Abstract: This study tries to represent the identity crisis suffered by the women characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s works. Identity can be conceived as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, with no outside representation. This view problematises the very authority and authenticity to which the term ‘cultural identity’ lays claim. Lahiri’s characters find themselves in such a predicament. Their individualities are disturbed under different contexts and situations. The reasons for the rupture in their identities are psychological, sociological and cultural factors. This study explores the complex psycho-social dimension of the problem of human identity crisis. The causes, complications and aftermath of these exigencies are examined.
Keywords: women’s identity crisis, cultural identity, humanity’ psycho-social dimension, women characters, Malayalam literary scene, lost identity, self-discovery, class consciousness
The society of the nation in the modern world is ‘that curiously hybrid realm where private interests assume public significance’ and the two realms flow unceasingly and uncertainly into each other ‘like waves in the never ending stream of the life process itself.’ (Arendt 23) The theme of exile has engaged the imagination of many writers in the course of literary history, either because they experienced having to leave their native country for political reasons, or because they felt estranged from their society and consciously chose to live elsewhere. In fiction, as in life, there are many kinds of exile, as individuals or as the people experiencing and writing about it. Migrant literature often focuses on the social contexts in the migrant’s country of origin which prompt them to leave, on the experience of migration itself, on the mixed reception which they may receive in the country of arrival, on experiences of racism and hostility, and on the sense of rootlessness and the search for identity which can result from displacement and cultural diversity.
Jhumpa Lahiri with her scintillating prose sensitizes the readers to a plethora of characters and their predicament in a foreign soil. Her record of authentic migrant experiences brands her as one of the significant writers of the literature of exile. Like V.S.Naipaul, Nirad. C. Chaudhari, Menon. Marath, Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen, Lahiri too exposes the personal experiences of transculturation in a brilliant manner. Rushdie and Taslima are compelled to live in exile due to religious, political and social constraints, whereas Naipaul and Lahiri are expatriates by choice. But the oeuvre of each of them confirms the influence of their rootedness in their mother country, India – its customs, traditions, rituals, prejudices and superstitions.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are written in a lucid language, highlighting characters from India or Indians settled in America; she brilliantly captures their maladies and proves herself to be a successful interpreter of those maladies. For someone who was born and raised in the west, her sketches detailing the nuances of everyday Indian and particularly Bengali life is highly enlightening, leaving no room for ambiguity. The nine tales in Interpreter of Maladies, her novel The Namesake and her recent short story collection Unaccustomed Earth are woven mostly around Bengali families. There are some striking distinctions between her earlier works and the recent one. The first two books mainly deal with first generation immigrants whereas her third one exposes second or third generation immigrants. The earlier works deal mainly with loneliness, isolation and marginalization of women, but her latest stories project the sufferings of men too. In her initial tales the way of life, attitude and culture of the adopted country are painfully accepted always with longing and nostalgia for Calcutta, but in Unaccustomed Earth the American way of life is the most conformable standard of life and there are only vague references and hazy memories of Calcutta, that too, mostly by the older stock. Thus one finds in these stories a set of completely Americanised young Bengali immigrants. In almost all the stories in part one of this book, one finds that one of the spouses is an American like Adam in the title story ‘Unaccustomed Earth,’ Deborah in ‘Hell-Heaven,’ Megan in ‘Choice of Accomodation,’ Roger in ‘Only Goodness’ and Deirdre in ‘Nobody’s Business.’ The arresting factor is that they are much better than their Bengali counterparts in their devotion, respect to the elders, sense of commitment, degree of responsibility and so on.
