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on Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”

March 5, 2009

In between everything else, I managed to finally finish reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, and it is well worth the wait (her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer in 2000).

Fantastic, although I almost couldn’t bear to read the devastatingly sad novella at the book’s end. It consists of three stories grouped together as “Hema and Kaushik” and is told mostly in a rare second-person narrative mode. Which, after the standard Lahiri opening short stories, comes down on you like a ton of bricks and imbues the entire thing with such portent, you can’t help but know from the beginning sentence that something huge is going to happen and it’s more likely bad than good.

The title story is the other stand-out in a collection that provides a very good sampling of the author’s excellent wordsmithery. There’s a bit in it where Ruma’s father teaches her son to garden during his stay with them and the little boy plants plastic dinosaurs and Legos alongside the perennials. What a fantastic way to symbolize inter-generational gaps and the emotional transplanting undertaken by immigrants in general.

As always, Lahiri’s prose is practically effortless; you feel as if she were just shadowing her characters and chronicling their lives faithfully. The beautifully wrought descriptions are essential in her ability to transport the reader, whether it be to a Massachusetts suburb or a marketplace in Calcutta. It explains why I enjoy the stories set in India the most; she manages to make the locations feel exotic and familiar at the same time.

On the other hand, I am now severely craving for Indian food. I guess the passages on dal, lamb curry, fried eggplants, and various Bengali stews were just a little too vivid for me.

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