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Michael Ferguson

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri– Book Review

By July 21, 2015No Comments

Unaccustomed Earth.  By Jhumpa Lahiri.  New York:  Vintage/Random House.  2009.




This is a collection of eight elegantly written stories that depict the adjustment and maladjustment of immigrants and their families to life in the United States.   In this case, the country of origin is India, but the challenges and personal issues that Lahiri writes about will be familiar to anyone who has come to this country from a foreign shore, and particularly to anyone born in this country whose parents grew up in a different culture.

The title and lead story in the volume is my favorite.  It is a benign story, told with exquisite sensitivity, about a mixed marriage (Indian female, American male), and the issues facing an immigrant family struggling with life in the United States.  The protagonist’s mother has died, and her father, now seventy, is savoring life as newly single after a long marriage:  traveling, visiting his daughter, Ruma, and her family, and carrying on a secret relationship with a new woman that he met on one of his trips.  Lahiri shows a perceptive eye on every page drawing the contrasting cultures and grasping the implications of small details in behavior and expression in her characters.

Her characters are ordinary middle class people, usually on the affluent side: students struggling with parents and school, professionals, corporate types, with very common middle class anxieties, concerns, and assumptions. This very mundaneness of her characters makes her writing relevant and accessible to a wide audience of both immigrants and native born Americans.

She’s a very insecure woman when it comes to her social status and educational achievement.  She often goes out of her way to make allusions to literary works, esoteric foods, and scientific ideas, as if she wants to establish her own sophistication and educational credentials.  Her characters are always attending or are connected in some way to expensive, prestigious east coast universities. Sometimes I wonder if she thinks her audience is a bunch of graduate students studying humanities.  I guess in many social climbing immigrant families such as hers one can never get enough education.  She is most in your face about it in Going Ashore, the final story in the volume.  In almost every line she is trying to remind us of how educated, worldly and sophisticated she is, especially in the food she eats.  We know you’ve been to school and read a few books, Jhumpa.

Lahiri shows an unflinching commitment to monogamous heterosexual marriage as the definitive lifestyle for human beings throughout her work, even though it never works very well in most of her stories, the possible exception being A Choice of Accommodations.  She seems to blame the men for this, and in a way she is right.  Men are not well suited to monogamous marriage and the growing heavy handedness with which it has been promoted and imposed upon men in America over the last 170 or so years has not been good for men or for women or for society.  I think we can declare it an experiment that has failed.  Nevertheless, a great many American middle class women, such as Lahiri, still believe in it and cling to it as an ideal for their lives, in spite of the fact that it leads to so much disappointment and tragedy.

In A Choice of Accommodations, we see a marriage that actually seems to be working, more or less.  It is an action packed story about a married couple, Amit and Megan, who attend a wedding at Amit’s old boarding school. (Once again we see school as a looming presence.)  They leave their kids with Megan’s parents and go off by themselves for a wild weekend.  At the wedding dinner they decide to call and check on their kids, but Amit had left his cell phone in the hotel room.  He decides to walk back to the hotel room to retrieve it, leaving Megan alone at the wedding party.  He finds the cell phone, but cannot remember his in laws phone number, so having had a few drinks he falls asleep on the bed and doesn’t return to the party.  In the morning he wakes up and finds his wife pissed off that he stranded her and fell asleep drunk on their wild weekend away from the kids.  So they walk around the campus going through some of the buildings and end up making love in a deserted dormitory room.  The end.  It is a rare story where something gets resolved favorably and the couple reestablishes some equilibrium.   Lahiri gets forty-three pages out of this.  You’ll have to read it to see all the exciting parts I have left out.  But notice, it is the man’s irresponsibility that precipitates a problem in the marriage.  This is a motif that will recur throughout the volume.

Males are the destroyers in Lahiri’s world.  In every story it is the moral failings or character flaws in the men that destroy families and relationships.  Women are the hapless victims swept along by the destructiveness of the males that they are unable to tame and unable to save from themselves.  The destructiveness is always inexplicable.  It seems to happen almost arbitrarily.  One seldom sees a cause and effect relationship between anything else in the story and the hand grenades dropped by the males.

