Abstract : Jhumpa Lahiri is blazed again with her latest and sensitive collection of short stories entitled Unaccustomed Earth, focussing on the relationships and generational divide between first generation Bengali immigrants and their America-bred children. Once again she set forth on the similar path she adhered to in her earlier works i.e. images of Indians living overseas. Most of the central characters are first generation immigrants who find it hard to let go off their culture and traditions. Yet they fight bravely to assimilate themselves with the environment which is mostly hard to comprehend for them. The greater part of her protagonists who are second generation immigrants, have in some way or other adjusted and assimilated themselves into the folds of the new culture even if they feel a strong pull towards their native land.
Keywords: migration, acculturation, expatriate experience, first/second generation immigrants, alien land, cultural/traditional differences
Jhumpa Lahiri is blazed again with her latest and sensitive collection of short stories entitled Unaccustomed Eart’. After The Namesake, once again she set forth on the similar path she adhered to in her earlier works i.e. images of Indians living overseas. Most of the central characters are first generation immigrants who find it hard to let go off their culture and traditions. Yet they fight bravely to assimilate themselves with the environment which is mostly hard to comprehend for them. The greater part of her protagonists who are second generation immigrants, have in some way or other adjusted and assimilated themselves into the folds of the new culture even if they feel a strong pull towards their native land. Indira Nityanandam in her lucid discussion on the ‘Third and Final Continent’ talks about writer’s i.e. Jhumpa Lahiri’s second generation expatriate experience says that she also underwent the same gradual transformation with respect to the process of acculturation. She says that even for her (Jhumpa’s) parents, the annual holidays allowed them an opportunity to keep in touch with the homeland. But (gradually) there is a shift of inclination as Indira points out “…the home shifted from ‘there’ to ‘here’; the land of one’s birth becomes the alien land and the adopted land becomes the homeland.”1
In Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri focusses on the relationships and generational divide between first generation Bengali immigrants and their America-bred children. Many of the characters seem to be in relationships that are filled with silences and black holes. In some cases, this is the result of an arranged marriage that never seemed to work out; in others it is simply a case of people failing to communicate or failing to reach out in time for what they wished. The lack of native culture nutrient in some or the other way negatively affects the relationships, but, they are nevertheless, modestly vulnerable in the alien soil.
The title story focusses mainly on the father-daughter relationship. Ruma who is a creature of American soil, is expecting her widowed father at her home. The weak bond between them and the assimilated American nature of Ruma pushes her into a dilemma. She weighs the pros and cons of asking her father to stay with her or just live a free life to which she is already deeply accustomed. Opposite to her expectations, her father rejects her proposal to live with her. In fact, he wanted a free and frolicsome life for himself in the company of his newly found female friend.
Ruma has recently moved to lonely suburbs of Seattle with her workaholic white husband and biracial son Akash. She is pregnant with her second child. She has to cope with the responsibility of raising a family on her own in a land which she still can not call her home. She is distressed with the possibility that her father might decide to live with her permanently. In spite of her loneliness and isolation in the new home, her America-bred habits make her to think so about her own father. She had never spent a week alone with her father before. Lack of emotions and care between the first and the second generation is clearly visible between these two characters.
Both of them rarely talk about matters of real importance. They do not speak about her mother or her brother. They do not discuss her pregnancy or her marriage or her father’s newly developed relationship with a woman whom he met on a vacation. She always feared that any frail difference of opinion would be devastating to their relationship. After the death of her mother Ruma’s father retired from the pharmaceutical company. He likes spending his days now in travelling in and around Europe. When he is away, Ruma does not hear from him. Each time, she would keep the print out of his flight information. And on the days of his flight schedule, she would watch the news to make sure there hasn’t been a plane crash anywhere in the world.
When her father arrived she was struck by his appearance. She saw that he resembled too much with an American in his old age. On the contrary her father has the opposite opinion for her. “She (now) resembled his wife so strongly that he could not bear to look at her directly.” 2 Her position in the suburbs of Seattle is surprisingly similar to that of her mother, some thirty years ago on the alien land. The only difference is that Ruma has choices. Apart from her household jobs, she can opt for law practice or continue her corporate career. Her father is not happy with her decision of staying home only to look after her kids. To him, self reliance is important and hence Ruma should make use of the opportunities. As in words of Shamita Das Dasgupta “This is the universal tendency to project one’s unrealised dreams onto one’s children.”3
But Ruma had always made her own decisions. She married an American against her mother’s approval. Her father feels himself responsible for this. He thinks that Ruma had not been raised with that sense of duty so he couldn’t expect her to take him in her house permanently. He feels guilty now for leaving his eighty two years old mother alone in India after his father’s death just to fulfill his own ambitions.
In the whole week of his stay, he never shows any sign that he needs to be taken care of. Instead he gets busy with setting up Ruma’s garden and enjoying the joyous company of his grand son. At the end of the week, Ruma tells her father to stay with the family but he declines to do so, because “…he knew that it was not for his sake that his daughter was asking him to live here. It was for hers. She needed him, as he’d never felt she’d needed him before, apart from the obvious things he provided her in the course of his life. And because of this the offer upset him more.”4 He did not want to be a part of another family. He would love to spend the remaining days of his life without any restrictions, freely the way he likes in the company of his new American Bengali female friend.
