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)