This study tries to represent the identity crisis suffered by the women characters of Lahiri. Identity is not as transparent and unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, with no outside representation. This view problematises the very authority and authenticity to which the term ‘cultural identity’ lays claim. Lahiri’s characters find themselves in such a predicament. Their individualities are disturbed under different contexts and situations. The reasons for the rupture in their identities are psychological, sociological and cultural factors. Human identity in a world of tangled relationships causes a confusion of identities which reveals the ambiguous nature of human personality. The intention of the analysis is to explore the complex psycho-social dimension of the problem of human identity crisis. The causes, complications and aftermath of these exigencies are examined. These are assessed in detail with special reference to the women characters in her short stories ‘A Temporary Matter,’ ‘Interpreter of Maladies,’ ‘Mrs. Sen’s,’ ‘Unaccustomed Earth,’ Hell-Heaven,”Only Goodness,’ Nobody’s Business,’ her long story ‘Hema And Kaushik’ and her novel The Namesake.
Young and married women like Shobha in ‘A Temporary Matter’; Mina in ‘Interpreter of Maladies,’ Mrs.Sen in ‘Mrs. Sen’s,’ Twinkle in ‘This Blessed House,’ Mala in ‘The Third and Final Continent,’ Ashima in the novel The Namesake, Ruma in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, Aparna in ‘Hell-Heaven,’ Sudha in ‘Only Goodness,’ Sang in ‘Nobody’s Business’ and Hema in ‘Hema And. Kaushik’ all belong to upper middle class families with fairly good educational qualifications and sound financial background. They are settled in the U.S with their roots in Calcutta. Young and unmarried Miranda in ‘Sexy’ is an educated second generation upper middle class immigrant settled in the U.S. Lahiri gives expression to both positive values like constancy and negative qualities such as indifference and jealousy/licentiousness in these women. In spite of the good socio, economic status, these American women are lonely figures. In contrast is the very poor socio-economic background of Boorima in ‘A Real Durwar’e, and the lower middle class background of the uneducated Bibi Haldar in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.’ The manner in which she is treated by her own relatives as a stain on their family honour is a harrowing experience for the readers.
Mrs. Das in ‘interpreter of Maladies’ is seen as a scheming, elusive woman who cleverly hides her past from her husband and often pretends to be reconciled to the present. Mrs. Sen is portrayed as an immigrant who is always nostalgic about her happy life in Calcutta. The picture of innocent Lilia who is the daughter in a Bengali family settled in Boston, praying earnestly for the safety of Pirzada’s young wife and seven daughters in Dacca, in ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,’ is that of a lovable third generation immigrant’s concern and respect for an older stock. All the women characters mentioned above except Boon Ma in ‘A Real Durwan’ and Bibi Haldar in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’ are in self-imposed exile in the U.S. either for better higher education prospects, enhanced job opportunities or are just ordinary housewives living as shadows of their husbands. These women characters suffer from problems of identity in their adopted land. Lahiri’s earlier female portraits are relieved when they are able to adjust to their new world and feel regret at the separation from their original cultures. But her more recent female characters are not so. They are the latest offshoots and ardent devotees of American culture and society.
Identity is the distinctive character belonging to an individual in a society. Cultural identity is defined in terms of one shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’ which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Within the terms of this definition our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us as ‘one people’ with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history. This oneness underlying all the other,, more superficial differences is the truth, the essence. The galaxy of Lahiri’s characters foregrounds this fact.
When a period of uncertainty and confusion upsets a person’s identity, it becomes insecure, usually due to a change in the expected aims or role in society. This identity trauma brings a sense of longing and loss as seen in Lahiri’s stories. Lahiri says: ‘I work from a character and a conflict in a character’s life.’ Each of the stories deals with characters caught in the vortex of life, at times finding happiness by surmounting their problems as in ‘A Temporary Matter’ or by a stroke of luck as in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.’ At other times, more hardship and despair stare at their face in the end as in ‘A Real Durwan’ or their fantasies get shattered as in ‘Interpreter of Maladies.’ Lahiri’s women characters long for meaningful contacts, but what they find is rarely what they expect. Those trying to adapt to an unfamiliar world don’t always succeed. Some are homesick and many are misunderstood and they are constantly endeavouring to regain their identity. The rediscovery of this identity is often the object of a passionate search directed by the secret hope of discovering beyond the misery of today beyond self-contempt, resignation and abjuration, some very beautiful and splendid era whose existence rehabilitates us both in regard to ourselves and in regard to others.
