Jhumpa Lahiri: A Navigator of Two Worlds
by Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf: New York
Hardcover, 2008, 352 pages
In many ways, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest work is a continuation of her previous two—her debut Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies and the equally popular novel The Namesake—in which Lahiri chooses broadly as her subject the Bengali immigrant experience. But this is not to say that her newest published collection of short stories is redundant. In fact, it is quite the opposite as it shows a mastery of the subject—a bicultural fluency that allows her to tap into the Indian world familiar to the first immigrants and an American world familiar to those immigrants’ children—that can only be appreciated if one has read her first two books.
In other reviews of Unaccustomed Earth, one can read about the smoothness of her writing, the invisibility of her mechanics, the lack of strain in any sentence, any word. It is true that Lahiri does possess adroitness over words that would make even the most mundane subject worth reading and that have alone begotten her much success. But those elements of her writing have been present in her first two works. What makes Lahiri successful specifically in Earth is that she is able to understand (and write about) two points of view that are generally at odds. The lines of demarcation between first- and second-generation Indian Americans generally thicken around the common subjects of sex, education, and occupation. From the first story, the one that gives the collection its title, Lahiri is able to jump the divide and surprise the reader with an honesty that sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Lahiri poses the trouble that a 70-year-old widowed man has at having a new girlfriend and being unable to express that information to his daughter. Even the word girlfriend confuses the old man. To second-generation Indian Americans the thought of a widowed parent, particularly a quite old parent, engaging in a romantic relationship is confusing and frankly uncomfortable, because such romance is generally not displayed by first-generation Indian Americans. But Lahiri boldly asserts, and quite truly so, that romance is not monopolized by those of us born in America. In later stories she quite perceptively navigates the American world of second-generation Indian Americans, again in a matter-of-fact way, narrating the sexual trajectory of an Indian girl studying in college—something that first-generation Indian parents are uncomfortable thinking about and probably uncomfortable reading. (Their own children would never do such things, of course.)
In her previous works, Lahiri did touch on such themes but it always seemed to be from the perspective of a writer who was first a Westerner (as Lahiri is.) In Interpreter of Maladies, she did not delve into the private lives of native Indians in a way that would upset existing conceptions of their identity. And in The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli, a son of Indian immigrants, born in America, dominates the storyline (even more so in the film version.) In Earth, Lahiri expands her cultural and emotional range and describes how father and son, mother and daughter view each other as if Lahiri is both father and son and mother and daughter.
In such ways, Lahiri serves as a teacher, a writer who has thought deeply and written about conceptions and, more importantly, misconceptions that first- and second-generation Indian Americans place on each other and that tend to create a distance between children and parents that does not necessarily have to exist. For such an act of explication, more so than for her mastery of the English language, should we owe Lahiri our gratitude for writing Unaccustomed Earth.
Sagar Bapat, an undergraduate majoring in biological chemistry at Stanford University, is from Martinez, Georgia.
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