In Hell-Heaven Pranab Kaku leaves his American wife of twenty-three years to marry a Bengali woman, after the whole story presents a picture of the two of them in a long, successful marriage.  No hint of dissatisfaction or conflict is offered.  He was also the one who, apparently without realizing it, nearly drove Usha’s mother to suicide with a love she never expressed.  And on the very last page in the very last sentence of this same story Usha’s heart is broken by a man she had hoped to marry.  All this disappointment around marriage, yet Lahiri never questions marriage itself, and she is never able to see marriage from an American male’s point of view.  I think she understands the Indian male’s attitude somewhat better.  In Nobody’s Business Indian men who have never met her and don’t even know her cold call Sang and ask her to marry them.   It is impossible to imagine an American man doing such a thing.

In Going Ashore she describes an alternative to the American way of courtship in Hema’s relationship with Navin, the man to whom she would eventually be betrothed.

They wandered chastely around Boston, going to museums and movies and concerts and dinners, and then beginning on the second weekend, he kissed Hema goodnight at the door of her home and slept at a friend’s.  He admitted to her that he’d had lovers in the past, but he was old fashioned when it came to a future wife.  And it touched her to be treated, at thirty-seven, like a teenaged girl.  She had not had a boyfriend until she was in graduate school, and by then she was too old for such measured advances from men.  (p. 297)

I felt a shudder when I read that paragraph.  It felt ominous to me, that these two people are going to get married.  They both seem woefully unprepared.  The man, Navin, does not seem real, like many of Lahiri’s male characters.  He is the fantasy of a naive, young girl.  If he is real, then his behavior and attitude toward this woman, coupled with her world of illusions does not bode well.  Can they possibly adjust to one another?  Or maybe it will be the kind of marriage where each lives a parallel life and they will share only a small circumscribed relationship in common.  Maybe they will approach the marriage with low expectations and make few demands on one another.  I suppose those kinds of arrangements can work, depending what you mean by ‘work.’  Perhaps in a different kind of society with different assumptions and a different social system.  But in modern America, a couple of this sort faces a daunting rock climb.  I feared for them even before I turned the page.  For all her sophistication in food and the culture of universities, Lahiri is very childlike and ignorant in her understanding of men.

There is never a hint of same sex interest in any of her characters.  No triangles, except clandestine.  Everybody is deceiving each other or living in a world of their own very conventional illusions.  She does seem to have some acquaintance with casual sex, but again, without understanding, especially from the male point of view.  Her eye is always on marriage.

The story of the development of Rahul’s alcoholism from childhood in Only Goodness on puts Lahiri’s superb observational gifts on display to supreme advantage.  She clearly knows something about the developmental line of alcoholism and the various behavioral patterns that accompany it.  But once again it lacks psychological insight.   She gets a lot of the dots, but she doesn’t connect them.  The appearance of alcoholism in an adolescent indicates serious problems within the family as a whole, and particularly in the marriage of the parents.  Lahiri focuses the story on the relationship between the troubled younger son, Rahul, and the older sister, Sudha, almost implying that Sudha is responsible for Rahul’s alcoholism, but avoids looking at the parents’ marriage in any great depth.  Sudha introduced Rahul to alcohol, and helped him sneak booze into their parents’ house and hide it from them.  She facilitated and participated in his early experiments with drinking, but it is profoundly mistaken to think that this led to his later problems.   One has to look at the parents and the onerous pressures they put on their son, their lack of understanding of his emotional needs, and his ultimate rebellion against all of them by destroying himself.  Lahiri puts way too much emphasis on Sudha.

When Rahul expressed a wish to be left alone with his infant nephew while Sudha and Roger go out to a movie, Sudha was worried and did not trust her brother alone with her young son.  When they returned home and found Rahul drunk and passed out on the bed and the infant left perilously alone in a tub of water, there is no explanation for the incident.  It was not unexpected, in fact it was foreshadowed, and Sudha had an palpable worry of such a possibility.  But no understanding is offered.  No insight into Rahul’s murderous rage against his sister is put forward.   Alcoholics are, of course, full of rage and envy, with a will to destroy themselves and those around them.  Lahiri understands this and observes its manifestations very accurately with her exquisitely sensitive eye.  But she doesn’t connect events with their antecedents.  Throughout the book Lahiri’s men seem to go off on destructive tangents after long years of stability and apparent sanguinity.   Lahiri seems genuinely puzzled by men.  Maybe she thinks they are inherently defective or inclined toward destruction.  It seems to be the best she can come up with.  But at the same time she never allows a full blown tragedy to occur.   There are no murders, violence, tragic deaths in her stories.  Even at their most destructive, her men are still under control.

