The 2008 collection of short stories entitled « Unaccustomed Earth » by author Jhumpa Lahiri, well-known for her novel The namesake, which Mira Nair shot in 2006, has the unusual quality of being (in fact) a collection of little novels, rather than actual short stories. I know the point will sound technical to many, but the effect is unmistakable: we enter the little world of each of these stories through the lives of characters that belong to novels – one might even say, the same novel – that of a few second-generation expatriated or displaced thirty-somethings who need both to settle their relationship with their parents (often emigrated for financial reasons), and with the new community and world where they have grown. These second-generation Bengali NRIs are in fact no longer Indians (they’re Americans, like the author), but they retain with India the essential connection to an origin which defines them nevertheless. About Kaushik, the most internationalized character of her book, Lahiri writes: “He had so little to do with India. He had not gone back since the year his mother died, had never gone there for work. As a photographer, his origins were irrelevant. And yet in Rome, in all of Europe, he was always regarded as an Indian first.” (p. 310)
Let’s have a look at some of those stories. The first one in the collection, which gives it its title, archetypically presents us with the three generations: father, daughter and son. Ruma, who has stopped working after the birth of her son, lives in Seattle, is married, but Adam is away on business and never comes on the scene. A widower, the father travels a lot, ostensibly because he’s doing what he couldn’t do when his wife was alive, but in fact because he’s seeing a woman-companion during his trips whose existence he doesn’t want to admit to his daughter. One day he comes from the East coast to visit Ruma, and stays a month with her. But father and daughter have never shared much. The deceased mother used to do the sharing. At first the presence of her father distresses her a great deal, they have nothing to talk about, and we watch him potter around the house first, a little lost as to his role. Soon nevertheless, he strikes a friendship with Ruma’s little boy Akash (age three, if I remember well), and whereas Ruma had half hoped something might happen to her relationship with her father, it happens to the little boy!
Dadu (Grandad) is a lover of gardening, and notices his daughter’s plot outside, unattended and yet full of promises. Without really asking her, he sets out to arrange it in his own way, goes to the nearby store for tools and seeds, and starts planting, cleaning, and even furnishing the garden, setting up a pool for his grandson and enabling him to use a plot of land to grow toys! One day her bed, where her boy would come and cuddle next to her, is empty, and she hears voices in her father’s room: he’s reading to Akash, and she begins to rediscover the daddy she had almost forgotten. Her mother was her model and her confident. But now she’s coming closer to the father she didn’t know she loved. She asks him to stay, and live with them. There’s a moment of intense expectation then. But he cannot stay, he needs his companion too, and one day he drifts away from their life, leaving Ruma to learn his secret thanks to an unsent postcard...
This story shows where the problems are piling up: not for the expatriated Indians themselves (who can go back to Calcutta upon their retirement), nor for the children of their children, who belong to their new environment and see their grandparents as any children in the world would consider their grand-parents: loving and caring elderly family who have a lot of time to share. The problems are on the shoulders of the middle group, who are torn between the two cultures, that of their parents’ country, and that of their children. They have problems of identity, of adaptation, but most of all, problems of love. The fatality of the uprooted (notice how Dadu’s job is to sow love) is that they need love more than the other two generations, who are grounded by a community and ties that have been meant for them from the start. Only the middle group is torn in between, on the “unaccustomed earth”. And that is why Jhumpa Lahiri tells their stories. She has put a Hawthorne quotation at the opening of her book, to the effect that children grown in this new soil will be more flourishing; but one can really question this, if one reads their stories. Liesl Schillinger, here, has a good point: « Lahiri does not so much accept Hawthorne’s notion as test it. Is it true that transplanting strengthens the plant? Or can such experiments produce mixed outcomes? As her characters mature in their new environments, they carry with them the potential for upheaval. Geography is no guarantee of security. »
