Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fine Eye

Opening with an epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom House," where the narrator argues the benefits of immigration and exhorts his children to plant themselves in new and thus more fertile soil, it's clear that Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of stories, "Unaccustomed Earth," on first-generation Indian-American immigrants, bears few of the familiar marks of immigrant literature. Though there are new horizons and strivings and pain and cultural anxieties, they don't exist in the realm of the exotic—no spicy, Far East adventures here, nor wrenching tales of exploitation in a strange land—but in a vernacular America's coastal upper-middle class would recognize as its own. The characters of Lahiri's stories, flowing through the book in a seamless shift of perspective so the supporting character of one piece is reflected in the protagonist of the next, are only rarely preoccupied with their heritage. More often, their problems are the mundane compromises and heartaches that occupy American middle-class life: love and its undramatic dissolution, parenthood, nostalgia, wayward siblings, career choices, aging parents and loss. It's family life "as typical and terrifying as any other," which seems to be the point.

Lahiri's characters form the sort of community—common background, ambitions and mores—that has been lampooned among other elite classes as a "people like us" similarity. Pulling this off for a population that even in a multicultural society is still particularly subject to exoticization, if not outright prejudice, is a tricky feat, but Lahiri owns up to her premise: these are no common masses. Her families of immigrant parents and American-born children, who grow up to intermarry with non-Indians and trade saris for dresses, don't arrive as dishwashers or nannies, but as scientists, researchers, doctors, surgeons or, at the least, engineering students at MIT. They live in Cambridge, New York, suburban Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The children, both boys and girls, are raised to set their sights on the Ivy Leagues. And in the lofty heights of academia and professional success, foreignness seems to weigh on them but lightly.

If, as the adage goes, the very rich compose a nationality of their own, the moderately wealthy and culturally literate cast of Lahiri's book comes close in its cosmopolitan worldview. As much is spelled out in the title story of "Unaccustomed Earth," where Ruma, an Indian daughter who married an American remarks of her visiting father, arriving at her house in a "Pompeii" tourist cap and rental car, that he looks "like an American in his old age," who "could have been practically from anywhere." Though, in a revisiting of the epigraph, the father had gardened in "unfriendly soil" upon his arrival in America, by the time he is beautifying his daughter's lawn outside Seattle, American earth, and what it can grow, is familiar stuff. The father, fresh from an organized senior tour in Europe, tells her in a dry reversal of a common anti-immigrant complaint, "Indians are everywhere these days."

But whereas such statements are usually used to exclude a population from the mainstream, Lahiri's characters are very much within it, or even on its progressive edge. Counter to stereotypes of Indian culture as devaluing its daughters and demanding adherence to tradition, the book is marked by the broad roles that exist for its women: professionals and excelling students who are nagged equally to compete and succeed. Few are scolded into subservience or modesty, and when they overwhelmingly choose non-Indian marriage partners, their parents' disappointment is quickly replaced by acceptance—so much so that it is the relationship of two second-generation children of shared background and ancestry that is scandalous.

In three linked pieces concerning two once-friendly families, the children of the families, Hema and Kaushik, overlap and move toward each other throughout the book, starting when Hema's family hosts Kaushik's in Cambridge, where the family has returned from India for the comfort of their Westernized mother, secretly dying of cancer. Hema, the adolescent daughter of the host family, directs her memories to Kaushik in second-person: a "you" address to the past that Kaushik later adopts when narrating his own story, years on, when his father remarries a traditionally submissive Indian widow. In the final story of the book, an adult Hema, on sabbatical from a teaching post at Wellesley College, and postponing what she wryly refers to as "an arranged marriage," re-encounters a grown Kaushik, now a rootless international war photographer, who "never fully trusted the places he'd lived."

They meet in Rome: a cosmopolitan waypoint with a past that belongs to neither of them, which thus enables their brief, intense affair. In the end, though, Hema chooses not to follow Kaushik to Hong Kong but opts instead for the marriage she's agreed to: one that is passionless but surprisingly equitable. Hema, though coming from a more traditional family, and settling into a marriage partly facilitated by her parents, appraises Kaushik's request that she join him in Hong Kong as selfish and unyielding compared to the accommodation her fiancé offers: finding a new job near Hema and "coming to her." In a quiet, subtle way, it's a remaking of Indian tradition that emerges as more progressive than Kaushik's own wholesale abandonment of his painful past—and for that matter, a further step from the traditional gender norms than much of their adopted country.

This is mirrored elsewhere in the book. Hema's own family had progressed from shock at the "Western" independence of Kaushik's mother—drinking, smoking, not wanting to cook—to a sitcom-worthy American dilemma, gingerly asking Hema if she's still single in her late 30s because she prefers women. In "Hell-Heaven," the story of a daughter's perspective on her conservative mother's unhappiness in a lackluster marriage, the mother's demand for tradition and modesty is informed not by her piety, but her unrequited love for a young family friend, and her rage at his defection in marrying an American woman. In "Unaccustomed Earth," it is Ruma's father who pushes her to begin working again, after she's given up her job to stay home with her son. And her father, for that matter, surprises them both by filling the supportive role his late wife would have played as grandmother to Ruma's child and helpmeet around the house, before turning down Ruma's offer that he move in with her. Instead he admits that he prefers his austere new independence and solitude, leaving both father and daughter somewhat wistful for the certainties of tradition they're leaving behind.

But for Hema, those traditions hold unexplored possibilities. As she flies from Rome and Kaushik, the digital map of her journey, pointing toward India, emerges in her mind as "the only road available now." Kaushik's end, which comes soon after, is sadly fitting: he is swept away by the tsunami that devastated the coastlines around the Indian Ocean while vacationing on a Thai beach with other Western families: in the area but not of it, and vice versa; dying without a home.

With protagonists of a uniformly affluent, educated, culturally literate and generally liberal stripe, Lahiri's third book should perhaps be considered the literature of assimilation rather than immigration. And this in itself says a lot: about the degree of integration that releases a literature from its conventions and allows its characters the ho-hum individuality long reserved for America's average Joes. Perhaps the popularity of Lahiri's fiction indicates a readiness to broaden that national average and allow the literary stand-ins for newer Americans to be as boring as the rest of us. The end of the book points a step further: past the white-bread sameness of daily worries to a grappling with cultural tradition that can change that tradition from within.

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