The trauma of Americanised children of Indian parents has been portrayed with the complexity of mother- daughter relationship in the story “Hell – Heaven”. Effect of migration in the women is more intense because women are generally considered responsible for carrying the traditions and customs of native country to the adopted one. For first generation women, their inborn instinct of preserving old values, create loneliness in the alien land. On the other hand new possibilities and freedom demand assimilation with the new culture. Thus the woman oscillates between the two cultures. These oscillating mothers impose the traditions and customs on their children who represent the second generation. For second generation immigrant women the native culture seems more or less as restrictions and burden. This conflict between the generations is the impression of ‘Hell-Heaven’. Usha, the daughter recounts her parents’ difficult marriage. She observes that her parents are like two opposites who had married to placate their parents. Usha also recounts her mother’s secret passion for a family friend Pranab Chakraborty, an engineering student at MIT who meets them at Harvard square. Pranab kaku is like the totally unanticipated pleasure in her mother’s life. This Bengali fellow gave her mother “the only pure happiness she ever felt”.5 Usha grows up amid these relational commotions and despite her parent’s affinity to their cultural roots, she starts picking up the American way of life. Malti Agrawal remarks that “for the second generation Diaspora… identity and problem are rather different, for they have a sense of pride and affinity to India, but it is America that is perceived as ‘home’.”6 Usha’s increasing fondness for Deborah (English wife of Pranab) over her mother is suggestive of her adherence to the mainstream culture. Her mother does not allow her to date and asked her to wear salwar kameez at parties or to eat Indian food. The second generation offsprings are prompted to feeling and behaving like Indians, principally because of the passionate influence of their parents, who expect their children to comply with and adhere to their demands and wishes. Jhumpa Lahiri herself experiences that “The older I get, the more I am aware that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even though in many ways. I am so much American than they are…”7 Usha demands privacy, freedom and non-interference in her life. She began keeping secrets from her mother and learned to scream back on her. Moreover she began to pity her mother for the desolate life she led and spending hours in house works or watching soap operas. The story ends with the acceptance of her mother, “She had accepted the fact that I was not only her daughter but child of America as well.”8
In The Custom House, Nathaniel Hawthorne suggests that transplanting people into new soil makes them hardier and more flourishing. Though Lahiri quotes these lines at the beginning of her book, they are seemingly defied in the case of Rahul in ‘Only Goodness’. Even when uprooting themselves to start a new life, the characters are faced with questions of identity, issues of guilt and the confounding intricacies of relationships. The lack of emotions in marital relationship is seen in this story too. Sudha, who is working on her second master’s degree at London School of Economics, feels about her parents’ marriage that it was neither happy nor unhappy. The story recounts the fortune of two siblings, Sudha and her younger brother Rahul. Rahul is the epitome of the pitfalls of free & independent American life. Both of the siblings carried the same burden of cultural pressures as any other second generation offspring of Indian parents. Sudha does her best to accomplish the predetermined goals & matures into an independent & successful woman who knows her limits. Sometimes she felt jealous of her brother when he was allowed to wear shorts in summer or play sports in school. She marks the difference of attitude of her parents for being a girl child even in America.
As Rahul begins to rely on alcohol to vent his frustration and rebel against his parents’ wishes, Sudha is haunted by the memory of giving Rahul his first beer when he visited her at the university. Sudha’s parents rely on her as a guide and protector for Rahul, though all efforts prove futile. But her feeling of responsibility for her brother persists. Day by day Rahul’s aloofness, his bad mood and an urgent need to go somewhere troubled Sudha. Her concern for Rahul made him irritated. He wants to live life without anybody’s interference, choose career of his own choice, and get married to a ten years older woman who had a daughter already. When his alcohol-addiction brought life of Sudha’s son into danger the gap between both of them widened. Finally Sudha leaves her brother to his fate. He becomes a blot, a failure, someone who does not contribute to the grand circle of accomplishments like other children make across their adopted countries.
Lahiri’s final three stories are grouped together as a novella. Hema and Kaushik the lead characters, from two different Bengali immigrant families, pass through copious upheavals of life in search of stability. “Once in a lifetime” begins in 1974, the year Kaushik Choudhri and his parents leave Cambridge and return to India. The Choudhris and Hema’s family were close friends in Cambridge earlier because of their common Indian belonging. Seven years later, when they return, they stay at Hema’s home for a couple of days until their new residence is found. Hema gives up her room for Kaushik who is sixteen now and enough grown to need privacy. Hema’s sacrifice here is the starting of hidden bond of childhood between the two which is revealed in the later story. Hema feels ashamed of sleeping in her parents’ room while in her mother’s opinion “…idea of a child sleeping alone is a cruel American practice.”9 She is even ashamed of so many people living under the same roof. Hence she never disclosed this to any of her American friend because she was too scared of being laughed at. Hema gradually felt an invisible attraction for Kaushik, who never bothered to talk to her. Kaushik has already eluded his parent’s grasp. He talks with them little and never argues with them. His father says with pride, “Even in Bombay we managed to raise a typical American teenager”.10
But Hema finds him more Indian and associates him with her parents more than with herself.