The women in Lahiri’s stories live in the past memories of their homeland. They are caught between two worlds – the strict traditions that they inherited from India and the baffling New World values which they encounter everyday. There are critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’; or rather – since history has intervened – ‘what we have become’. Cultural identity in this sense is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities that come from somewhere have histories. Like everything which is historical they undergo constant transformation. Lahiri’s characters experience such steady shifts in their mental and emotional associations. The character portraits of Lahiri, especially those of the women, become irrevocably aligned with what Edward Said once called ‘an imaginative geography and history’ which helps ‘the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the difference between what is close to it and what is far away’ (Said 55). There is a distinct connection between memory and personal identity. As Mrinal Miri argues in the chapter ‘Memory and Personal Identity’: ‘The memory of an experience to put it very crudely must be caused by the having of the experience in the past’ (10). reactions of Indian audiences to readings by Lahiri have been concerns with ideas of identity and representation, issues surely experienced b all immigrants trying to adapt to a new culture.
Shobha in ‘A Temporary Matter’ had an idyllic existence wit Shukumar at Boston till the still birth of their child. The tragedy caused a rift in them and they slowly drifted apart. Shobha felt that she had lost her identity as a wife and mother. The personal loss affected Shobha to the extreme and it influenced her personality. ‘She wasn’t this way before’(6). The zest for life, ambition and meticulous housekeeping habits disappear from their life after the loss of their child. Shobha and Shukumar play a game revealing more of each other during the power failure. ‘How about telling each other something we have never told before?’ (13). The identity crisis in Shobha almost leads to the breakup of their marriage. Her husband, being a student at thirty-five, augments Shobha’s fear that he may not make it in the rat race for existence in Boston. The emotional confusion of the outsider intensifies when combined with personal loss. Shobha’s loss becomes vivid as she has even planned the rice ceremony of her first born. She feels that if life must go on, she has to cut herself away from the past. The truth that she has been planning all the while to move out awakens him into uttering the unspeakable to Shobha. Shukumar’s revelation patched up their differences and ‘they wept together, for the things they now knew’ (22). The crisis of the past has paved the way for the reconciliation with the present.
Mrs. Das or Mina in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ is a second generation American immigrant on a visit to India with her family to see the famous sun temple at Konarak. Their tour-guide Mr. Kapasi becomes curious about the couple who looks Indian, yet dresses like American tourists and speaks with an American accent. The opening sentences describe the bickering that symptomizes a failing marriage. Mr. Kapasi works as a tour guide only on weekends, and has another job during the weekdays as an interpreter in a doctor’s office – translating the Gujarati spoken by some of his patients. Mina calls his job ‘romantic.’ Later he becomes enamoured of her and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. She divulges a startling secret which has been traumatizing her for the past eight years. She confesses that one of the couple’s two boys was clandestinely fathered by her husband’s Punjabi – Indian friend during a brief visit. The emotional rupture in her individuality is evident in her outburst, `I’m tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I have been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy’ (65). Hiding this secret from her husband made her feel terrible. Though an immigrant, she had an inborn respect for values, culture and tradition. This might have made her miserable. This inbuilt sense of guilt makes her indifferent to everything within her family, ‘For eight years I have not been able to express this to anybody, not to friends, certainly not to Raj . . . I have terrible urges . . . Don’t you think it’s unhealthy?’(65). She hopes Mr. Kapasi will provide a remedy for her malady. But his reply outrages her ‘Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?’ (66). Mina does not respond, but decides to be with her family. Unburdening her guilt to a stranger perhaps brings her some relief. She tries to assimilate herself to a new identity by establishing a rapport with her husband and kids.
