Monday, April 21, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

Reading the collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri in Unaccustomed Earth is like unwrapping layer upon layer of a much anticipated gift only to find a mundane trinket in the end. Lahiri seems to take perverse pleasure in playing bad Santa who stuffs the stockings of her readers will coal when in fact she could have easily gratified us with a eight beautiful presents. I am not entirely sure why she would want to do what she does with unerring success story after story. Is this by design or an unintended consequence ?

We all know by now that Lahiri's repertoire is limited to the Bengali Indian-American experience and a periliously narrow sliver of it at that. However, as a Bengali I am glad that she brings the trivia of our people on the world stage. But for her, the rest of humanity would have remained oblivious of the existence of chorchoris and pantuas. I guess one must give her credit for being the self appointed ambassadress of the Bengali Indian-American and depicting our tribe as a distinct cultural strain that refuses to be commingled with the rest of India - it is an ambitious goal to say the least.

Yet in talking about her chosen literary vehicle, the short story, one must talk about how she fares. Her limited cast of character and their monotonic cultural background is not necessarily a sin. Many authors share those characteristics with her and fare very well in spite of it. John Updike thrives with his New England set, Barbara Pym with her English village community or closer home R.K Narayan within the confines of his fictional Malgudi.

What makes the work of these authors special is that the stories they tell speak to the human condition universally. The reader does not need to have wallowed in macher-jhol all their lives to feel the tug of the character's struggles and triumphs. With Lahiri, the scaffolding of the story begins to fall apart when you remove the Bengali Indian American theme and props.

While she does attempt a larger purpose and a transcending theme, each time she finishes just a little shy of the finish line. The reader is left exhausted from the mounting anticipation that is left harshly unfulfilled in the end. The callow youth of my college days would have called it a KLPD moment. To have this suffering repeated eight times is quite a bit painful even for the most indulgent of readers.

She tries to broaden her appeal by gratuitous references to things and places foreign to average Bengaliness but that does quite cut the mustard. The trio of stories in part two has Hema and Kaushik bouncing all over Italy, El Salvador, Thailand, West Bank and God alone knows where else but all that serves to do is to overwhelm with detail that has no relevance to the main plot line. As a reader you want to be put of out your misery wading through pages of Italiana and get to the heart of the matter which unfortunately does not really exist.

Being that Lahiri has so much going for her - a beautifully lucid language, an amazing eye for detail and deftly sketched characters set in realistic situations, you wonder why the recipe falls flat. As a reader I am disappointed in my own disappointment with her latest offering and hope Lahiri will find that missing ingredient that it takes to take her from being pleasant to brilliant.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post! It says what I've never been able to articulate about Lahiri's style. It was probably because I was not privy to the Bengali life-style. I don't know. I just think she's a tad bit over-rated, and yes, she could do so much more, but simple doesn't, which is so aggravating!


Aqua said...

I have just started reading "Unaccustomed Earth" and my initial thoughts on the book mirror yours. And I must say i enjoyed your review more that the first story I read :)

Jhumpa has not been able to match up to "Interpreter of Maladies". One thought she would transcend it with her new books.

What are your views on "the namesake'?

Heartcrossings said...

Sampada - You're welcome :) I guess if you are an ethnic minority and hold a microscope over your society and its inner workings the average voyeur in the western world is fascinated. That I believe has been Lahiri's USP.

Aqua - I've read all three books and The Namesake is a well told story but then autobiographical stories are usually well told. You expect candor and detail and it has both.

When it comes to short stories the reader expects something quite different and that's where Lahiri does not fare very well. You cannot repackage the same characters and plot lines ten times and call each one a short.

In Unaccustomed earth marriage and infidelity are here themes. Its hard to tell one story apart from the other because of her handling of it.The stories turn predictable and boring.

I didn't care too much about the Interpreter of Maladies but it was definitely better than Unaccustomed Earth.Lahiri like I said has real talent but does not seem to able to meet the reader's expectations.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me to go look at my own review of The Namesake. My own frustration amuses me!