‘Unaccustomed Earth’: Lahiri’s tryst with loss in all its bleakness

One of the most revered and renowned authors of our time, Jhumpa Lahiri has certainly made her mark by making her readers reckon with the feeling of a misfit in a strange society. Her third book, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, comprising of eight stories, harps on this socio-cultural alienation and disempowerment bordering the lives of Bengali immigrants in the US. All the stories in the book are connected by this central singular theme of disconnection in the lives of the characters and their own ways of dealing with a big loss in their lives.

The book adopts its theme from a brief quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom House’ – a prelude to her novel, ‘The Scarlet Letter’: “My children will have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” This quote well outlines the theme of loss. Loss marks the life of Ruma and her father in the title story, where both of them are shown to cope with it in dramatic and tragic ways, though by relatively quieter methods.

Ruma loses her mother to an adverse reaction to anesthesia. Her father loses a companion as well as his added responsibilities. After his wife’s death, Ruma’s father has been on a travelling spree, now that his travel did not end up meeting their relatives back in Kolkata. While on this travel, he is in contact with his daughter only through picture post cards, giving no personal information or asking about Ruma’s family life, evading his presence in those letters completely. Ruma finds her new home in the isolated suburbs of Seattle just like what a house should be like – enchanted by the beauty and convenience of her house and with its large space, she feels pride in showing her house off to her father when he comes to live with her. The house also is grand enough to accommodate guests, which was much difficult in her parents’ house. So, her father now finds a separate room kept for guests, all for him, and as he has always liked spending time with himself, he loves the idea.

As Ruma had earlier thought she will have to take care of her father when he comes to live with her, (assuming and stressing that his stay will be permanent) more so now as her mother is not with them, to her surprise and amazement, there is a complete role reversal. Her father is not only efficient at handling kitchen duties, from making toasts and tea for himself to washing dishes after dinner, but also becomes a great friend, companion and guide for his grandson, Akash. Living with her father is not the same as living with her mother, who was always there to care for Ruma and her family’s needs, somewhere holding the Bengali culture together and bonding with Akash too by preparing tasty Indian dishes. The story traces the lives of Ruma and her father, who feel a sort of disconnection among themselves and also in their lives, a kind of generational conflict which leaves both of them unable to explain their emotions and troubles to each other, even after sharing a joyous week in each other’s company.

For Ruma’s parents, their circle of friends had largely been other Bengali expatriates who were strangers in an unknown, queer land. On the other hand, Ruma and her child, are more connected to the States, their ‘home’ is where they now live, with its new set of mores, language and relationships. Akash cannot converse in Bengali nor can he understand the language as he has never seen his parents speak the language. Ruma and Akash bring the new culture closer to Ruma’s parents, a common practice among many other immigrants in foreign countries today. With the frail relationship of Ruma with her father being strengthened little by little just like the growing plants in her garden, it becomes more interesting and enticing, arousing curiosity as to whether there will be any re-connection in this relationship, knowing that Ruma’s father is keeping a secret from her.

The other seven stories also chronicle the deep emotions of guilt, pain, anger, love, disconnection and estrangement through different set of characters and nature of relationships such as between siblings, an older, married  woman and a young family friend , parents and children, roommates and ex lovers and a rekindled love between a husband-wife duo. One would connect with these characters with much ease and profoundness, despite them being written for short stories.

In this emotional literary piece, the disengagement with one’s community, society and one’s life in a foreign country has been brought out in such a way that it all seems to be real, felt and lived to the core. Though strung in the same thread, all the stories in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ have their own unique effect while delving in the realms of death, isolation, mourning, migration, loneliness and one’s struggles with settling in a new place and culture while trying to hold on to the homeland culture and shifting paradigms of the constricts of ‘home’.

It amazes me as to how universal themes of loss and disconnection with culture and community are made so personal and moving in more than one ways – all in a gripping tale that can give you the feels, as the characters in Lahiri’s stories come alive in her beautifully woven descriptions, dialogues and powerful, multi-dimensional personalities.

Lahiri’s imaginative masterpiece surely captures the art of storytelling in a brilliant understanding of human emotions and relationships, enough to entice and inspire its readers.


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