In Mrs. Sen’s Lahiri chronicles the struggle of a woman who finds herself cut off from her milieu. She leads an isolated life within her apartment. She is unable to pick up American habits. To reduce her boredom and loneliness she works as a babysitter and looks after Eliot, an eleven year old American boy. He quickly becomes aware of Mrs. Sen’s bewilderment in a strange new culture. She alarms him by asking: ‘Eliot, if I began screaming right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?’ At home in India, she explains, ‘. . . just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighbourhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements’(116). Often forgetting her own identity and donning the mask of the Americanised immigrant becomes too demanding for her. When her English begins to falter, she complains: ‘Everyone, this people too much in their world’(121). This feeling of not fitting in is explained by Leon Mann thus:
A state of embarrassment is caused giving rise to uncomfortable self consciousness in a situation in which the individual is aware that negative attention and critical judgment is focus on himself as a result of inappropriate actions which label h. as either clumsy, low status or deficit in proper breeding a good manners. (15)
Mrs. Sen fails to learn driving. It is a symbolic gesture of the resistance she offers to her new life. It is basically a refusal to fit in and adapt. She fails in other ways too, in adjusting to the American society. Her life centers around cooking Bengali meals and re-reading the aerogrammes from home and listening to cassettes and tapes. She is afraid of losing her past identity and diffident of getting reconciled with the present one. Food in the stories is a talisman, a reassuring bit of the homeland to cling to. Spices and flavours waft through like themes in piece of music: ‘From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce…’ (31). References to such Indian food show the difference between the American culture that is to be embraced and the Indian culture that must be savoured.
Jhumpa Lahiri shares the identity crisis suffered by her women characters. After spending thirty years in the United States, Lahiri says, ‘It is home to me but I feel a bit of an outsider too.’ Her characters are Asians, many of whom have come to America for a job or for higher studies or because of a political crisis. Though their identities are disturbed, they become assimilated to the American society. Later they are reconciled with the American culture with their new identities. Lahiri does not lament the loss of cultural identity. Her women characters are rather comforted when they adjust to their new world and discontented at the estrangement from their original cultures.
Ashima in The Namesake is a pretty Bengali bride coming to Boston for the first time. The place, people, climate, food, culture and the fast life are new for her. She finds it extremely difficult to adjust to the new surroundings. There occurs a discord in her identity. Just as Mrs. Ganguly, she craves for her lost Bengali life and culture and finds herself a misfit in the fashionable Boston society. The author’s reflection is quite apt:
For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of life long pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect. (49-50)
Ashima finds herself in an unhappy predicament as quoted in The Today Newspaper,’ it is about finding an identity in a country that will treat you as an alien even if you were born there’. When her brother calls her from Calcutta, ‘she feels her chest ache, moved after all this time to hear her brother call her Didi, his older sister, a term he alone in the world is entitled to use’ (44). Later we find an astonishing transformation in her life when she takes the initiative to slit her cocoon and create a slice of Bengali life and culture in Boston. With determination and fortitude she braves her personal losses, physical and mental aberrations, isolation, neglect of her husband and children and the deaths of her parents and spouse. By the end of the novel we find that she prefers to stay in Boston than in Calcutta, ‘laughing at a story a friend is telling her, unaware of her son’s absence’ (291). Lahiri portrays how this character effectively assimilates an alien culture.
Lahiri’s female depictions realize, however, that America offers them or at least their children, opportunities they would never have at home. In order to attain better prospects in life they are willing to embrace the cultural identity of a foreign country, sacrificing their own individuality. Some of them do that out of various compulsions and others due to necessities. Although they experience the yearnings of exile and e emotional confusion of the outsider, the determination to make it good in the new country overcomes it all in the end.
The feeling of dislocated identities is emphasized not through any dramatic statements or philosophical theorizing but rather through focusing on seemingly minor details. No linguistic gyrations or efforts are there to impress, subdue or awe the reader into submission. Irony, not scathing or caustic, but mildly laced with empathy is what runs through most of the stories. It is her decided preference for showing and not telling that allows her situations to speak for them. As there is no overbearing presence of the author, the reader enjoys a tremendous amount of freedom and autonomy. Some of Lahiri’s stories are set in India and the others in the United States and are concerned with characters of Indian heritage. Yet the situations the characters face that range from unhappy marriages to civil war, transcend ethnicity. As the narrator of the last story ‘The Third and Final Continent,’ remarks: ‘There are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person T have known, each room in which. I have slept’ (198). In that single line the author sums up a universal experience. An experience that applies to all who have grown up, left home, fallen in or out of love and above all, experienced what it means to be a foreigner, even within one’s own family.
