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Out of place

In settings from Rome to Cambridge, Jhumpa Lahiri limns the dislocations of the immigrant experience

Lahiri's debut story collection, 'Interpreter of Maladies,' was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. Lahiri's debut story collection, "Interpreter of Maladies," was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. (Tyler hicks/the new york times)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Gregory Brown
April 6, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, 331 pp., $25

"He had so little to do with India," a character named Kaushik muses near the end of "Going Ashore," the final story in Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection. "He had not gone back since the year his mother died, had never gone there for work. As a photographer, his origins were irrelevant. And yet, in Rome, in all of Europe, he was always regarded as an Indian first."

In his essay "Reflections on Exile," the critic Edward Said defined exile as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted." At the heart of the essential sadness of exile is dislocation, the sense that, having left one's home behind, one no longer belongs anywhere. This experience of dislocation is the thematic thread that ties together the whole body of Lahiri's work: her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut story collection, "Interpreter of Maladies," the best-selling novel "The Namesake," and now this new collection, "Unaccustomed Earth," eight beautifully crafted stories that reaffirm their author's status as one of this country's most accomplished and graceful young writers.

Born in London to Indian parents, Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island and was educated at Barnard College and Boston University. This thumbnail biography, as reductive as it may be, nevertheless serves to map out the geographical and psychological terrain of her work. Setting her stories primarily in New England but frequently casting her characters off to Europe and Asia, she is interested in examining the immigrant experience from the perspective not merely of those who leave their homeland in pursuit of educational and financial opportunities but also of their children, who fully belong neither to their parents' home nor to the place in which they have been raised. The remarkable poignancy Lahiri achieves in her work - and in this book in particular - is the result of tying this examination of exile to other, more universal moments of essential sadness in our lives: the death of a parent, the end of a love affair, the ravages of alcoholism on a family.

In the long title story that opens the collection, the narrative moves back and forth between a widowed father and the married daughter he has traveled from his home in Pennsylvania to Seattle to visit. When his children were young and his wife still alive, the father had dutifully made regular trips back to India. "His wife had lived for these journeys," we read, "and until both his parents died a part of him lived for them, too. And so they'd gone in spite of the expense, in spite of the sadness and emptiness and shame he felt each time he returned to Calcutta, in spite of the fact that the older his children grew, the less they wanted to go." The man's daughter, married and a mother now, fears that her father will soon want to move in, and she is torn between her duty to him and her sense that she has constructed a new life for herself, one without ties to the past. The story's charm resides in the fact that we know what the daughter does not - that her father has met, on what his daughter imagines are lonely tours through Europe, another Bengali, a woman with whom he has fallen in love. As the father begins to develop a relationship with his grandson, planting a garden behind his daughter's house, the daughter moves toward the realization that her father has no plans to move in, that he has managed to overcome his grief over her mother's death, a grief that she still bears.

Throughout these stories the characters endeavor to come to grips with the past, with the dislocations of immigration, the cultural expectations of achievement and marriage and children that are often not aligned with the characters' experiences in America. In the story "Only Goodness," a young woman named Sudha attempts to talk with her parents about her brother's alcoholism and the unhappiness that has led to this addiction. They "had always been blind," Sudha realizes, "to the things that plagued their children: being teased at school for the color of their skin or for the funny things their mother occasionally put into their lunch boxes, potato curry sandwiches that tinted Wonder Bread green. What could there possibly be to be unhappy about? her parents would have thought. 'Depression' was a foreign word to them, an American thing. In their opinion their children were immune from the hardships and injustices they had left behind in India, as if the inoculations the pediatrician had given Sudha and Rahul when they were babies guaranteed them an existence free of suffering."

None of us, of course, is free of suffering, and perhaps the greatest triumph of "Unaccustomed Earth" is the empathy and grace with which Jhumpa Lahiri depicts her characters' lives. There are no sentimental flourishes of the exotic that romanticize the mystical allure of the East. There are no spiritual epiphanies that join the old world and the new, that erase the characters' sense of dislocation and loss. There is, however, an absolutely convincing and ultimately redemptive humanity in Lahiri's characters, in none more so than the two who stand at the center of the collection's final three stories, a man and woman who meet as children and then go about their separate lives until they are finally reunited, many years later, in Rome. There, in this ancient city, they discover something of what they have missed all these years - and what they will, because of life's myriad complications, have to continue to miss: a place to call home.

John Gregory Brown is completing his fourth novel, "The Sorrows of Henry Garrett." He teaches at Sweet Briar College, in Virginia.

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