Home and Away – Unaccustomed Earth
Some people never come to know a home.
Home isn’t always the brick-and-mortar structure where you took your first steps as a baby, played hide-and-seek with visiting cousins, did your homework as you struggled through the inevitable monotony of examinations and classes, wept into the pillow over the spurning of your crushes and had the numerous ‘final’ arguments with your parents about your decisions- before you gravitated back of your own volition.
Home is about wanting to belong to a piece of earth, to identify with something so strongly that it reverberates in your being no matter where you are, reminding you constantly of where your roots were first laid, before you were uprooted without knowing what the future held. Home is what you choose and which comes to your mind first- much like religion and the identification with God.
Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, is a simple, beautiful nudge in that direction, trying to make sense of the confusion of being uprooted. This collection of short stories, crafted with unforced elegance, describes the sceptical migration, and eventual acceptance, of an unusual environment – the first few months of confusion and homesickness, the process of settling in, and often the resignation of first-generation immigrants, even as their children grow exceedingly comfortable with their new surroundings. Letters fly back and forth between Calcutta and the US, vacations are undertaken with solemn regularity- a few months of redemption from alien customs- as the children continue to outgrow their already tenuous bonds with their parents’ homes, the visits begin to grate on their nerves as time passes.
Lahiri’s prose is exquisite- never unnecessarily voluble or complex- she writes with an empathy perhaps born of experience. Her characters are very real and honest, their aspirations reflective of what we often see- the need to get into an Ivy League school and study a course that will please their parents, to drink alcohol on the sly, to try and make sense of the slick “arranged marriage” machinery that spreads its tentacles even in a foreign land, thanks to the omnipresent mashis and kakas of the neighbourhood. She writes about Bengali families and their fixations, the fragrance of her ancestors’ culture pervading the stories.
Stories about the Indian diaspora aren’t uncommon. Lahiri, however, endows her story with soul and that much-sought-after quality of re-readability. Sometimes, yes, the characters’ lives do seem to resemble one another too much- but this might be viewed as a reflection of the universality of certain situations in life. Unaccustomed Earth, with its intelligence and searing insight, makes it a sheer pleasure to read, setting it apart from anything else in its league.