The Unaccustomed Earth
It’s uncommon for a book of short stories to get to the top of NYT’s bestseller list; even more so for it to stay there for weeks. And yet this is exactly what The Unaccustomed Earth did, a couple of years ago when it was published. Normally, this mass appeal would have made me slightly hesitant – if I hadn’t read Ms Lahiri’s previous works; but I would have missed out on something pretty great. It’s hard to write about the books you love sometimes – not those you like, or you admire, but those that really strike a chord somewhere inside – and this is one of those times for me. As ridiculous as it may sound, I love this woman, her characters, the naturalness of her prose, the glimpses she allows you in a universe both familiar and exotic, remote at the same time. She doesn’t allow herself to be seen, every move her characters make, and every word they say is entirely organic – but you feel her presence hovering benevolently over them all (or at least, in a very weird sense, I do). Interactions here aren’t big, dramatic, fiery – they have an everyday quality to them, they’re filled with pauses and awkwardness and unspoken history. The major themes/subjects, just like in Interpreter of maladies are immigration, estrangement, loneliness and family discords. In the hands of a lesser writer, some of them could have taken on a soap opera tinge (like Only Goodness, the only story I liked slightly less, only because I expected the ending), but she is far too intelligent, far too graceful and understated (these 2 adjectives were in a back cover blurb, and they are a perfect fit) to go that way.
The 8 stories are divided in 2 parts – the first 5 completely unconnected, the last 3 dealing quite ingeniously with the destinies of Hema and Kaushik. I enjoyed these last 3 very much – the two points of view, the two occasionally entwined yet mostly separate histories, the final connection 30 years later and the abrupt end to it all. In fact, it’s not even the hand of fate that splits them – Ms Lahiri leaves nothing to chance – it’s a conscious, maybe even self-sacrificing decision taken by Hema, born out of cowardice, or fear, or duty – or maybe even courage… But my favorite story was probably Unaccustomed Earth – about a bond and an understanding that skipped a generation: between an India born grandfather and his half American grandson. Ruma’s relationship to her father is complicated and weighted down by expectations and fears that they can’t yet declare obsolete, but Akash, the grandson unwittingly creates a bridge that will eventually bring them closer. You can read more – about the book & the story, in the NYT review. But it’s better you go and read it, it’s really worth your time…it’s beautifully bittersweet.
I can’t wait until the release of her next book – but as far as I can see, she might be a little too busy for that now 😀