Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Far from Harvard

Chitralekha Basu
Friday 06 June 2008 00:00 BST

At the outset of Jhumpa Lahiri's third book, after the success of The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, one begins to wonder if her characters will ever step out of the Cambridge, Massachusetts streets and Harvard Yard. Boston's academic hub, to which most of Lahiri's stories here seem connected like (to use an Indian analogy) a cow to its tether, is almost a metaphor of the little and limited lives of the Indian diaspora in the US she writes about.

The same archetypal, immigrant Bengali family comprises the professional, aloof father; the mother, trench coat conspicuously wrapped on her sari, perennially scared of her daughters sleeping with American boys; and the wild-eyed child who absorbs the new world faster than his/her parents ever will. In Unaccustomed Earth, it sometimes feels as if the story has not moved at all.

Lahiri's hallmarks are an extraordinarily sensitive understanding of the mutability of human relationships and the skilled detailing of these emotions, to say nothing of the rare but poignant humour (as in "Nobody's Business", a story about a small dog surreptitiously trying to pull the owner away from her Casanova of a lover). They do not fail to hold the reader's attention, but would we be willing to pay three times over for the same story?

As if in answer, "Hema and Kaushik" – a novella broken up into three stories – turns out to be a superbly crafted tale that spills way beyond the standard framework. This too – about two immigrant Bengali families in Cambridge, one staying with the other as a stop-gap arrangement – seems to follow the familiar trajectory for a while. Apparent camaraderie hides an undercurrent of jealousy between the two women, and the first stirrings of sexual attraction the teenage Hema feels for Kaushik. The moment Kaushik shows Hema his discovery – a cluster of tombstones buried under snow – and reveals a secret about his mother, their emotional connection is established against a backdrop of unsparing death.

One has a feeling that this story would not be circumscribed by the woods in a Massachusetts suburb, or by annual trips to Bombay/Calcutta to see the extended family. True to the promise, Hema and Kaushik travel half the world, like two astral bodies dropped out of their orbits. In the first flush of rage and grief, Kaushik drives up the East coast, past a cold, dark sea, until he reaches the Canadian border. Radar-less travel through Latin America takes him to the troubled heartland of El Salvador, and then to Africa, the Middle East and a bullet-riddled Israel.

While Kaushik travels across continents, photographing the world's dead and mauled, Hema returns to Rome, looking for the last vestiges of Etruscan culture and pursuing a doomed love affair. Inevitably, their paths cross again against the backdrop of grief, longing and imminent death. The themes of migration, displacement, of lack of moorings in a globalised and cynical world, are detailed with excruciating tenderness.

The reader begins to feel the throb of the silent howls swelling inside the pregnant Hema. Lahiri has taken material that is familiar, melodramatic even, yet managed to touch the heights of literary achievement by telling the story on a broad canvas. The incipient violence and disaster that creep into the lives of Hema and Kaushik when, as children, they discuss hostages held in 1970s Iran, return to haunt and, eventually, to devastate them.

Chitralekha Basu's 'Urban Tales: a satirist's view of colonial Calcutta', will be published by Stree-Samya Books

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