Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

This review, and the one that follows, appeared in the April 18 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


Michael Frayn once said, tongue somewhere near his cheek, that his advice to writers would be “to write the same thing over and over again, changing things very slightly and going on delivering it until people accept it.”

With the publication of her third book, Unaccustomed Earth, the time has come to ask the question: is Jhumpa Lahiri simply writing the same thing over and over again?

The elements of this meta-story, simply put, would be: academically-oriented Bengali parents who have immigrated from Kolkata to the northeastern United States, caught up in the unfamiliar ways of the new world, yet unwilling to renounce their earlier lives; their offspring, more confident and Americanised, yet, as their relationships show, more confused; and a pervasive strain of melancholy because of relinquishing old ties and coming to terms with new ones.

Lahiri herself defined her concerns as a writer in an article for Newsweek magazine two years ago, stating that “the immigrant's journey, no matter how ultimately rewarding, is founded on departure and deprivation, but it secures for the subsequent generation a sense of arrival and advantage.”

Most of the eight stories of her new collection adhere to this template. Yet, all of them, to varying degrees, convey a richness of experience, a universality of sentiment and an investigation of emotion that makes reading them a pleasure.

Here, among others, a 38-year-old daughter apprehensive about how the death of her mother will affect her relationship with her father learns truths about her needs and wants; another daughter unravels the story of how her mother fell in love with a family friend; a sister finds out the hard way about the limits of responsibility and discipline when it comes to her alcoholic brother; and a married couple’s mis-steps while attending a wedding give them another chance at togetherness.

If the ground is familiar, what, then, accounts for the impact of the narratives? Consider, to begin with, Lahiri’s mastery of the well-chosen detail. Henry James famously informed us that a writer ought to be one on whom “nothing is lost”, and Lahiri unearths dime-sized maroon bindis, useful safety pins attached to bangles, hotel room wallpaper with squiggly grey lines, biscuits with the faint taste of coconut, Tiffany candlesticks as wedding presents, a professor looking like a smaller version of Ringo Starr, a chain link fence matted with forsythia and the figure of a man spotted swimming in a lake during a grey drizzle. All of these and more are worked seamlessly into the narrative, and such verisimilitude is to be prized.

Contrasts in food, too, are always present and nicely judged as competing markers of identity: creamy pasta and plates of prime rib with asparagus and potatoes vie with curried mackerel, chorchori and homemade mishti.

Lahiri’s prose, as before, is sensitive and nuanced, progressing for the most part in a fine-tuned series of minor chords. Emotions creep up unannounced and the word “evocative”, so often bandied about to describe pieces of fiction, is singularly apt here. Relationships are largely pastel-shaded – as one of the characters, musing on her parents’ life together, thinks: “It was neither happy nor unhappy, and the lack of emotion in either extreme was what upset Sudha most. She would have understood quarrels, she believed. She would even have understood divorce. She always hoped some sign of love would manifest itself…” One of Raymond Carver’s later poems was titled “No Heroics, Please” and this is the expression that comes to mind. No heroics, but as Lahiri so amply demonstrates, merely the quiet heroism of dealing with life’s vicissitudes.

Interestingly, however, it is when the author narrates a story from a different point of view that the results are not as impressive – as in the one which speaks of the fascination of Paul, a American doctoral student, with the bewitching Sangeeta, one of his roommates, who is in the snares of a tempestuous relationship with Farouk, a caddish Egyptian.

The three concluding stories all deal with the fates of Hema and Kaushik, who meet as children because their parents are family friends, going on to trace their separate lives until, approaching middle age, they bump into each other in Italy. The denouement is something of a let-down, with its uncustomary strain of melodrama and dire coincidence, but the first two stories are compelling, imbued with the grief that the loss of a parent brings about. In fact, the ageing of, and distance from, one’s parents is another recurring theme in this volume.

Faulkner had his Yoknapatawpha county; Narayan his Malgudi town; Cheever his suburb of Westchester. With Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri lays claim again to her own metaphorical patch of ground, and shows us the treasures buried within.


Manoj Jacob said...

Just bought the book. Will be back in a week with a word or two. Cheers.

Diviya said...

She writes beautifully, I was pretty anti-social (of the head-buried-in-a-book-oblivious-to-everything kind) while I was reading it, but I have read all the Lahiri I want to read!