That a book can help melt seas and continents away is a known fact, almost a cliché now. That it can help understand the emotional complexity, the dimension of human psychology is also an established fact. But what Jhumpa Lahiri’s book ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ explores is much more than just that- the way it sinks to the very core of a character’s being, unravelling the layers thread by thread, is remarkable. The seemingly simple stories slowly unfold for the readers to appreciate their true complexity. Every well-crafted story deals with the various facets of relationships and Lahiri’s literary powers are on full display in this collection of short stories. It’s fun as well as challenging to do a book review, specially book reviews for Jhumpa Lahiri’s literary work.
The first five stories are interlinked with a common theme of loss, tracing the lives of immigrants settled in the U.S. and the sense of disconnection and alienation they feel in their new lives. The stories craftily explore how those very alienated parents raise children in a foreign land who grow up to estrange themselves from their parents. The stories show how the fresh Bengali immigrants desperately try to hold on to the remote reflection of what they once knew, how they routinely bond with other Bengalis just for the sake of their remembered heritage, the tightly knit families with their own sets of disappointments and failures. The children silently tolerate the trips to ‘home’ in Calcutta, all the while wishing to go back to their homes in the U.S. The wide generation and cultural gap between the children and their own parents has been well portrayed. Having grown up celebrating Halloween, these children are expected to abide by the cultures of a distant land they don’t know much about, except what they can gather from their parent’s memories and the infrequent trips. These children serve as a contrast to their parents; they embody almost everything foreign that their parents were in awe of or had tried to prevent them from being. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri is a grabber.
In the first story, a widowed father returns to his daughter Ruma’s house for a short stay. In his short stay he tends to the earth of his daughter’s garden, carefully planting seeds, watering them religiously and uprooting the weeds. He unexpectedly forms a close bond with his grandson Akash and teaches him how to sow seeds and look after the garden. In his own way, he tries to shield his daughter from the pain that is in store for her as well, the pain of being estranged by one’s children. In ‘Only Goodness’ Sudha tries to hold on to the frail sibling connection with her brother Rahul, an alcoholic who has been reduced to a mere reminder of what he could have been. The last three stories in the book are more of a novella, strung to each other by common characters, Kaushik and Hema. The story traces their childhood memories of spending a winter together in Hema’s home and how they went their separate ways before spring could set in.
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Lahiri is a magical storyteller in the sense that she says so much by saying so little. Her writing style is sparse; her stories are meant to be taken in slowly. Her power of observation is what awes and makes you stop, read the sentence again, shut the book with your finger still inside it, marking the page, and really turn the sentence over a few times in your head. Not many books can have that effect. Not many writers can create that effect. That’s the beauty of Jhumpa’s work. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri rattles the mind.
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