Sunday, April 06, 2008

A move to darker territory

The Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection "Interpreter of Maladies" and the novel "The Namesake" have established Jhumpa Lahiri as a sharp and affectionate raconteur of the trials and joys of expatriate Bengalis who have made America their home. While her first story collection was more broad-based, her latest collection, "Unaccustomed Earth", is more in sync with her novel, "The Namesake", in dealing substantially with the loves and losses of first-generation Indian Americans.

The title is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" ("My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth"), and points to the dilemma of not only "striking roots" into unknown soil, but also growing up with a sense of permanent exile.

In the title story, an aging widower with a happily married daughter, Ruma, is loath to give up his life of freedom to stay with his daughter, who is insistent that he live with her. Finally rid of the demands of the family, he has recently been taking trips to Europe with a widow, the mysterious Mrs. Bagchi, a relationship he is worried he will have to reveal to Ruma one day. Ruma has doubts of her own. She has never been expressly close to her father, and her husband thinks it will be unnecessary trouble (though, to be fair, he leaves the decision to Ruma).

The story takes place during a week that the father spends at Ruma's new home in Seattle. With the husband away on official business, the house is filled with just three people: Ruma, her father and her son, Akash. There are several cross-currents at play here. As Ruma's father and Akash develop a mutual admiration, it becomes clear that this will only be just another holiday for the father. The crests and troughs of Ruma's feelings contrasted with her father's inability to reveal the truth about Mrs. Bagchi give the story its emotional heft.

Matrimony and the flawed sense of security it provides in certain cases are an abiding concern in this collection. In "A Choice of Accommodations," Amit and Megan are to attend the wedding of Pam, who may or may not be an old flame of Amit's. While the wedding weekend starts on a promising note with the hope of some quality time together, Lahiri brings out the lack of trust between Amit and Megan in gradual, dark shades.

When, during the wedding, Amit has a drink too many and blurts out the truth about his married life, it only brings out to himself the dishonesty that marks his relationship with Megan. The weekend drags on, and the growing tension between Amit and Megan, always just beneath the surface, threatens to explode and engulf their relationship. However, the story ends on a suitably optimistic note, after closely — and in retrospect, meaninglessly — guarded secrets are revealed

The book is divided into two parts, with the first containing three other standalone stories. The second part, titled "Hema and Kaushik", has three interconnected stories of two people who continue to meet across different time spans and places. Buoyed by their shared past and the promise, but only that, of love, the characters effect a powerful resonance on the page.

The first story, "Once in a Lifetime", is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1981. The adolescent Kaushik and his family are returning to the US after having spent a few years in India. Until they find a place of their own, they arrange to stay with Hema's family, who are longtime friends. The awkward intimacy that this arrangement forces on Hema is evoked sympathetically by Lahiri, especially as the quiet, brooding Kaushik holds a special place in her heart.

The story is burdened by the weight of the unexpected, and seemingly foolhardy, decision of Kaushik's family to return to the States after only a few years in India. When the truth behind this move is finally disclosed—Kaushik's mother is dying of cancer, and they have come to the US for her treatment—Lahiri sets Hema and Kaushik in sudden intimacy, the reader's hope for Hema deflated by the shock and grief of the revelation.

The most stunning story in the second part, and indeed in the entire collection, is "Year's End", the middle story. It is narrated by Kaushik, and is set three years after his mother's death. Kaushik has just been informed that his father plans to remarry a widow from India, Chitra, and that he will meet her and her little daughters, Piu and Rupa, when he comes home for Christmas. The story builds slowly, as Kaushik is forced to cede ownership of his mother's objects to a stranger. The beauty of Lahiri's writing is not that her stories lack in violence, but that the violence is so large, so affecting that it must be channeled into other, wholly unwelcome directions.

Which is why, even as Kaushik feels protective toward Piu and Rupa ("they needed me to guard them, as I needed them, from the growing, incontrovertible fact that Chitra and my father now formed a couple"), it is the girls who become the target of his biting fury when they unwittingly chance upon photographs of Kaushik's mother. In her signature style, Lahiri draws out the cycle of guilt and silence this entails.

Hema and Kaushik meet one final time years later in Rome, in the final story, "Going Ashore". Now adults, set in their choices and errors, their meeting and the next few days have the rushed quality of time nearing its end. As they go their separate ways, uncertain of the future, the story closes on a tragic note, finally, soothingly, bringing the expectation of happiness to an end.

Devoted readers of Lahiri will locate in this collection a move to darker territory than in her previous works. No matter. Lahiri is as magnanimous in her themes, as exact in her imagery, as controlled in her treatment, as she has always been.

1 comment:

Eric Forbes said...

Vikram, as always, I enjoyed reading your reviews. There is something I would like to talk to you about. I appreciate it if you could write to me at Thanks.