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Unaccustomed Earth

January 24, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

Just five days ago, I wrote about my cultural activities for the day — seeing the movie Slumdog Millionaire, reading the first story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, and watching the TV show 24. I thought I might put the book aside temporarily in favor of some other reading, but to my surprise, I’ve continued to read it. I’ve now read five of its eight stories. (These five, which are independent of each other, form Part One. The three remaining stories, Part II, are about the same pair of characters.) Even though I have more to read, I’m taking a moment to write about some of my thoughts to this point.

The characters Lahiri treats, so far anyway, are American-born, young adults whose parents moved to the US from India either to go to school — staying on to pursue professional careers — or to take professional jobs. The parents are doctors, lawyers, scientists. Some may return to India after retirement. The children go to college, graduate school, perhaps have romantic relationships or marry people who aren’t of Indian descent, perhaps in so doing disappoint their parents. And in the background of all these stories is the cultural conflicts faced by these children as adolescents and young adults.

Each story is utterly gripping in its own way. I won’t try to describe how, or why. Rather, I recommend that you read these stories yourself. I’ve found it interesting to think about the characters in these stories in contrast to the American Jews in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The circumstances of course are so different: Indians coming to the US in the 1970s (as is typical in these stories) for professional jobs or professional education versus Jews of my grandparents’ generation who came to the US in the early 1900s to escape pogroms, without formal education or the ability to speak English, without the opportunity for a college education, generally having to make do in low-level jobs or be extraordinarily entrepreneurial. Yet both sets of immigrants (at least the Indian emigrants as depicted in Lahiri’s stories, and the Jewish immigrants as known to me through family and friends) are at sea in the US when it comes to raising their children, struggling with conflicts between their own traditions and the traditions the children assimilate by participating in the broader culture. In one of Lahiri’s stories, the parents rely on their daughter, the older of their two children, to help them raise their son. I couldn’t help but think of how my mother’s parents leaned on my uncle as their guide in raising my other uncle and my mother.

Much was different for these two sets of first and second generation Americans. (The Jewish immigrants sure didn’t return to eastern Europe upon retiring!) Nonetheless, perhaps not surprisingly, so much is familiar as I read these stories.

The stories are familiar on another level too, a level I find somewhat jarring. So many of them take place where I live or have lived. In my other post, I mentioned that the first story takes place here in Seattle. Two others take place in the Boston area, with characters who are studying, or did study, at assorted Boston universities. An MIT graduate student here, a Harvard graduate student dropout there. Living in Central Square. Working in Harvard Square. (I lived in or around both squares from the age of 17 to 27, before moving into Boston.) In some odd way, I find myself not wanting to read about people leading the lives I and so many of my friends did in our twenties. Been there, done that, to use a phrase that I normally abhor but that seems apt here. For that matter, I keep thinking maybe I’m ready for stories about people in their 50s and 60s rather than 20s and 30s. I identify more with the parents in these stories than their children. Yet Lahiri breaks down my resistance and engages me story after story.

I’m ready for the next story.

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