Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Unaccustomed Earth

Book Title – Unaccustomed Earth
Author – Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre – Short Stories
Year Published - 2008
My rating –8/10

The Stories

Divided into 2 parts, the first part of the book has 5 short stories and the second part is a novella in itself.


Unaccustomed Earth

The Book starts with its title story. This story involving 3 generations revolves around a father’s visit to his daughter’s home and his bonding with the grandson during that time. Ruma has given up her successful legal career to stay at home with her son Akash and has another baby on the way. Married to an American, she has recently moved to Seattle with her family. A recent widower, this is her father’s first visit all by himself. Ruma has a lot of apprehensions about her father’s visit because of the lack of communication over the years. Nevertheless she does feel responsible for his care now that he is alone, a sentiment she can’t expect her husband to understand. But her father has no plans to move in with her. He is in fact enjoying his new found freedom and companion.

During her father’s brief stay, both parent and daughter are able to reach a certain level of comfort which was absent before. In his own way, Ruma’s father puts himself to use in the house and gives her the much needed break. The most amazing transformation was the bonding of her son Akash with his grandfather.

Towards the end, both Ruma and her father accept in silent understanding that bit by bit they have both embraced the new culture and forgone some of their own, like how one treads on new grass slowly and then gets comfortable with it.

Hell- Heaven

Loneliness is the start to many unhappy feelings that follow. This story talks about intense feelings of jealousy in love and the acute sense of betrayal when people change. The words we read are those of Usha, a little girl who is with her traditional Bengali mother, Aparna when befriended by  Pranab, a graduate student at MIT Boston who is homesick and on the verge of going back to India. Aparna, feeling lonely herself, being so far away from home, opens the door to her home to Pranab and welcomes him. Over time, she develops a kind of unique attraction and love for Pranab (kaku) as she waits for him, dresses up for him and cooks up his favorite meals, even though he calls her Boudi (elder brother’s wife). Her husband’s silent and detached attitude only adds to her growing affection for Pranab. Pranab falls for an American woman named Deborah and brings her to Aparna’s home stirring a deep envy inside her. He eventually marries Deborah and inches away from Aparna and her family little by little. Aparna always blames Deborah for the distance and Pranab’s absence from their life and predicts that the marriage won’t last forever and that one fine day Deborah would leave Pranab.  She is proven correct but only partly so and the divorce does happen after 23 years of marriage between Pranab and Deborah.

Aparna and Usha’s relationship flows parallel in the story as it documents the changes that develop in the mother daughter equation and how it gets better with age and acceptance.

A choice of Accommodations

Amit works as a managing Director of a medical journal and is married to Megan, who is now in her last year residency and on her way to become a doctor. Together they have two daughters. The story unravels in the form of their weekend trip to attend the wedding of Pam Borden, Amit’s friend from college and someone he had a huge crush on during that time.  Amit and Megan decide to skip the accommodations provided by the bride’s family for the guests and splurge on a fancy inn hoping to spend some quality time without the kids and bring back the magic in their otherwise busy married life. But things don’t turn out as planned. Amit finds himself talking about how his marriage has “disappeared” after the birth of their second child at the wedding party and Megan can’t help feeling insecure about what Amit might have felt for Pam at one point of time. Their stay at the inn never materializes into the kind of  getaway they had hoped for but was that a good thing after all?

Only Goodness

The fourth story on the index beautifully words down how parents refuse to see the vices of their children and when things go beyond repair, they succumb meekly and accept defeat without a fight. Rahul and Sudha are children from an American Bengali family. Rahul takes his first drink in high school when he visits Sudha at college. What was supposed to be an occasional fun thing to do turns into a habit and by the time Rahul is dismissed from college, he is an alcoholic living off his parent’s support in their house. Sudha finds herself taking charge every time Rahul lands up in trouble including going to the police station when he gets arrested for drunken driving while her parents turn a blind eye and blame the American way of life for the disappointment their son has become for them. 

