Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)


Jhumpa Lahiri seems to know death very well, and the fact that surrounding death, before and after, is irrepressible life. Loss is infused through all these stories—loss of a parent, of a relationship, of a friendship, of a lover. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight short stories: five stand-alone, and three that are interconnected. Like her previous books, The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Lahiri writes about the Bengali immigrant milieu that she knows best, and the tone here is overwhelmingly melancholic.

In the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth”, Ruma is the mother of a young child, whose own mother died shortly before. She grieves for her own sake, but also for her son, Akash, who will not remember his grandmother:

“Akash had no memory of her mother. She had died when he was two, and now, when she pointed her mother out in a photograph, Akash would always say, “she died,” as if it were something extraordinary and impressive her mother had done. He would know nothing of the weeks her mother had come to stay with Ruma after his birth, holding him in the mornings in her kaftan as Ruma slept off her postpartum fatigue.” (p. 17)

The emotions Lahiri describes are not extraordinary, they are mundane, but in this insignificance lies their significance—it is very difficult to capture such raw, simple emotions in words:

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times—simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is made from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now—that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.” (46)

Lahiri’s attempts to represent the ordinary emotions and events of living also constituted one of my problems with the collection, however. After the first couple of stories, it all seemed a bit samey. All of the protagonists were Bengali, middle class, immigrants (or second generation) in the US (all in the northeast, too), professional, and between 20 and 40 years of age. I get it, this is Lahiri’s background, and she writes what she knows, but I felt that the repetition of this stock character type in Unaccustomed Earth got rather boring. The short story genre didn’t particularly help here—as soon as I got used to one of these characters (all were different in temperament or ambition) it was time to move on to the next one. Overall I preferred Lahiri’s The Namesake, which explores very similar life situations, but without the jarring change necessitated by the short story. Despite being exemplary examples of the genre (I hope she is taught at high school around the world), Unaccustomed Earth also proved to me why I have always found this form unsatisfying.

But despite these hesitations, Unaccustomed Earth is a devastatingly beautiful book. Just when things were starting to feel a bit banal again, Lahiri returned to some finely-tuned emotional insights. The final lines of the final story (one that I had been finding slightly irritating) left me reeling: “It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.” (p. 333)

Without Dreams, Shahbano Bilgrami (2007)


At around 250 pages, Without Dreams is not a long novel, but reading it was like wading through mud.

It could have been good- the premise was simple and had the potential to be powerful. Domestic violence, alcoholism, the effects these have on the young who witness them, and injustices meted to domestic servants in a corrupt society. But Bilgrami’s attempts to create suspense and mystery were extraordinarily tiresome. Almost every chapter ended with some kind of teaser, cliff-hanger or other attempt to create mystery. Used sparingly, this device can be powerful. Bilgrami did it to death:

“The night seemed endless.” (p. 34)

“When the figure disappeared in a flash of yellow, Haroon rubbed his eyes and wondered whether he had dreamt it all.” (p. 81)

“For Haroon, therefore, December was synonymous with death.” (p. 153)

An effect of this tedious device is that I was unable to care about the characters in any way. The battered wife was one dimensional and pitiful. The servant boy Abdul was bird-like in his stupidity. The other protagonist, fourteen-year old Haroon, caught in the middle of his parents’ fighting, was equally one-dimensional and unlikable. Hyping up the suspense just created a sense of “is that all?” when something did actually happen. When the climax occurred I had stopped caring and just wanted to be finished with the book.

Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, Gita Mehta (1979)


Karma Cola is a hilarious, if troubling, set of vignettes of the backpacker-ashram-hippy-trail India of the 1970s. But, unlike much writing about westerners, “spiritual tourists”, attracted by what they see as the peace-and-love laid-back ethos of India, Karma Cola is written from an Indian perspective, which pin-points far more effectively than most western writing the sham of it all. Mehta focuses specifically on those young Americans, Germans, Brits, Australians (and so on) “who traveled to India in the belief that they would find holy men able to free them from the boredom and despair of an increasingly material world.” (p. ix). Do they find it? Or is one kind of emptiness merely replace by another?

The naivete and arrogance of the travellers attempting to find enlightenment is astutely observed by Mehta. Much of the time the travellers damn themselves, and little commentary from Mehta is needed:

“’We discovered these places, Afghanistan, Nepal, Goa. When we arrived everybody loved us. Now the whole damn world is on the trail we opened up, and the same people who loved us, fucking hate us. There’s too many of them.’ Her wide gesture took in everyone in the café.