In Nobody’s Business it is Farouk who is the destructive male villain, carrying on simultaneous love affairs with two different women and deceiving both.  Yet both women remain resolutely attached to this very unattractive man.  There is no explanation for why these two women are so attached to Farouk.  He has absolutely nothing to recommend himself.  He treats both women badly and appears to mock their expectation of his monogamy.  Paul is the most problematic character in this story.   He is a roommate of Sang and the story is told through his eyes. He is definitely interested in Sang, he knows a lot about her private life, yet he is at great pains to remain as neutral and nonparticipating as possible.  He is even privy to crucial information that would be of keen interest to Sang.  But he withholds it and does not tell her, allowing the situation to play itself out as if he were watching an experiment on laboratory rats.  No wonder Sang never takes an interest in him.  Deidre also provides an opening for him, which he roundly spurns.  Paul has no sex life or social life of his own.  He is the consummate academic monk.  But it is not quite believable.  We never really see who this guy is from the inside.  He is sort of a place holder.  His function is strictly narrative.  He does not participate in the story line any more than he absolutely has to — despite his inclinations.  He is a kind of living, breathing nonentity.  I think Lahiri could have done without him.  He is a man without a soul, whose only function is to narrate, but the story functions very well without him.

The last three stories in the volume form a trilogy about two characters:  Hema and Kaushik.  The first story, Once in a Lifetime, is written in the second person addressed to Kaushik from Hema.  It has a feeling of reproach running through it.  It is the story of a young girl’s crush on an older boy (16) whose family is friends with her family  — sort of.  The “sort of” is the source of the tone of reproach and resentment running through the story.  Kaushik’s family is considerably better off than Hema’s family, but is staying with Hema’s family and living in their residence for an extended time while they resettle into the United States from India.  Hema is forced to give up her room so Kaushik can occupy it during this rather long, temporary stay.  Kaushik’s mother is dying.  That is the reason for the stay and the resettlement from India.

The second story, Year’s End, is also written in the second person, but it feels as if it is in the first person.  The second person pronoun is rarely used.  In contrast to Once in a Lifetime, where the ‘you’ pronoun is used throughout and the story feels like a long letter, this story feels more like a narrative, and it is in Kaushik’s voice addressed to Hema.  However, Lahiri’s Kaushik is completely unconvincing as a male voice.  Kaushik thinks, feels, and acts like a woman.  He is a woman in a man’s clothes with a man’s name.  Reading this story I felt how thoroughly feminine Lahiri is.   Despite her acute sensitivity and observational skills, she is not able to get inside a man’s head.  That is why I didn’t believe the character of Paul in Nobody’s Business and why I felt she failed to understand the character of Rahul and his drinking in Only Goodness.   She’s out of touch with the male mentality in its depths, but I haven’t quite figured out the reason.  It probably has to do with sex, but I don’t want to say that in print.  She observes the surface with the remarkable sensitivity, which makes her writing such a pleasure to read.  Her eye for small details and their emotional meanings is beguiling.  It draws you in and holds your attention page after page, and yet she seems to miss what drives men in the depths of their hearts, why they need women after all anyway.  She doesn’t quite get it.  She gropes around as if searching, trying to grasp the secrets of a man’s heart, but what she comes up with is always through a woman’s lens.  She does better with her older males, the father figures who are married.   Kaushik’s father in Year’s End, Ruma’s father in Unaccustomed Earth, They feel a little more real, a little more tangible, but young men are a world apart from her.  I can see that she is truly puzzled and intimidated by them.

