Monday, December 14, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Some writers write with a grace and fluidity that seems to allow them to paint pictures without leaving  brushstrokes. Jhumpa Larhiri is such a writer, and the seamless flow of the stories in her recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, reveals so much about loneliness and exile, about family secrets and unspoken pains. The satin smoothness of the writing leads to a kind of emotional understatement, so that even scenes of great pathos leave hardly a surface ripple.

This set of stories is connected both by common characters and common themes, with the main theme being that of the struggle between American born children and their Bengali parents. Lahiri understands at a deep level both the struggles of the children to assimilate to their new culture without constantly disappointing their parents, and the isolation and fears of the parents who fiercely hold their children to them and to their cultural values and yet realize that they must somehow set them free.

For the most part, these immigrants, unlike so many before them who have fled to this country from impoverishment and political oppression, come from relatively prosperous backgrounds. Men who, with the support of their Indian families, come to attain professional degrees as doctors, scientists, and engineers, and who bring with them the wives from arranged marriages.  Certainly, it is the wives who have the most difficulty in adjusting. Often marooned in suburbs where there are no other Indian families and dressed in traditional clothes that will mark them out as foreigners forever, they seem merely tolerated by their busy husbands and often enough an embarrassment to their children who are frantically throwing off traditional values in an attempt to assimilate.
I began to pity my mother; the older I got, the more I saw what a desolate life she led. She had never worked, and during the day she watched soap operas to pass the time. Her only job, every day, was to clean and cook for my father and me. We rarely went to restaurants, my father always pointing out, even in cheap ones, how expensive they were compared with eating at home. When my mother complained to him about how much she hated life in the suburbs and how lonely she felt, he said nothing to placate her. “If you are so unhappy, go back to Calcutta,” he would offer, making it clear that their separation would not affect him one way or the other. I began to take my cues from my father in dealing with her, isolating her doubly.
Of course, not all the men, even those whose marriages have been arranged, are as unfeeling and indifferent as this one, but Lahiri is quick to point out that most of them have from childhood never done anything for themselves, not even the making of tea or the picking up of their discarded clothes. Coddled and spoiled always by mothers and sisters, they expect their wives to serve them, to be grateful for the money they make and the homes they provide, and, of course, to raise children who at once are successful in this new culture and yet embrace the values of the old. If the children fail, it is the fault of the wife, and if they adopt the dress and lifestyle of their more wild and promiscuous American friends, that, too, is the fault of the mother.

Lahiri is meticulous in describing and analyzing the family lives and romantic attachments of her characters. Often enough, it is the female children who have some understanding of the intense loneliness of their mothers, as well as the nostalgia and sense of isolation of their fathers. The male children simply chaff against the expectations of their stern fathers and the suffocating concern of their mothers.
While Sudah (the daughter) regarded her parents’ separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like a cancer, Rahul was impermeable to that aspect of their life as well. “No one dragged them here,” he would say. “Baba left India to get rich, and Ma married him because she had nothing else to do.” That was Rahul, always aware of the family’s weaknesses, never sparing Sudha from the things she least wanted to face.
While I have spoken so far mainly of the isolation and exile of the parents, many of these stories center on the lives of the children when they are in college or boarding schools. Some dare to marry non-Indian mates, and must then enter into their own struggles of straddling two cultures. Others, who can neither yield to the arranged or semi-arranged marriages their parents want for them, nor enter into uneasy alliances with non-Indian men or women who will always view them as foreign and odd, simply choose to live as exiles. Lahiri seems to understand each of her characters from the inside. She displays an emotional intelligence and understanding that makes her stories shimmer. The lives she describes are neither happy nor overwhelmingly sad, but each seems to carry the weight of truth and lucidity.

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