The next story “Year’s End” is a web of complicated relationships which is the main theme of this collection. Kaushik, who is twenty one now, finds himself an outsider in his own house. The fact is that his father remarried and replaced his mother with a new bride. This was hard to accept for Kaushik. He was hurt because his father “…had wasted no time giving away her clothes, (mother’s) hand bags,…boxes of cosmetics and colognes”.11 His belief of his father’s love for his mother is shattered completely. His father’s giving him the Audi also reveals to him that “it was really an excuse to get rid of yet another thing my mother had touched, known, or occupied.”12 Kaushik and his father were officially in opposition to each other to pretend it. He could not adjust with the typical Bengali step mother & stepsisters with Indian accents and Indian food which he was no longer accustomed to. He is repulsed by the sight of Chitra, who has none of the sophistication and elegance of her mother. The clashes persist in the story not only between the two generations but also between two cultures. At the same time the two girls Rupa and Piu, the step sisters are also trying to adjust with new father and brother and also the new American environment. They are scared of their Indian accents which could be the target of fun for their American classmates. Though Kaushik was not attached with his step sisters but he knew that their bondage can not be denied. He could feel the girls’ fear of being mocked at school as he himself had gone through the same situation. He tells them, “I was born here but it was still hard, leaving and then coming back again.”13 But the new family could not overlap memories of his mother and he flees his family and storms out of the wealthy suburbs of Massachusetts. A new sensation and realisation is experienced by him “I did not crave anyone’s company. I had never travelled alone before and I discovered that I liked it. No one in the world knew where I was, no one had the ability to reach me. It was like being dead, my escape allowing me to taste that tremendous power my mother possessed forever.”14 Kaushik’s grief over his mother’s death and his rage at his father’s remarriage propels him into a career of photojournalist who spends most of his time in travelling.
Meanwhile Hema, becomes a professor and after a long and unhappy love affair decides to opt for an arranged marriage. Though, she is conscious of the “dreadness” of this proposed partnership. She tries to convince herself that the relationship will endow her life with a sense of certainty and direction. Destiny brings Hema and Kaushik together in Rome but the twain are never to meet again.
In Lahiri’s own words “…the problem for the children of immigrants – those with strong ties to their country of origin is that they feel neither one thing nor the other.”15 Identity for youngsters is much more complicated at the alien land because they are too used to freedom to accept the rituals and conventions of home and yet too steeped in tradition to embrace American mores fully. The Indian-born parents want their children great schools, a prestigious job, a roomy house in the suburbs but they are careful too about the pitfalls of life in this alien land. They can’t resist their children from getting adapted to the American ways of life. As in the story ‘Only Goodness’ Rahul’s addiction to alcohol could force him to leave his parents but not the life of his own choice. But his mother blames the atmosphere of America for the deterioration of his son and remarks “That’s the problem with this country. Too many freedoms, too much having fun. When we were young, life was not always about fun.”16 Usha doesn’t want to stick to the Indian ways and values. She lies to her mother to meet her boyfriend or to drink and attend night parties. Even their careers are moulded on the likings and disliking of their parents. Yet most often they decide to go against the wishes of their parents. Just as Rahul feels that to finish college according to his parents’ expectation is just a wastage of time. Instead he wants to write plays. They become accustomed to freedom and independence which made Ruma to think twice about asking her father to move in with her or live the life of freedom she is accustomed to? The Indian parents always want Indian partner for their offsprings. As Amit says in the story “A choice of Accommodation,” “for all their liberal western ways he knew they (his parents) wanted him to marry a Bengali girl, raised and educated as he had been.”17 Thus this collection shows how these children of immigrant families remain burdened by their parents’ expectations. Somehow the offsprings remain more estranged in the Promised Land than their parents who really were strangers themselves.
1. Nityanandam, Indira. Jhumpa Lahiri. The Tale of the Diaspora. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2005, p.54.
2. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. NewYork: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 2008, p.27.
3. Dasgupta, Das Shamita. A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America. London: Rutgers University Press, 2002, p.105.
4. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Op.cit. p.53.
5. Ibid, p.67.
6. Agrawal, Malti. New Perspectives on Indian English Writings. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2007, p.32.
7. Houghton Mifflin Company. Press release “The Namesake:A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri.” <http://www.houghton mifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/lahiri/> (May18, 2006).
8. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Op.cit. p.81.
9. Ibid, p.229.
10. Ibid, p.238.
11. Ibid, p.256.
12. Ibid, p.256.
13. Ibid, p.274.
14. Ibid, p.290.
15. Press release “The Namesake : A Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri”. op.cit .
16. Ibid, p.143.
Agrawal, Malti. New Perspectives on Indian English Writings. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2007.
Dasgupta, Das Shamita. A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America. London: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Nityanandam, Indira. Jhumpa Lahiri. The Tale of the Diaspora. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2005.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. NewYork: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 2008.
HEMANT GAHLOT Is Professor of English.
POONAM DAGA. Is Professor of English.