As time passes, Sudha settles down in London with her British Husband and by then Rahul who creates a huge scene at her wedding, is estranged with the family and lives with his American girlfriend. One day, Rahul gets in touch with Sudha and expresses his desire for reconciliation. He looks like he has seriously given up on his drinking and they spend some wonderful days together during Rahul’s visit to London at their home. Things take an ugly turn when he offers to babysit his infant nephew while Sudha and her husband go out for a movie and come back to find the baby in their bathtub and Rahul passed out in bed. The story makes a very strong statement as it concludes.

Nobody’s business.

The content of this story is really short regardless of the number of pages it spreads over. It is the story of a young girl called Sang (Sangeeta) who is foolishly and madly in love. Her family is looking for an eligible alliance and she makes fun of all the suitors who call her, blindly unaware of the utterly wrong choice she has made for herself. Her roommate Paul, who finds her extremely attractive, tries to open her eyes but cannot save her from the heartbreak that completely shatters her.


Hema and Kaushik

The first section of this novella is through Hema’s eyes. She is a small girl when Rahul’s family leaves Boston and returns to India for good. A couple of years later, they return and stay with her family for a while. Hema silently observes the peculiarities of Rahul and his family and the stories her parents’ always told about Rahul’s parents which no longer match up. She is also the unwilling recipient of the information and the only one in her family to know about the real reason behind their arrival back to America.

The second section is a continuation of the story from Rahul’s point of view. An adult now, he is shocked to be informed about his father’s second marriage to a girl closer to his own age. He also learns that he has two step sisters and initially he does try to be nice to them. But staying in the same house where his mother made home stirs his emotions and brings out a strong reaction.

The final section is the story of Rahul and Hema together, how they meet in Rome, the connection between them and the final destiny of their love.

The Review

With her third book, Jhumpa Lahiri goes back to the short stories. And just like her debut collection, she doesn’t disappoint. The stories in “Unaccustomed Earth” are poignant, sensitive and insightful to the world of immigrants and how some of them adapt and some don’t. The stories talk about different sensibilities, second generation immigrants and the American citizens they raise and the inevitable clash of lifestyle and beliefs. 

Jhumpa Lahiri starts with an elevating story (Unaccustomed Earth) and gradually slips into melancholy as she plunges deeper to uncover the innermost sentiments of people who left their motherland years back never got over it and their children who ultimately grew up confused and rebellious. But there is a beauty in sadness and this book is a perfect example. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a “sad” sad piece of writing where tears don’t stop while reading. It is the kind of sadness that comes from loneliness and the emotions of not belonging experienced by some of the characters that linger after you finish.

Many reviewers while acclaiming the stories accuse the Author of two things: one, she writes in a simple language (in a very “non-author” type language) and two, she always writes about migrants and cultural differences lived through by them. And to both the points of criticism I say “So what?” Her writing maybe simple but it touches your heart. Her words maybe nothing fancy but you can relate to them. And finally her stories maybe about Indians who migrated to the Unites States and their struggle with such a major transition in life but that doesn’t make for a limited readership. Anybody who ever tried to fit into a particular place or culture or tried to belong anywhere can relate to this book. Anybody who questioned their own upbringing because their children developed a completely different set of values influenced by the surroundings can understand and enjoy this book. The relationships and their intricacies she explores in her stores are universal. I do agree that there is an underlying sadness in all stories, even the ones with happy endings; maybe it has something to do with never really “fitting in” completely. 

She obviously takes inspiration from her Bengali heritage and goes back to her roots in her writings.  Her culture it seems touches her life significantly even thousands of miles away and that shows. She writes about what she knows and that too very well.

Significant Specifics

Unaccustomed Earth had the distinguished honor of topping the New York Times Book Review list of “100 Best Books of 2008”. For the same year, it won the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award.


  1. i like her style of writing- this looks like a must read !

  2. When I first read this book I didn't start with the first story...I just picked up a story randomly & this is one book which I finished in less than a week. I like her style ...short stories are easier to read & imbibe, at least for me !!!