Mar. 29, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book continues to explore the immigrant experience

By N.P. Thompson
Northwest Asian Weekly

Toward the end of “Going Ashore,” the last and most panoramically all-encompassing of the eight short stories that comprise Jhumpa Lahiri’s new collection, “Unaccustomed Earth,” there’s a superb passage that exemplifies one of the author’s greatest strengths as a storyteller.

Hema, a 37-year-old classics professor at Wellesley College, takes an impromptu sabbatical to Rome in order to have some time to herself prior to embarking on an arranged marriage with a Bengali man she scarcely knows. She spends her days sequestered in front of a laptop in a colleague’s borrowed apartment, until a chance reunion with a childhood acquaintance, Kaushik, who’s now a photojournalist with a portfolio of vivid atrocities, spirals her placid existence into fantasias of passion.

When the two of them road trip to Volterra to further Hema’s research into Etruscan antiquities, Lahiri tells us this: “They entered a small piazza where she was aware everywhere of children, boys and girls of five and seven, eight and ten, swarming around them … She had known Kaushik at that age … dreamed of him kissing her, these facts of the past haunting her … The Italian children, eager for Christmas’s approach, calling out Buon Natale … were embracing in the cold air, their youthful excitement infectious and pure, so much so that Hema’s heart leapt with theirs. In 10 years, she imagined, these boys and girls would begin to fall in love with one another; in another five, their own children would be at their feet.”

Lahiri’s heightened powers of observation enable her to look backwards and forwards simultaneously, to view life history, as it were, as a hall of mirrors — the prism of past and future extending outward in infinite directions.

“Going Ashore,” along with the Seattle-set title story and the seriocomic study in romantic jealousy “Hell-Heaven,” comes closest to having some of the novelistic intensity of “The Namesake,” Lahiri’s previous book. Here, as there, Lahiri demonstrates a masterly understanding of South Asian immigrants and their American-born offspring, of dreams of India lost in the shuffle of a new culture.

That said, this octet of stories isn’t without problems. With the exception of the alcoholic dropout brother in “Only Goodness” (a story noteworthy for the author’s use of comedy as a means to escalate tragedy), Lahiri’s characters tend to be uniformly successful, well-educated and well-situated to the point of ostentation, as in “His father began by saying he was growing restless on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.”

No one struggles for material things in “Unaccustomed Earth.” Yet, it occurred to me, by the end of the eighth story, that maybe Lahiri aims to show her overachievers that ultimately acquisitions transcend nothing.

For instance, she contrasts the warmth of lovers, who’ve been enjoying each other’s company in bed, to the cold images of death they encounter throughout a museum visit. An elderly Bengali watches his grandson sleeping, visualizing the toddler “years from now … shutting the door to his parents” as his own children had done to him, and “yet he knew that he too had turned his back on his parents, by settling in America. In the name of ambition and accomplishment, none of which mattered anymore.”

There’s another, less easily resolved or rationalized issue: For all of Lahiri’s prodigious gifts as a prose stylist, she seldom portrays white women convincingly. The white female characters in this collection are often shrews or ciphers, sometimes both. Lahiri’s exploration of an interracial marriage, “A Choice of Accommodations,” fails for this very reason. The wife, Megan, comes across as a robot; Pam, the former object of obsession for Megan’s Bengali husband, is equally an unreal fantasy. They receive none of the empathy with which Lahiri imbues the unhappily wed Aparna in “Hell-Heaven.”

In Aparna’s story, Lahiri creates a sense of how friendship gradually deepens, at least for one of the participants: “Within a few weeks, Pranab Kaku had brought his reel-to-reel over to our apartment, and he played for my mother medley after medley of songs from the Hindi films of their youth. They were cheerful songs of courtship, which … transported my mother back to the world she’d left behind in order to marry my father … It is clear to me now that my mother was in love with (Pranab Kaku). He wooed her as no other man had, with the innocent affection of a brother-in-law … the one totally unanticipated pleasure in her life.”

“Unaccustomed Earth,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Published by Knopf, April 1, 2008. $16.50.

N.P. Thompson can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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