“They’re not in the same class as those of us who got here first.”” (p. 66)

Karma Cola is judgmental, yes, but it is also darkly funny. Mehta discusses Allen Ginsberg’s decision to “take a sabbatical” in Calcutta:

“Calcutta, he announced, is the most liberated city in the world. The people have no hang-ups. They go around naked. It was a characteristically original view. No one before had suggested to the natives that their destitution was a sign of advance. But the Bengali residents of Calcutta love novelty and are predisposed to regard poets of all persuasions with favour.” (p. 69)

Karma Cola was first published in 1979, and I wonder how much things have really changed? Mehta describes an India largely unfamiliar to me. The country is quite a different place now than thirty-plus years ago, as the liberalisation of the economy from the early 1990s altered the landscape in so many ways. I think there still are still travellers who behave the way Mehta describes, but perhaps, nowadays, they’re not in the majority.

Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich (2009)


I picked up this book after a rather long hiatus from my own Hindi learning, feeling the need to get back into it and wanting some encouragement. I initially found Dreaming in Hindi a bit stilted, but as I got to know Katherine better, the book grew on me. When looking up images to add to this post whilst I was about half way through reading it, I was saddened to discover that the author died earlier this year, from the breast cancer that she had struggled with off and on for about half her life. The poignancy of the second half of the book was heightened by knowing this.

Dreaming in Hindi is a memoir of New Yorker Katherine Russell Rich’s year spent in Udaipur in 2001-02, studying Hindi. At forty-five years old, Rich had been through a lot in life—suffering from cancer twice before writing this book, losing her job, going through a divorce—and immersing herself in a completely new and different experience was her way of feeling alive. The year is tumultuous but ultimately rewarding and life changing for Rich.

Interspersed with her observations about life in Rajasthan, her American classmates, and the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat—both of which happened while she was in India—are explorations of the linguistic theory behind the experience of learning a second language as an adult. Rich interviewed numerous linguists in the US and read a lot of the scholarship on the topic, to try to better understand what was happening to her brain as the Hindi slowly, but surely, took root. I haven’t read Rich’s first memoir, The Red Devil, about her battles with cancer, but I suspect this attempt to explore the workings of her brain as this new thing took root there may parallel how she attempted to understand the cancer spreading through her body. While this linguistic aspect of the book was interesting at times, I couldn’t help but feel that much of it was unnecessary. The memoir itself was strong enough to not need this. I found these parts a bit tedious, and I wanted to get back to the real story.

I enjoyed Rich’s humour, which enabled her to laugh at herself at times when she clearly felt out of her depth and uncomfortable as a foreigner in a small Indian city. As her Hindi progressed, she was able to make the kinds of connections and friendships with Indians that most foreigners would not be able to:

“With Hindi, I have the surprise element. “The first time I saw a Westerner speaking Hindi, it was like seeing a chicken barking,” Vidhu recently remarked. “Until then, I thought they were just coming here walking on their toes, looking at us like animals. But when a foreigner came to my house and started speaking Hindi, I was like, va! My whole world changed.” In France, the simple fact that I was saying it in their language elicited eye rolling and contempt. In India, I can mangle words till they squeak, but the fact that I’m saying anything at all provokes astonishment. “Oh, very good! Very good!” someone will invariably say after a sentence such as “Your shoes are nice.” I set up the cheap ego trick, fall for it constantly, don’t care that it’s merely proof that there aren’t a lot of other leghorns talking.” (p. 117)

Aside from this rather charming humour, I didn’t feel that Rich was a natural writer throughout much of the book. Parts of it were rather stilted or forced, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It may have been that she dropped pronouns a lot of the time, giving the impression of an interior monologue with fragmented thoughts and feelings that trailed off sometimes. I got used to this pace, but before I did it felt quite awkward.

I’m about to do an intensive Hindi course in Delhi myself (though not for nearly as long as would be needed to bring me up to scratch) and Dreaming in Hindi has encouraged me that it might be possible to be proficient, one day. I’ve had the nagging feeling that I started out too late—taking up Hindi in my mid-late twenties—and I’d repeatedly heard that learning a new language in adulthood is just too hard. I refuse to believe it, and Dreaming in Hindi proves that it may be a challenge, but not impossible.