‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri was lying on the bookshelves of the rundown library round the corner, where I had gone in search of ‘time-paas-chick-lit’. I grabbed the book, (1) Because the author is so well-known, and (2) Because I enjoyed her other book, ‘Interpretor of Maladies’.
Unaccustomed Earth is, like her other books, about the lives of people of Asian origin, born/settled abroad, and the life they lead, their cultural background always casting a shadow/spell on them as they merge into western society.
For one, the writing is very simple, yet both gripping and evocative. Lahiri skilfully captures the lives of Indians living abroad, the mundaneness and the pressures of merging into a whole new society.
What however, stirred something in me, is the loneliness in every story. And by that, I do not mean, sorrow caused by catastrophies, but a strange loneliness that entraps a person, a feeling that one just gets accustomed to, begins to enjoy. It is what makes one huddle into a shell, even when surrounded by people who love him/her.
To me, I would attribute this to a conflicting interplay of culture. I believe that children born/raised in either the homeland, or in the company of extended family/friends are more communicative, and enter mainstream society easily. While on the other hand, children born/raised in a country different from the homeland, are prone to a lot of pressure. Coping with different cultures, language, looks.. this can be rather overwhelming, especially to a child/young person. [There are several exceptions, ofcourse, but this is my theory 🙂 ]
Coming back to the book.. the characters are all extremely well etched. It is easy for the reader to understand a variety of sentiment.. the thrill of having a crush, the pain of unrequited love, the loss of a dear one…!
What I fail to understand, not about the book, but about Life in general, is : Why cannot things/situations be simple Black or White? What is the necessity of varying shades of gray? Consider a person with a drinking problem.. why can he not overcome his addiction? A person in love, why can he not just be bold/communicative enough to follow his dream?
It scares me to think of the ways in which we, ourselves, complicate life.. that we find it easier to compromise than to sort things out!
That ignoring/living with problems is the only way forward, because other attempts fail?
That we do not believe in fairy tales any longer!
That even when there is a choice, we would rather be ‘practical’, than risk all considering there could be a whole, beautiful, new world lying ahead!
So, this book, to me, was a touching account of relationships. Of everyday lives.. of families next door. It could be the story of the author. It might just be that of the reader!
A read that stirs something, somewhere.
Edited to add:
A regular reader of Lahiri’s may tend to find the book repetitive or stereotyped. This is partly true, in terms of frequent references to the lifestyle of immigrant families, Bengali culture/cuisine, inter-caste marriages, affairs, the families themselves becoming affluent, etc. Also, [at the risk of being repetitive myself 🙄 ], there is this underlying loneliness, sadness and stark nomadic tendency in many of her characters. While this can be moving to some, it may seem, to others that she were writing about the ’same’ character every time, only changing the name/gender.
Now, to give the author her due, this is clearly the epicentre of her writing. Tales of Bengali families merging into a different culture. And if one were to analyse, the individual stories in this collection focus on a unique conflict / relationship problem. For eg., one is about a brother going wayward.. the other about a woman silently in love with a man she is not ’supposed’ to think of!
To me, this repetition enhances the bitter taste… of truth. I cannot help feeling sad for the characters. And for the conflict they have within themselves.
The common backdrop, is what makes the stereotype. I do not know, if a variation, is too much to ask for 🙂
Having said that, I would be very curious to see if Lahiri’s writing would be just as moving, if it were on any other topic. We will have to wait and watch!