In another story, entitled “Only goodness”, we follow the destinies of a brother and sister, Sudha and Rahul, who are 6 years apart, and even if Rahul is younger and brighter, it is Sudha who succeeds in life. He suffers from his lesser position in the family, and Sudha who had wanted a sibling, tides him out, helping him and protecting him in more than one way. So for example she’s the one who goes to buy some beer for their little parties at home, without their parents’ knowledge. But the more Sudha thrives, the more Rahul declines. He nevertheless goes to University (Cornell), but doesn’t fit, and starts drinking. The parents try to have Sudha intervene as before, but she’s rebuked, and their youthful complicity is spoilt. Sudha moves to London for more studies, and Rahul remains in the States. Soon she hears that he’s left school, and their parents are doing their best to hide their son’s sorry situation. He works at a Laundromat, and “he became what all parents feared, a blot, a failure, someone who was not contributing to the grand circle of accomplishments Bengali children were making across the country, as surgeons or attorneys or scientists, or writing articles for the front page of The New York Times”. (p. 151)
They both date: Sudha meets a very organised, very responsible art magazine editor called Roger, and Rahul dates “a woman named Elena” who is already a mother and 8 years older than him. Of course the outcome on both sides is simple: Sudha becomes established socially; Rahul dissocializes. His father, usually so quiet and scared of criticising their only son puts his foot down and this ends in Rahul leaving the house and disappearing for good. He soon turns up though, and when Sudha’s wedding is announced, he rather surprisingly decides to act his part. But he’s drunk as usual, and blunders horribly during his speech, to everyone’s embarrassment. Sudha’s shattered. She hadn’t mentioned her brother’s problems to Roger, and it comes as a shock. Rahul disappears again, this time for good, and she learns to accept the situation. She becomes pregnant, an event that both herself and her husband had been eagerly awaiting. When the baby is born (3rd generation!) a noticeable improvement occurs in the family. Her parents tend to revert to a more normal life, and visit her in London regularly, relieved that their daughter has given them a grandson.
But the biggest surprise happens when one day Sudha gets a letter from her brother asking if he can come to see her. He’s working in a restaurant, is now living with Elena who has gotten him into rehab. Without consulting Roger, she writes back that yes of course, he can come and meet them and his new nephew. And indeed the surprise is total. Rahul has put on weight, he shows pictures of his step-daughter, he behaves gently and kindly and most of all he’s head over heels with the baby. Sudha can’t believe her eyes. They even mention their parents, who are “shopping for a flat in Calcutta”, probably retiring there for good. When Roger comes, Rahul is genial, fun and impresses him immediately. He stays a few days, and Sudha starts believing he’s absolutely changed, cured and as responsible as Roger. But one day, the catastrophe happens, Rahul zaps back into liquor and leaves the baby alone in the bath while the parents are at the movies, having entrusted it to his uncle. Fortunately for our nerves, Ms Lahiri doesn’t make him die, but the shock is devastating. Sudha tells Roger about her brother’s past, and even if Rahul leaves, her marriage is dangerously tilted.
In “Only goodness”, we have again the middle generation striving to fit, and besieged by doubt and failure; Sudha seems to succeed, but her origin is tied to the same void, it is missing the same roots. The beginning makes it clear: “It was Sudha who’d introduced Rahul to alcohol” (p. 128). This liquor, so present in the book, serves as a refill; it tries to fill the empty space at the middle of the lives of these brave new children. Needless to say it cannot, but destroys them most of the time. The title refers to the moment when Jhumpa Lahiri evokes Sudha’s relation with her baby: “She heard Neel upstairs, stirring in his crib. In another minute he would cry out, wanting her, expecting breakfast; he was young enough so that Sudha was still only goodness to him, nothing else.” (p. 173) After that age, the young human starts needing more than just his mother, he will rapidly socialize, and this means an environment, an earth in which to push forth his roots. But what if there’s not enough earth, or none at all? Where does the bad come from?
Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the last part of the collection, entitled “Hema and Kaushik”. It’s in fact a novella in three parts, centering around these two characters, and this betrays Lahiri’s ambiguous status as a short-story writer. Not only do all her stories focus of young second generation expats in England or the US, not only does the feel of her story-telling belong to more to the novel than to the story, but her last three stories form one long account of the destinies of these two children and then young adults, as they grow up with the burden of their uprooted condition. Who are Hema and Kaushik? The single son and single daughter, 3 years apart in age, of two different Bengali families who meet because of their common origin in Cambridge, Mass., during the sixties. Kaushik’s family belongs to a wealthier background than Hema’s and the account begins when, in 1974 they decide to go back to India and leave Hema and her family with the memory of the somewhat forced generosity of when Kaushik’s parents had given them their son’s clothes for the young girl to wear.