It is rather interesting to note that the crisis of identity is felt by both women and men. Shukumar in ‘A Temporary Matter’ is suffering from isolation and loneliness. His identity becomes ruptured when he realizes the cause of his wife Shobha’s indifference and her decision to shift to an apartment. Later, one feels happy as they accommodate each other and share their emotional burdens. Mr.Pirzada in ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’ is a middle-aged married man staying alone in Boston leaving his wife and seven daughters in Dhaka. He is yet another male character who feels forlorn and desolate in a strange country. A Bengali family settled in Boston is the only source of consolation for him. The lonesome identity of this male portrait is further complicated by mid-life crisis too. He regains his mental posture and lost identity only when he returns to Dhaka. The young and married Dev in ‘Sexy’ loses his identity when he enters into an illicit relationship with the young and unmarried second generation immigrant Miranda. He feels neglected for a short spell only in the absence of his wife. When she returns from India he regains his composure. Sanjeev in ‘This Blessed House’ is yet another male character whose individuality is overshadowed by the dominating wife Twinkle. The intense agony and emotional trauma he felt in his own house exposes the crisis of identity in this character. Baba in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ represents the travails of a lonely widower who tries to get affection from his daughter and grandson. He is attracted towards a Bengali widow and prefers her friendship more than anything else in this world. The author comments: ‘It was not passion that was driving him, at seventy to be involved, however discreetly, however occasionally, with another woman. Instead it was the consequence of being married all those years, the habit of companionship’ (30). Shyamal in ‘Hell-Heaven’ had a ‘survivor’s mentality’ and he ‘was a lover of silence and solitude’ (65); other male portraits like Amit, Roger and Paul spread out through different stories are also perfect instances of misery and anguish. The father-son duo in the long story Hema and Kaushik is yet another interesting study. A woman was bringing change to their lives: ‘We are both moving forward Kaushik, New roads to explore’ (293). They were both thankful to Chitra ‘for chafing under whatever lingered of my mother’s spirit in the place she had last called home and for forcing us to shut its doors’ (293).
Identity problems of married men are projected effectively by Lahiri. They are engulfed in identity stress when their spouses are away / when their wives underestimate them or when they are dead. But when the women try to reconcile or accommodate them, the fissure in their individualities gets repaired. Thus we find that men in general are not much affected by the change in physical environment, customs, traditions and culture of an alien land where they are in a state of enforced exile. But they become completely destabilized when they lose the emotional support at home from their spouses. Women on the other hand, are intensely affected by the geographical and cultural disparities of the adopted land which later create a variety of crises in their identities. The lack of moral support to create rupture in their individualities, as in the case of Shobha in ‘A Temporary Matter’, Ashima in The Namesake, Sudha in ‘Only Goodness’ and Sang/Deirdre in ‘Nobody’s Business.’ But the commendable manner in which they overcome such predicaments is truly appreciable. They acquire ‘an imaginative or figurative value we can name and feel.’ Their belongingness to it constitutes what Benedict Anderson calls ‘an imagined community’ (15).
