“Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, 2008)

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Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Interpreter of Maladies, and author of The Namesake, returns after five years with Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of eight stories that are longer than short stories but not quite novella length. It’s split into two parts. The first consists of five individual stories, while the second part consists of the last three tales, each involving the same two characters: Hema and Kaushik.

The first story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” involves a family who recently moved to Seattle. After the death of Ruma’s mother, she is left feeling guilty over the decision of whether or not to invite her aging Baba (father), to live with them. Not sure how to handle this, she invites him to stay with her for a week. Over the course of their time together, father and daughter rekindle their relationship, while secrets are revealed about their separate lives. Baba also meets and falls in love with Ruma’s son, Akash, looking after him, teaching him some Bengali, and treating him like a grandfather should – giving him more respect and attention than he has ever given Ruma. At the end of the week, Baba goes back home to his secret girlfriend and life of travel, leaving Ruma unsure, and the reader wanting more. “Unaccustomed Earth” sets the tone for the book, which offers stories of lives with problems and decisions and changes that affect all the characters. But it is those of Indian descent who have to deal with how much of their original culture they hold on to in their American lives.

“A Choice of Accommodations” is an interesting story about an interracial couple who are having problems with their marriage. During a weekend attending a friend’s wedding, they rediscover their love and respect for each other. The most compelling story of the collection is “Nobody’s Business,” involving a young Indian girl, Sangeeta, who is involved with an Egyptian man, but continuously has suitors calling her with the hope of a meeting and eventual marriage. What makes the story interesting is that it is told from the perspective of the roommate, Paul, who has a crush on Sang, and finds himself unavoidably involved in her romantic and personal life while trying to complete his doctorate. At first the story seems to go in an obvious direction, it eventually moves off on a new tangent as things change in Sang’s relationship and she ends up moving back to England, with Paul having to deal with the leftover pieces.

Lahiri continues to do what she does best, creating strong, unique characters who stay with readers after the story is over. Sadly, Lahiri fails to take risks with her writing, always portraying Indian characters who – like herself – come from an affluent, upper class upbringing, in most cases in New York or New England. Perhaps in her next work, Lahiri will branch out from her write what you know world and venture into new territory. Nevertheless, Unaccustomed Earth is a fascinating collection of stories involving Indian characters struggling with issues involved in being American, but at the same time keeping their original heritage and culture alive.

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Originally written on April 25th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books, 1999)

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This collection of nine short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.  The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is of Indian descent, born in London and currently lives in New York, so each story is a look into a different part of Indian culture or into Indian people and their way of life.  The first three stories were great and the title story was my favorite.  The man literally is an interpreter of maladies, who works at a hospital translating patients’ symptoms to the doctor and in this it is revealed he has a lot of power and obligation in telling the doctor exactly what the patient is suffering from so the correct diagnosis can be given.  After this story, I found the rest of book slow, kind of boring, and the stories just weren’t as engaging.

What started to annoy me as a I progressed through the book was that here you have a no doubt rich and well educated Indian woman who went to very good schools, lived in a good home in England, went to a good writing school for her MFA – probably in New York – and proceeded to publish her work in prestigious magazines like the New Yorker, and yet she is writing about Indian life and how hard it is for most people, especially those not as well off, and it just really got to me that she had succeeded in this way writing about a way of life she’d never experienced.

Now, having finished the book, my thoughts towards Lahiri have changed a little.  For with her upbringing she was never able to experience Indian culture as an Indian living in India.  This was no doubt a big deal to her, and is to Indian culture.  A friend at work, who is of Indian decent, but born here, told me the other day that Indians don’t consider him Indian because he was born here.  I realize now that this was probably the very thing that changed my mind about this book.  It helped me realize that in writing these stories, Lahiri is living the lives of these people, getting the experiences that she was never able to, and in doing so is helping her to define her Indian heritage better.

The result is a collection of interesting and unique stories – perhaps not quite deserving of the Pulitzer — about Indian people trying to live ordinary Indian lives.

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Originally written on September 16th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.