plays with an updated variation on an unaccudtomed marriage, intrigued by the notion that perhaps chance can steer us more happily than choice seems to.

John Mullan on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth – Guardian book club | Books | The Guardian

Kaushik and Hema, thrown together briefly as teenagers by their parents’ tenuous friendship in suburban Boston, each narrate a story that prepares us for a much later, and brief, reunion. Their stories prepare subliminally for a rupture as well. Both unfold in the last, omnisciently narrated story. The trio is a tour de force, embodying in its structure and voices Lahiri’s core themes. Outsiders at heart—Kaushik has become a roving photojournalist, and Hema has only lately broken off a long-term affair with a married man—the two characters reach back to probe a sense of homelessness, addressing their stories directly to each other.

Here, at last, is a tie that feels foreordained, rooted in a shared past of family connection, reminiscent in that sense of their parents’ arranged marriages. Yet Hema and Kaushik are restless American romantics, born in the wrong place and time to have the fatalistic courage of their elders, who trusted that a shared future would truly yoke them.

As Lahiri steps in to thwart their convergence, she is as alert to “all that is irrational as well as inevitable about the world” as the father in The Namesake was.

In her fiction, learning “to not build walls around ourselves” doesn’t begin to cover the challenges that await her characters. They are wanderers navigating elusive borders, bumping up against barriers and testing ties, uneasily wondering if they will hold or not.

That doesn’t prevent Lahiri—or Hema and Kaushik, or plenty of ujaccustomed in these impressive stories—from finding “kinship and beauty in unexpected places.

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