Then in 1981, to their big surprise, they announce their return and ask for a place to stay before they find their own house! What could bring them back? They don’t give a clear answer, but Kaushik’s parents, out of hospitality, answer yes immediately, evicting Hema out of her room for the young man. After their arrival, a new, rather cramped life begins for the two families. The father soon finds a job and a car, and is away most of the day, but the mother, a rather fashionable, sophisticated woman stays at home, not really taking part in the household chores and rather secretive. The two young ones meet, but Kaushik is very aloof, interested in photography only and not wanting to adapt to the country he’d left seven years before. Hema falls for him of course, and his superior airs continue to impress her. The house hunt continues, and Hema’s parents follow it uncomprehendingly. Then one day, the hosts find what they had been looking for: a strangely airy and modern designer’s building on the “North shore”, but shortly before Hema is told by Kaushik about the real reason of their return to America: his mother is dying from cancer, and they couldn’t stand their life in Calcutta any longer. She’s going to be cured, but there’s little hope. So the grand house and its pool are like a beautiful tomb.
A few years later, the story focuses on Kaushik’s family relationships, he’s a student at University and one day he learns that his father has remarried to Chitra, a mother of two little girls, Piu and Rupa. Needless to say Kaushik isn’t overenthusiastic about the arrangement, and when he’s asked to spend the Christmas holidays at home, he suffers from the emptiness so palpable in his life. His father has distanced himself from him, the two girls are like twin observers of whatever he’s doing and the house resonates with his mother’s memories. He can’t stand it. Still, after a few days, the girls’ curiosity in their “big brother” wins him over, and he plays the part. He takes them out in his car, and, vanquishing their mum’s diffidence, he shows them around. But one day an incident occurs: he catches them poring over his mother’s pictures that had been hidden in a box which he himself had not managed to look at ever since her death. He flies into a rage, insulting their mother and they freeze, panicked by what they have done. Kaushik leaves, and drifts away still from this false family. We follow him driving aimlessly along the coast, observing a country life that unfolds as in parallel worlds, spending the money his father had given him for Christmas. It’s a sum far too important even for his age, with which clearly his father has bought off his ties with him. Having thus paid him, his father can disappear from his life. And indeed, he and Chitra move houses, taking the girls to some Boston suburb where no memories would bother them any more.
The last section takes place in Rome, and this is the part of the book I preferred, because of its topological precision, and also because it brings together the strands of the story together very nicely. Kaushik is now working as a freelance photojournalist, and even though he’s been around the globe for his job, covering wars and violence, is stationed in Italy after having had an affair with a girl from Milan. And Hema has become a teacher of Ancient History at Wellesley. She is presently in Rome for some research on the Etruscan civilisation, staying at a friend’s flat.
When they meet, at some common friend’s party, it’s an instant recognition, a filling of the void, the memories which only they shared, which flush them, and they’re instant lovers. But she’s signed up for a marriage which has been arranged for her back in India, for at 34 or so, time is running out! She hasn’t been able to tell her family that she’s been in a relationship with a married man for the last ten years, and that this is now over. Kaushik, in other words, slips in at the right moment. They spend some delightful moments in and out of Rome (and I have read their peregrinations while at the same time googling the towns, streets, piazzas, villages, museums, etc. that they visit, something very pleasant to do!). Then Kaushik asks her not to marry the man who occasionally calls her in Rome, and whom she wards off by saying she’s touring the country: “Come with me”. But she tells him it’s too late, of course. They too have struggled against the odds of being free, of wrenching themselves away from their origin, and I suppose this regional metaphor can be extended to a more universal level: doesn’t this life throw all of us ashore on the unknown beach of the world? Coming in the world means a suffering, and a participation to the collective violence of life. Unaccustomed Earth…
Jhumpa Lahiri finishes Hema and Kaushik’s story with an unexpected twist that I won’t reveal, but the interest isn’t in the final turn. What makes her book very pleasant is a certain warmth, a feeling for details, a careful realism in her narration which keeps one reading, which brings the characters very close to us and endears them. She knows how to place herself inside their minds so discreetly that we don’t feel she’s trespassing. Obviously she knows her subject very well, one would be tempted to say she’s not inventing but merely describing; but if you know anything about writing, you know how difficult successful description is. So don’t hesitate to pick up this unfamiliar soil if you see it on a shelf: it won’t dirty your hands, but you’ll sense its soft and warm texture.