Unaccustomed Earths by Jhumpa Lahiri

My first experience with Jhumpa Lahiri was on a sailing trip I took with my parents, shortly after I graduated from college. I’d recently, in some vague way, let it be known that I was writing and submitting stories, and my parents handed me Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, telling me about the Indian-American writer who’d won a Pullitzer prize for fiction.

I was predisposed to dislike the book. A few years earlier, while living in India, I’d read a number of books by Indian-American authors and found myself uniformly disgusted. They were just depressing. Endless stories of women engaged to brash, blonde Pauls and Erics who dismissed their precious heritage as just another cultural trapping; of feeling out of place in liberal, Manhattan drawing rooms; of hiding their Indianness behind jeans and make-up and liquor, rejecting it as the source of their alienation, only to find that it was intrinsic to them and that they could only be made truly happy by a chaste romance with a Nikhil or Arjun, followed by a quick marriage, and a hasty succession of children: a middle-class arrangement in which love would eventually blossom as the children grew.

I absolutely hated these stories. It was like they came from an entirely different universe from my own experience of what it is to grow up as a second-generation Indian in the States. While I certainly possess my fair share of Indian cultural trappings, I’ve never found that they hampered, even mildly, my ability to feel comfortable in America. Furthermore, I, like the heros and heroines of these novels, quickly realized that joining the Indian community is utterly impossible for someone with my heritage, because it is simply not possible to become Indian in the way that one can become American. Even my parents will never be accepted, after their thirty years in America, as fully Indian by those who have never left that country. As for myself, even if I spoke pitch-perfect Gujarati, it would be utterly impossible.

But the solution chosen by the protagonists of those novels, to instead become fully Indian-American, is horrifying. To become one of those clique of second-generation Indians who marry other Indians, who live with other Indians, celebrate Indian holidays, go to temple, have few white friends, and otherwise successfully ghettoize themselves, has always seemed to be the kind of decision that one would only make if one were totally sure that the alternative is isolation and alienation at the outskirts of the white community.

So, I was predisposed to dislike the Namesake, which is about a Bengali-American, Gogol, who grows up at war with his heritage, and almost marries Maxine, a white New Yorker, before finally marrying another Bengali (although that relationship eventually breaks up as well). To be honest, I don’t remember much of the book. It was very well-written, but didn’t make much of an impression on me, other than a vague sense of that same old disgust.

But, for instance, while Gogol struggles with his odd name (there is a whole running leitmotif regarding his name), I have never had a moment of angst about mine. While he spent a year in Calcutta moping around and feeling alienated, I spent a year in New Delhi feeling pretty okay. All these identity issues just don’t strike me as being worth spilling many tears over. Everyone eats different food at home, what does it affect my day-to-day middle school life if my friends eat steak and I eat dal? And it probably helps that the more deeper social and ideological differences between my family and those of my classmates were not very large. My parents speak English in the home, they drink, they had no objection to dating (they did not have an arranged marriage). I won’t deny that the question of how to navigate one’s Indian and American identities is of paramount importance to some people. Clearly it is, or why would these books be written? But it’s just not the case for me.

After the Namesake, I only became more vehement in my private assertion that I wasn’t going to write about Indian issues. I clearly had nothing to say about those identity concerns peculiar to Indian-Americans, and the issues that are of importance to Indians themselves can clearly be better handled by that nation’s vast, educated, middle-class.

My second Lahiri experience was transformative. I checked out her Pullitzer-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies sometime during my sophomore year of college. Up to this time, I had remained true to my decision to avoid, not just books by Indian-Americans (about being Indian-American), but all of what I’d come to call immigrant narratives (which is not the same as saying all books by immigrants or their children). However, Interpreter of Maladies was an amazing book.

I can’t say exactly why I enjoyed it where the Namesake had left me cold. Perhaps I was just older, more well-read, more educated. But I think it was because the protagonists of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies are primarily first-generation immigrants, and they’re mostly older ones. It’s been many years since I’ve read this book, but I remember that when I closed it, I had a sense of the kinds of things that people left behind to come to America. There’s one story in particular, “The Third and Final Continent”, the last one in the collection. The main character is living in a very old white woman’s house while he waits for his arranged bride to join him in America. It’s something of a lonely, sterile existence. And when I finished it, I realized the kind of richness that people left behind in India. Hundreds of relatives living in communities your family has been familiar with for generations. A sense of being firmly rooted in one place that not only has to be rebuilt in America, but might actually be impossible to achieve in America. And the burden of making up for that lack seems to fall hardest on the women. The men came to America for opportunities. They fall into their work and really come up. But the women in these stories struggle on without the servants and support groups they once had. In many ways, their lives are harder in the U.S. than they ever would have been back home.

The short story collection highlights all of the difficulties someone raised in India would have about the way people live in America. Most notably, this living in two-person nuclear family units. Time and again, husbands and wives struggle with households where they’re the only living things, other than the kids, and where they have to rely on each other not just for practical necessities, but for socialization as well.

These themes are developed in Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s second collection, which came out, what, two years ago? I was going to buy it then, but my dad told me we already had a copy. A copy I spent months looking for, until I finally found it in his mother’s flat in Bombay, where I snatched it up and took it back to the land of its birth.