However Lahiri’s latest book, Unaccustomed Earth foregrounds a relaxed and tolerant perspective of life. In the narratives included in this book, the female representations are not affected by the geographical or cultural peculiarities of the foreign country as they are born and brought up there. But the crises happen due to the disharmony in family relationships caused by death/jealousy/claustrophobic environment/ drunkenness/licentious affairs /terminal diseases and the fissured identities are reclaimed under the initiative of the women themselves. The book is divided into two parts—the first consists of five short stories and the second is a long story of three sections, titled ‘Henna and Kaushik.’ In the title story Lahiri projects how Ruma, a second generation immigrant Bengali is captivated by an American boy Adam. Defying her parent’s wishes she marries him and voluntarily suffers a sort of alienation. Crisis comes in her life with the death of her mother and the feeling of guilt that she is neglecting her father. But when she realized that he never expected it she starts to evaluate everything from a new point of view. She gradually realizes that her father has found a new companion. She values it as a positive approach and accepts it with a calm resignation. The crisis slowly fades away for this perfectly Americanised Bengali woman who never even knew to write the Bengali alphabet. One finds in her a true admirer of American food and dress and she is rather indifferent or insensitive to possess her dead mother’s sarees or ornaments, ‘her mother has predicted this very moment, lamenting the fact that her daughter preferred pants and skirts to the clothing she wore, that there would be no one to whom to pass on her things’ (17).
The plights of three women are highlighted in ‘Hell-Heaven.’ Aparna is the mother-figure who is enamoured by a young Bengali Pranab Chakraborty. He traps her emotionally by calling her ‘Boudi’ and one finds that they share a lot of things in common. A steady rapport develops between these two with the knowledge of her husband, but there is no physical relationship involved. But when Pranab falls for a young American beauty Deborah, a rupture occurs in the intimacy. Aparna’s only job everyday is to clean and cook for her husband and daughter, and when she complains of loneliness and isolation, both of them avoids and neglect her. In the story her daughter comments: ‘I began to take my cues from my father in dealing with her, isolating her doubly. I learned to scream back, telling her that she was pathetic, that she knew nothing about me, and it was clear to us both that I had stopped needing her, definitively and abruptly, just as Pranab Kaku had’ (77). Disappointment and dejection makes her inconsolable and she desires to immolate herself. Dramatically she is made to rethink at the last moment and she changes her decision, . . she went back into the house. By the time my father and I came home in the early evening, she was in the kitchen boiling rice for our dinner, as if it were any other day (83). Her inner courage, support from neighbours/friends, faith in God and Man help her to tide over the crisis. Usha, the daughter in the family is yet another interesting portrait. She enjoys all worldly pleasures and revels in licentious relationships. She casually remarks that her mother had accepted the fact that, ‘I was not only her daughter but a child of America as well. Slowly, she accepted that I dated one American man, and then another, and then yet another, that I slept with them, and even that I lived with one though we were not married’ (82). Trauma enters her life when her heart is broken by a man whom she wanted to marry. It is her mother who makes her normal by making a personal confession of how she got over her crush for Pranab. The third interesting female image is that of Deborah, the American wife of Pranab. The curious factor is that one finds her much more responsible and affectionate than her Bengali husband. Usha recollects, ‘She told my mother that she had tried, for years, to get Pranab Kaku to reconcile with his parents, and that she had also encouraged him to maintain ties with other Bengalis, but he had resisted’ (82). She finds herself in a crisis when her husband shifts his attention to a Bengali woman. After twenty three years of married life and parenting two daughters, they got divorced. It is Aparna who consoles her in this misfortune and helps her to view life from an entirely different perspective. Their hearts had been broken by the same man.
In ‘Only Goodness’ one is captivated by the shrewd female depiction of Sudha. She leads a contented life with her American spouse Roger and only son Neel. Though outwardly happy, she is always tormented by the guilty feeling of having introduced her sibling Rahul to the world of drinks. She always reminisces, ‘how he hadn’t even liked beer, and then about all . . . and how eventually it was no longer a game for him but a way of life, a way of life that had removed him from her family and ruined him’ (171).She hides the fact that he is a confirmed ‘drinker from Roger when they entrust Neel to Rahul in one of his rare visits to his sister. The trauma reaches its climax when they are back ome from the movie theatre just in time to rescue their son from drowning in the bathtub. An unpleasant exchange takes place between the husba and wife. She takes a firm decision to banish her brother from her life. is a painful choice but her common sense compels her to go ahead wi it, ‘and Sudha realized, as the wakeful night passed, that she was capab too’ (171). Thus her sharpness and intelligence saved the untimely ru of ‘the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning’ (173).
