Unaccustomed Earth
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

I have spent too many evenings in hotel rooms
in various Asian cities, wasting my time watching
television shows in languages I don't understand.
Then again, I have found that I don't need to know
the native tongue to recognize a recurring theme
in the local dramas and soap operas.

These shows always revolve around unhappy
parents - stern fathers and grieving mothers -
who constantly try to manipulate and interfere
in the lives of the younger generation. I can't
translate a single word of dialogue, but just the
looks on the faces of that aggrieved mom and
exasperated daughter sum up decades of inter-
generational conflict. If looks could kill . . . no Bollywood actress
would live past the age of twenty-five.

This is the world that Jhumpa Lahiri captures so evocatively in her
latest collection of stories
Unaccustomed Earth. Her characters
move freely from country to country, continent to continent, job to
job, but the psychological ties of family and culture are not so easy
to leave behind. Each of her narratives is both firmly embedded in
the here-and-now of the Indian ex-pat experience, but also full of
the resonance of the inescapable past.

The parents invariably have expectations, typically unrealistic
ones, as they move to the West yet want to resist its inevitable
influence on the next generation. They demand that their children
excel and succeed in their new setting, but not become shaped by
its values. Even small things - a glass of Johnny Walker (a brand
which appears a dozen or so times in this book, and is always a
symbol of decadent Westernizing), make-up, an accent - are
scrutinized and judged. And every now and then a big bombshell
drops: a child wants to date, or even marry, someone who is not
Indian.

It is to Lahiri's credit that she can work so many variations on
these simple themes. She has a deft touch in delineating
characters and shaping scenes. Above all, she is able to build
tension in relationships between contrary characters, while
deferring conflict, allowing subtle changes to play out gradually.
Her tales are psychologically rich without the baggage of the so-
called psychological novel. Everything in the story moves lightly
and at a measured pace, even when the subject matter itself is
heavy: a brother's alcoholism, a step-brother's betrayal, a jilted
lover's anguish and revenge.

Lahiri is sensitive to the contradictions inherent in the lives of
Indians abroad. "Cinema of a certain period was the one thing my
mother loved wholeheartedly about the West," a character
relates. "She herself never wore a skirt — she considered it
indecent — but she could recall, scene by scene, Audrey Hepburn's
outfits in any given movie." Such small, but poignant details,
contribute to the vividness and power of the stories in
Unaccustomed Earth.

Lahiri will sometimes surprise us with a plot twist that runs
counter to all our expectations. In the title story (really almost a
novella), it is the widowed father who tries to hide his new
romantic relationship from his daughter, and we enjoy the
spectacle of the secretive parent - a reversal of he typical roles in
a Lahiri story. Her finest moments here, however, come in the
closing three stories, which stand together as a single, powerful
tale. A Westernized Indian woman, with a PhD and a growing
reputation as a scholar, rebounds from an unhappy affair and
decides to settle for an arranged marriage with a traditional Indian
man she hardly knows.

The basic premise here is straightforward, but Lahiri builds up to
this conflict in carefully developed scenes. Every situation is a
stepping stone up to the eventual conflict between traditional
values and modern ways, but each interlude and event draws
energy from its own inherent drama. Lahiri's story, despite its
conventionality, is completely free of the trite or predictable. The
readers, for their part, will hardly realize where they are being led.
And Lahiri saves a final, unexpected surprise for the end,
delivering a closing cadence that is so powerful, it is almost out of
character for this author, who usually revels in smaller, more
intimate scenes.

Readers who are looking for flashy experimentation or linguistic
pyrotechnics are advised to go elsewhere. But don't be fooled by
the modest exterior to this author's prose. Lahiri is a great writer,
who controls her subject, and constructs her tales with a master's
touch. She may already have a Pulitzer Prize to here credit, but
with stories like these, Jhumpa Lahiri still seems to be hitting new
heights.
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