Unaccustomed Earth Jhumpa Lahiri

If you look up the word ‘unaccustomed’ (as I did because of its awkward fit with ‘earth’), you will find its usage continuum covers a wide range – ill-fitting, non-native, immigrant, foreign, even transoceanic. This range of inferences becomes a nugget that Jhumpa Lahiri exploits in her nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne.  For here is the epigraph to her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, culled from Hawthorne’s Introduction to The Scarlet Letter,  “The Custom-House”:

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

In his custom house, Hawthorne’s American narrator expresses  his difficulty in accommodating the austere expectations of his New England Puritan forebears with his own wish to diverge on new soil. And in this respect, Lahiri’s Bengali-American characters are parallel in their relationships with their old and new worlds, their siblings and their spouses.

Alienation is a key feature of Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. One of the noticeable quirks of characterization, for instance, is the tendency to extensive interior monologue even in the company of others.

For the most part, when characters enter into close quarters with each other or into actual living relationships, high ceilings of silence dominate; and as if in support, the rustic New England residences, the colonial university edifices and grounds that the successful Bengali-American characters use as havens, seem more eugenic extensions of themselves rather than lived-in homes. 

Added to this artificiality, the characters of Unaccustomed Earth manage to travel the breadth of the earth quite without touching it. Many stories provide evidence. For example, both physically and mentally, the journeys between Calcutta and the US (mainly Hawthorne’s New England), become glossy touristy brochures.  Also in the title story “Unaccustomed Earth,” scenic destination postcards (with limited space for words) inform Ruma about her father’s whereabouts. In fact, retirement, wealth, even sickness and death, increase the opportunity to do the European grand tour. Very tellingly, the personal effects of Kaushik Choudhuri’s mother are lost somewhere on the family’s Rome travels and are never found.

It is not surprising, then, that the children fall into the pattern of becoming skilled escape artists themselves. Their first instinct is to choose college education far from their parents and ancestral cultural expectations. Nevertheless, in the Ivy League colleges the children escape to, they become attached to Western classical art as a crutch.

By the end of Unaccustomed Earth, the footsteps of both Hema and Kaushik, the principal characters of Part 2 of the short story collection, lead to Rome for solace.  Here, textually, Hema’s classical insights are presented more powerfully than her infatuation with Kaushik, an infatuation reawakened during their chance meeting in Rome.  For his part, Kaushik tries to convince Hema that they can be soulmates, selfishly reading a love destiny into their childhood familial bond.

But although in many respects, Hema and Kaushik have similar angsts, suffer a similar alienation, and have worn the same coat, Hema who has outgrown Kaushik’s garment, asks herself: Becoming a companion to a lonely soulmate …. After that, What?

For Kaushik is still numb. As a photographer with an eye for capturing human grief, his work wins him lucrative contracts. But at the pinnacle of his career, giving up travelling for a more stable career in Hong Kong scares him. This is why he asks Hema to be his companion.

In the final triptych of Part 2, “Going Ashore,” Hema makes her decision on the troubling issue that had brought her to Rome in the first place.  She will marry Navin, “what her parents termed a ‘non-Bengali’, that is, someone from any province in India other than West Bengal” (p.227). With new life from Navin kicking in her womb, Hema reflects on her short romance in Rome with Kaushik and  muses: “We had been very careful, and you [Kaushik] had left nothing behind” (p. 256).

Yes, in the final analysis, she goes back to New England to put down roots. For, as she later confirms, an impending tsunami is creeping in unnoticed to obliterate the footprints of those who cannot find root in the unaccustomed earth.

As you can tell, I loved reading this work.


© Cynthia James June 2015


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