Another interesting character Lahiri presents is Sang in ‘Nobody’s Business.’ Almost all the Bengali bachelors in Boston are after this Bengali spinster. She falls in love with an Egyptian Farouk/Freddy, with whom she has an intimate live-in relationship. She is completely shaken when she becomes aware of his illicit affair with an American lady – Deirdre. After an angry showdown with her lover she tries to come to terms with her new life, ‘By then, she had stopped crying. Her nose was running. She wiped it with the back of her hand’ (217). She tries to lead a new life with her sister in London and somehow manages to survive the trauma with the affection and consideration of her well-wishers and siblings.
Part two of Unaccustomed Earth exposes three striking women characters – Parul, Chitra and Hema. Parul is a highly Americanized Bengali who has become a terminal cancer patient. After a brief stint in Bombay she along with her family has again come over to Boston to have a peaceful death. She enjoys life till her last moment and leaves her husband and son with a better house and commendable life situation so that they can begin their life anew. Chitra is the second wife of Chaudhari. She is a Bengali widow with two daughters. She and her children beautifully adjust with the new life and environment and bring cheer and sunshine to both her husband and stepson Kaushik. Hema is a young Bengali scholar who travels to different parts of the world with her varied scholarly assignments. She is engaged to a dashing young Bengali, Navin. She meets her childhood sweetheart Kaushik in Italy and they spend a couple of days together happily. He asks her not to marry Navin but he doesn’t give her any assurance that he will marry her. Hema never wanted such an alliance neither approved by family, law or religion. In spite of Kaushik being her heart’s choice she leaves him painfully for a stable life with Navin — ‘At the end of that week, Navin arrived to marry me. I was repulsed by the sight of him, not because I betrayed him but because he still breathed, because he was there for me and had countless more days to live. . . Navin pulled me away from you’ (332). Later as the story proceeds, one finds that Kaushik has been washed away by the tsunami waves while he was in Thailand. Hema painfully acknowledges, ‘I returned to my existence, the existence I have chosen instead of you’ (333). She wanted at least a remembrance of him but Kaushik was very careful in his sexual encounters. She sadly recounts, ‘It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind’ (333). The three female portraits mentioned above suffer severe crises in their lives resulting in severe identity traumas in their personal lives but they miraculously master them and provide comfort and hope to others.
A detailed analysis of the identity crisis of Lahiri’s women characters reveals that she is one of the best humanists who has the concomitant power to wound us by making us share the tragedies of characters, both male and female. Then we feel that the author’s perspectives are profoundly moral and her real aim is to redeem reality through art without being a preacher or pious character. Her female portraits, through their disturbed identities expose her views. Another striking feature is that her women improve themselves by getting reconciled with the new culture, and with their new identities. Lahiri has plainly suggested that reconciliation with one’s self and one’s environment is the best course of action for the incomplete and insatiable human beings, mainly because the attempts of persons to achieve completeness and perfection, usually end tragically or comically. As Homi.K.Bhabha claims, we often sense that:
the locality of a national culture is neither unified nor unitary in relation to itself, nor must it be seen simply as ‘other’ in relation to what is outside or beyond it… The ‘other’ is never outside or beyond us; it emerges forcefully, within cultural discourse, when we think we speak most intimately and indigenously ‘between ourselves’. (4)
Later we find that Lahiri’s female characters establish a rapport with their seemingly lost identity through fond memories of the past. Finally the author projects the viewpoint that, her female depictions acquire a postmodern view of life through traditional approaches. Thus the conflict in identity of Lahiri’s women characters make them traditional as well as modern and also make them aware that this conflict should not interfere with their intimate relationships with each other and with others.
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Fanon, Frantz. ‘On National Culture.’ Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: a Reader. Ed. and introduced by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. p. 36-52.
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