This short story collection basically reads like the people from Interpreter of Maladies got twenty years older. And this collection, aside from its first story, is told entirely from the point of view of second-generation immigrants. First of all, since this is the Lahiri book that is clearest in my memory (given that I just finished it a few hours ago), I’d like to say that the writing is amazing. If I described the plots, or even the characters, to you right now, it’d sound like the most banal shit ever. “Oh, my dad died and is getting remarried” or “Oh, my brother is an alcoholic”. But when you read them, these stories are intense and gripping in a way that I did not stop to even try to fathom. When you’re reading it, nothing even seems particularly great about the words, but somehow they’re so alive with the personality of the narrators that you get a glimpse of how fascinating people’s lives must be when experienced from the inside. You understand how everyone is the star of their own story, and how even the most banal shit is wondrous and tormented when it’s happening to you. Part of me wants to go back with a pen and start vivisecting paragraphs and sentences right now to figure out what she did.

That having been said. These stories seem to explore more vividly the dichotomy set up in the first collection, between the richness of Indian domestic life and the sterility of that in America. For instance, the first story, “Unaccustomed Earth”, which is told by a daughter, Ruma, and her recently widowed father (whose name, if it is in fact mentioned, is not done so frequently). The daughter has quit her job in a Manhattan law firm to follow her (white) husband to his new job in Seattle and spend her time with her son full-time. The arrival of her father for a visit breathes new life into her domestic tedium, and the story closes with her almost begging him to stay. Her young son, Akash, loves his grandfather, and begins to form a strong cultural connection to India, including learning a few words of  Bengali.

The second story, “Hell-Heaven”, is told by a daughter whose mother silently fell in love with a young grad student who was an acquaintaince of her and her professor husband, years ago, when the daughter was a child. The grad student marries a white woman and severs all ties with the Bengali community, before finally leaving her after having an affair with a Bengali woman.

In the last cycle, three stories connecting the same characters, Hema’s family takes in another Bengali family who stays with them for six weeks while looking for a house in Massachusetts. After they move out, the two families drift away from each other and rarely meet again. Kaushik, the son from the latter family, grows up to become a jet-setting photojournalist who rarely visits his father, even when he’s in America, while Hema becomes a college professor, who, after a long affair with an older, married man, is about to submit to an arranged marriage. The two eventually meet again, in Rome, and conduct a brief relationship. Kaushik asks her to stay, to follow him to his next job in Hong Kong, but he cannot offer her the kind of domesticity that her Indian fiancé, Navin, can.

This, is, of course, nothing like an adequate exploration of the way Lahiri treats these themes, which is with a very nuanced eye. For instance, Ruma’s father refuses to live with her. He’s found a kind of love with a new woman, and he doesn’t want to be tied to this extended family, to live and breathe with the doings of his daughter and son-in-law and grandson anymore. But reading these stories made me realize that this is how a significant number of, not only recent Indian immigrants, but even second-generation Indian-Americans and white Americans themselves view domestic life in America.

And it sometimes seems to me as if an assumption running through many peoples’ minds is that the opposite of being Indian is a void. That you come to America and you lose something, but you only lose, and lose, and if you let the process go on long enough then you’re nothing. Not that you don’t have lovers and wives and children, but something essential is gone from you. That you no longer have passion. All the heat in these stories seems wrapped up in Indian thing. On the one hand you have chapattis and bindis and saris and dal and masala and shy grad students who you learn to love, without words, over the course of years and who wreck you, when they die, in ways that you can never express to your children. You have fraught silences and golden, untarnished memories, and parental expections that make you burst with the unbearable internal tension. And then, on the other side there’s just nondescript brownstones and interchangeable New England towns and men who look at you as just another relationship, just another affair, who think your parents are just people they need to bear at Christmas, who can be comfortable with, but never excited or anxious about.

I don’t even think that’s a view that’s limited to people of Indian descent. I’ve heard white Americans express to me a desire for some culture, some ethnicity. As if they had just been swallowed up and sucked dry by the America. That’s just unfathomable to me. Nothing about India has ever felt more real, or more important, to me than American things. There’s a grandness to American culture that is every bit as exciting as India’s crowded millennia-old syncretic mix of cultures.

I won’t argue that it’s not a little bit scary to get swallowed by America. This is a culture that has, to some extent, swallowed the entire world. And thinking of yourself as just another American can feel dehumanizing. But to me, that’s vital to being part of life here. You accept that you’re just another American, because that’s what gives you the power to be a full part of culture here, to converse on an equal level, to make fun of it, or to propose changes in it, and be listened to. If I held back, and insisted that I had some unsullied Indian portion, then it would affect my own ability, psychologically, to interact with America. Perhaps its different for me, since I feel, to some extent, as if I am part of the ongoing cultural conversation in America. As long as I maintain the delusion of achieving success as a writer, I have to think of myself as someone who’s harnessed this monster and is in the process of driving it to somewhere new.

And my embrace of American culture is also affected by my perception that I will never be allowed that opportunity in any other country. As I said earlier, I can never become Indian. America has immense conformity pressures, but here, I both literally and figuratively speak the language. India, which has much greater conformity pressures, would never even give me a chance.

Because of this view, that there is nothing particularly privileged about my Indian heritage, at times some have seen fit to apply to me the term Gogol encounters in the namesake, “ABCD” (American-Born Confused Desi). But I reject it. I can’t see where exactly I am confused. I like Indian food, I have a vast storehouse of knowledge regarding Indian history and culture, but I am never going to live there, and I am not going to make much effort to be a part of the Indian-American community in America. Being Indian is for me slightly more immediate than being Italian or Irish or Polish is for millions of other Americans who’ve progressed a few generations beyond angst. Because the truth is, no matter how many tears you may choose to waste over our “lost” culture, there is absolutely no way to regain it. Indian-Americans can never become Indian. All they can do is cobble together a monstrous hybrid culture here in America, and then erect it as a wall around them, both to keep each other in and to keep the rest out.