In Year’s End, we see another instance of the demonic male wreaking destruction upon a family.  While his father and his new wife, Chitra, are out to a New Year’s party, Kaushik is alone in the house with Chitra’s two young girls.  He finds them on the floor of their bedroom — which used to be his — sitting on the floor looking at pictures of his dead mother, which they found in the closet.  He explodes in a tantrum as if they had committed some sacrilege, bullying them and shaking them violently.  The whole incident has a surreal quality to it, and it doesn’t make sense.  There is absolutely nothing in the story that prepares one for this outburst of crazed violence.  It is another example of Lahiri’s inability to create a credible male character.  It further evinces her deep fear of men and her perception of them as unpredictable bomb throwers.

This incident in Year’s End and Rahul’s episode of leaving Sudha’s infant alone in the bathtub in Only Goodness present a clear message from Lahiri about men and young children:  you cannot leave young children alone with a male, particularly a young male.  Young males are irresponsible, negligent, unpredictable, and violent.   Children dare not be left alone with them under any circumstances, even for short periods of time.  Only women can be trusted to care for children properly.

The final story in the trilogy, Going Ashore, is a narrative in the third person, except at the very end where we return to Hema’s voice.  It is about Kaushik and his life as a journalistic photographer assigned to the most dangerous and tumultuous parts of the world.  She thus associates Kaushik with everything she hates and fears about males:  war, violence, atrocities, torture, mutilations, brutality, savagery.  But Kaushik himself does not engage in any of the atrocities.  He does not cut off anyone’s penis, he does not blow up any school buses full of young children, he does not machine gun people with their hands tied standing over an open trench.  He is an outsider who only observes and photographs — like Lahiri.  This is as close as Lahiri can get to the abyss of violence and aggression in male souls.

She is correct that violence, brutality, atrocities, unspeakable cruelty, are the near exclusive province of men.  It is one area that of life that women’s equality has not yet penetrated, and probably won’t.  Women are certainly capable of violence, brutality and cruelty.  But it is usually in response to some personal insult or injury.  Male violence can be more generalized, indiscriminate, and extreme.  Lahiri correctly perceives these capabilities in men, but she does not understand them; she deeply fears them, and she does not grasp their necessity, their inevitability, nor their value.  Men are capable of violence, brutality, and savagery for very good reasons, and women have suffered and benefited from it.

Although she loves Kaushik she ultimately repudiates him and sends him off to Thailand, then she goes a step further and actually kills him off in a tsunami, making sure that there is no possibility of a sequel.  She really doesn’t like men very much.  Only emasculated, tame, domesticated men who don’t stir up any strong feelings.  It is those strong passions of lust and hate that Lahiri sees as giving rise to all the ugliness and pain of life.  Lahiri’s world represents the triumph of duty over love, the triumph of arranged marriage over passion, the triumph of routine over adventure, the triumph of cottage cheese over a good Thai restaurant.  She wants men to be responsible drones, working like slaves for years on end to support their families, but without having to interact with them very much.  Lahiri is the patron saint of all bored suburban housewives.

When Kaushik says to Hema on the day before they are to separate, “Come to Hong Kong with me.  Don’t marry him, Hema.[Navin]”  She should have countered.  “Will you marry me then?”  Because if he wasn’t willing to marry her, then her choice would have been clear and his suggestion would have been out of order.  But if he had answered, “Let’s stay in Italy another week and get married here.  Then we’ll go to Hong Kong together.  Tonight there will be no condoms.  We’ll throw them away.”  “Take me, I’m yours!”  Two weeks later Hema sends Navin an e-mail from Hong Kong.  “Dear Navin,  I’m sorry I couldn’t be present for our wedding, but I eloped and married someone else.   Hema.”  That would have been made a much better story, Jhumpa.  Much better than that dreary ending you wrote.  But it is probably too late to revise it.

I like Lahiri as a writer.  I read The Namesake several years ago, and was favorably impressed with some qualifications, as I recall.  I would probably read other things by her.  Stylistically, her femininity and her keen perception draw me in.  She has a good eye for the nuances of cultural assumptions and expectations, the contrasts, the plusses and minuses in both Indian and American cultures, the quandaries of an immigrant’s adjustment, but I find myself turning against her as a woman, because she fails to understand men so utterly, and because she is at such pains to keep reminding us of her education and social status.  This type of insecurity puts me off.  I gave a copy of this book to an Indian woman I know who was not familiar with Lahiri, but I almost wish I hadn’t.  I have very mixed feelings about the book and about Lahiri.