Sunday, February 7, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I bought this in Fully booked before the year 2010. This belongs to the starter-trio as I would call it. With the works of Jhumpa Lahiri, Tracy Chevalier and Kim Edwards, I plan to regain my reading monstrosity for 2010. 2009 was a bit shameful on my reading record.

After happily finishing Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I moved on to Jhumpa Lahiri's compilation of short stories titled Unaccustomed Earth. On that day when I formed my Starter-Trio, I never had an inclination who Jhumpa Lahiri was being so out of tune in the literary world for some time. I must admit that amongst the Starter-Trio, this is the only one I'm clueless with. In fact I regarded this as a risky choice. But I read the first three paragraphs and it blew me away. It was the same happy connection when I first read paragraphs of Youth by J.M. Coetzee in Powerbooks or reading Then we Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories are mostly about Bengali families, their relationships, their challenges and their socio-cultural revolution when they migrated to the United States. I would get to picture first generation Bengalis coping, but not compromising their traditions and values due to their lives' dramatic changes in a more modern and liberated country. While the second generation is torn living the lives they are exposed to, yet finding the need and obligation to stick to their heritage. In these short stories, I admired Bengalis for their characteristics of intelligence, unwavering principles, reference to their rich culture and a national identity. Picturing them is easy. They don't get lost in the sea of globalization.

With the various short stories, you could peel the superficial aspects of the setting and seep through the conflicts of a brother and sister, father and daughter, unrequited lover, parents and child, wife and husband that stick close to home. This is the aspect that does not need any cultural representation.

The reason why I love this book is because I was able to appreciate and learn about the Bengali culture, tradition and social outlook. I was also able relate and put myself in the shoes of normal people experiencing relationship and societal challenges. When a daughter welcomes his father in her home and observing how her father silently adjusts and privately approves or disapproves your life is haunting. When you realize that you are living the life of your mother who puts the needs of her husband first than her own, when you thought it was unacceptable is haunting. Memories of happy times in a relationship gone sour with siblings seems to be the only comfort. Or that after all these years of familiarity, loyalty and devotion, you wonder if you really love your wife.

Her short stories are entertaining with a power to internally haunt your life in a realistic kind of way. She also writes in a fluid motion, capturing the private thoughts of characters and putting it perfectly in writing. She doesn't use much euphemisms and metaphors. She is direct and raw, which is more lovely and effective in these kinds of stories.

After I finished the book in my recent trip to Hong Kong, I wrote in my Facebook status my exhilaration. Some friends, who are Jhumpa Lahiri fans, immediately replied to my post and said that I should read The Namesake, which automatically went on my next list of book acquisitions. But now, sadly, I have to find The Unaccustomed Earth in my suitcase. It's been missing for days. I might have forgotten it at the airport or something. I would be devastated and disappointed with myself, but I know if that's the worst case scenario, I would do the next best thing, buy it again and hope I would not lose another book in 2010.

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