Unaccustomed Earth – A Review

Name: Unaccustomed Earth
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre: Short Stories
Published year: 2008 (Knopf)
Pages: 331
My Rating: Four and a half stars

Recuperating from a flu, I lay reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth and was silently bowled over by her powerful and engaging style of writing. The prolific author of Namesake has come out with yet another anthology of short stories that touch you, caress you, enter your heart and mind making a permanent place within it.
The book is divided into two parts, the first being separate stories of separate people and the second part comprises of three stories related to each other through the characters of Hema and Kaushik. Very true in its Bengali essence as all Lahiri’s writings are founded upon, each story is deeply moving, highly entertaining and thought provoking. All of the stories are based on U.S. based Bengali characters.

Part I
While Ruma mourns the untimely death of her mother in the first story Unaccustomed Earth, her father with whom she has never shared any genuine connection comes to stay with her for a while. Both mourn in their own ways. Ruma misses her mother’s touch in her everyday life, while her father sees an alarming degree of similarity between his wife and his ageing daughter. It is thus through loss that a father and daughter finds each other opening up to one another like never before. But her father has a secret which he dare not disclose. Will Ruma eventually find out what it is that her father hides? A touching narration about loss, family and about getting along.

Hell-Heaven reveals a story of Pranab Kaku and Aparna Boudhi through the eyes of Aparna’s daughter, a young girl who is the narrator. Pranab kaku is an inevitable house guest who finds himself spending his days, weeks and months relishing Aparna’s cooking and her growing attention on him. Young and attractive Pranab kaku continues to make his presence felt in Aparna’s world by giving her the attention her husband doesn’t, until he meets Deborah. Will Aparna be able to share Pranab kaku’s attention with Deborah? Narrated through a child’s perspective, Hell-Heaven truly leaves the reader highly entertained.

A Choice of Accomodation is about a couple of a mixed marriage who has lost out on each other in the haze of parenthood, jobs and above all, to the increasing challenges of an American way of life. It takes a friend’s wedding for them to come up close and personal with the pent up crisis in between. Will Amit and Megan be able to save their bond of matrimony?
In Only Goodness, Sudha tries to come to terms with her alcoholic younger brother Rahul. No matter how far she goes, the destructive tentacles of alcoholism reaches her through Rahul’s visit to England where she lives with her British husband and her young son. Rahul claims that he is sober but he is far from speaking the truth and it takes an near fatal incident for Sudha to realize that her brother will never be cured. Will Sudha be able to forgive Rahul?

Sang aka Sangita Biswas’ and Farouk’s clandestine affair is scrutinized and questioned by Sang’s roommate Paul in Nobody’s Business. Secretly in love with Sang, Paul finds out the truth behind why Farouk insists on keeping his relationship with Sang a secret. But will he be able to convince Sang?

Part II
Hema and Kaushik meet when Kaushik’s family stays briefly with Hema’s family when the latter move move back to the U.S. in Once in a Lifetime. Hema is instantly infatuated with the brooding teenage boy who hardly spends time with the rest of the family but roams about in the forbidden woods with his camera. Eventually, Kaushik shares a secret with Hema which she safeguards it from her own parents. The secret unfolds manifesting itself in disease and death and Hema and Kaushik lose touch with each other owing to the distance that continues to widen between the two families. Uniquely narrated in second person point of view, the story is told through Hema’s perspective and it leaves the readers impatient to continue reading as the story continues in the next one.

In Year’s End the story, we meet Kaushik a college going adult. The story is narrated in first person perspective that belongs to Kaushik’s entirely. As he prepares to meet his step-mother and her two young daughters from a previous marriage, Kaushik is deeply agitated to return to a house full of strangers. His agitation becomes apparent when he cannot stand to see a woman other than his mother presiding over the kitchen and he hides his distaste for his new family until he discovers his step sisters slyly going through his mother’s old pictures. Will Kaushik be able to contain his dislike, his apathy for the new inmates of his house? Or will it cause him to take a wrong step?

Hema finds herself in Rome on a vacation in Going Ashore. Betrothed to Navin she least expects to meet Kaushik in the Roman city. Connected by painful memories from the past, Hema and Kaushik gets catapulted into a brief affair with no strings attached. As providence brings them together as adults, it separates them once again placing them in two different continents. Will Hema and Kaushik meet again? Narrated through Hema’s perspective, Going Ashore culminates in a beautiful union encouraged by chance but nothing in this world as we know, is permanent.

Namesake’s eminent writer delivers a collection of fantastic stories once more, with superbly crafted characters. Unaccustomed Earth goes on to prove Lahiri’s undisputed talent in the field of literary writing. The collage of characters highlight both simple and complex types, neurotic and contemplative types, romantic and practical types, blatant liars and downright honest types, whining and enduring types, interacting with each other on a daily basis, related to one another in this state of being called life.

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Yoshay Lama

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