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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Analysis and Review of Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I recently came across Jhumpa Lahiri’s appropriately titled “Unaccustomed Earth” when I was talking to a close confidante of mine. She talked of a short story (included in their syllabus) which had made several of her classmates bored so much so that they didn’t even bother reading it. She asked me to check the story and thus, I got to reading it. While reading the short story, “Going Ashore” I realized how a beautiful text like this could lead to boredom.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Syllabus only provided them with one of the three-part ‘long-short story’. Hence, without the other counterparts, they were liable to feel bored and confused as there was no actual set-up for the stories and they were just put into action. I started reading it and I soon found myself admiring the lyric-like writing with paragraphs serving more as poetry than as prose.

As I finished the story, I marveled at the way the story was written and was in awe of Lahiri’s writing style, the likeness of which is found in very few authors. Here is the full analysis and review of the short story (that belonged to a Collection) that won the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award.

About the Author

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Indian Immigrants who later moved to America when she was three years old. Lahiri grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island with a mother who wanted her children to remember their ‘Bengali’ heritage and a father who worked as a librarian. 

Since her kindergarten, Lahiri felt tentative possibly because of her teacher calling her by her pet name ‘Jhumpa’ as it was easier to pronounce her real name. It led her to feel embarrassed by her name as if her existence caused someone around her pain. She had always felt a struggle between the American and Indian sides of her. When she grew up as an adult, she realized that it was possible to live without being tugged away completely by one of her sides.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

 

Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School and received her B.A in literature from Barnard College of Columbia University in 1989. Later, she received multiple degrees from Boston University such as M.A in English, M.F.A in Creative Writing amongst others.

In the beginning of her writing career, she faced rejection to get her debut Short Story Collection, “The Interpreter of Maladies” published. When it was finally released in 1999, it won her a debut Pulitzer Prize and sold over 6,00,000 copies. It addressed a lot of the sensitive dilemmas faced by Indian Immigrants.

In 2003, Lahiri published her first novel, The Namesake which was inspired by a story she heard in her family as a child. The book was well-received by both critics and audiences alike which also spawned a 2007 Movie with the same name starring Tabu and Irrfan Khan.

Later on, she published her short story collection, “Unaccustomed Earth” and she has recently published her first novel in Italian called “Dove mi trovo” while receiving several notable awards and nominations.

Themes explored by the Author
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Most often, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story are Indian Immigrants and it again explores the themes she herself felt during her early stages of life. The characters in her literature experience a struggle in their identity and have to navigate through the cultural values of their homeland and adapting their present environments.

Her stories and novels are often autobiographical and rely on the experiences the writer herself experienced and of her parents, friends, and acquaintances. All her characters face the struggles, anxieties, and biases immigrants usually face.

All of her fiction before Unaccustomed Earth however focused on the first generation of Indian Immigrants trying to adjust to the newer conditions of their surroundings. In Unaccustomed Earth, she focuses on children of these immigrants and how they find comfort amongst all the displacement and Indian Culture.

Plot 

The second part of this short story collection deals with the lives of two people: Kaushik and Hema. These two people despite being childhood acquaintances and being family friends lead different lives. 

The first section of the story is titled, “Once in a Lifetime” and it deals with the childhood of Hema and Kaushik. This tells the story of two families, one of which comes to live with the other family. The first chapter is written in a first-person perspective with Hema addressing it to Kaushik. These two families have a lot in common amongst themselves however they are slowly drifting apart.

The second section of the story titled “Year’s End” is written from the perspective of Kaushik addressed to Hema. It deals with Kaushik struggling to deal with his mother’s death and his father's remarriage. He also traverses through and describes his life with a newer stepmother and two stepsisters. Hence, Kaushik inclines towards living the life of a wanderer.

The last section of the story is written using a third-person perspective as Hema and Kaushik running into each other years later in Rome. Hema is now a college professor and has just ended a decade-old affair with Julian. She plans to settle down with Navin, a boy her parents selected for her and likes him for his certainty as compared to Julian. She barely knows Navin and feels like the marriage is dead-on-arrival.

The other part of the last section talks of Kaushik which sees him travel from Central America living the life of a Wanderer to Africa and the Middle East. This leads him to photograph violent sights which leads him to the instinct to click a photograph even in the case of a mishap with the people around him. He’s planning to take up a table job in Hong Kong.

Despite all of this, they both remember their old connection and they reconnect with each other at a common friend’s lunch party. Kaushik and Hema spend time throughout Italy and go to various museums and churches. Before leaving for a Christmas Vacation, Kaushik asks Hema to leave Navin and come to live with him in Hong Kong. She says it's too late but he asks her to brood over the decision.

The story ends with Kaushik going to Thailand and dying vacationing in Khao Lak when the 2004 Tsunami hit and never giving Hema a choice regarding the future.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Analysis and Review

Jhumpa Lahiri is an exemplary story-teller who traverses between places much like her own experiences between America and India. It focuses on immigration and dislocation of her own characters both from a geographical location as well as in a metaphorical sense. The story begins with Hema’s family throwing a party for Kaushik’s family before they leave for India.

Kaushik’s Family travels back to America after several months and stays at Hema’s place for a few days. This is the time when a Young Hema starts to form a crush on Kaushik, who doesn't pay any heed to her. During this stay, on a trip to the woods behind Hema’s House, he reveals to her that his mother is dying. 

The story focuses on Kaushik’s struggle with accepting Grief and his newfound Stepmother and two other stepsisters. The final chapter talks of how the two protagonists meet each other in an unlikely scenario and the events that unfold. The way the story is written is unique in its own way as it is distributed into different parts with different perspectives. 

Hema now finds herself leaving Julian, who after a decade of having an affair with Hema did not divorce his wife and two kids in Vermont. This affair brought Hema an uncertainty. Navin, even though he spent just three weekends with Hema and was relatively unknown, provided a sense of security and certainty with the arranged marriage.

Here we also learned about Hema’s Nature. She isn’t at all close with her parents so much so that at one point, her mother thinks that she prefers women on her thirty-fifth birthday. Hema is now Thirty-Seven and hence, her parents are looking for a husband which they find in Navin. This Certainty leads Hema to end things with Julian who in-turn calls her as someone who was deceiving him.

After accepting the future and cutting off ties to her past, Hema finds herself in a state of independence. She tells Navin that she wants to spend the time in Italy by herself to not be bothered by Navin’s Emails. She lies to her family saying that she has a job at a university in Italy and hence she could buy herself some time. She spends the time visiting Museums where-in she discovers a casket upon whom a couple is sitting. She sees this in context to her marriage with Navin, which is nothing but a marriage already dead. 

Being worried about her friend, one of her colleague’s friends invites Hema over for lunch. This is where she meets Kaushik. Kaushik had spent his life living off his father’s money in Central America. He spends time in violent regions which further solidifies the theme that her character feels out of place wherever they go, no matter how many times they change their countries. 

On one such occasion, Kaushik comes across a boy across the corner of the street who was shot in the head and he clicks a picture of that body. Soon it gains him a small check which leads him to take photojournalism as a job. This takes him to more and more violent places such as Africa and the Middle East where he is still homesick for a place he doesn’t even know exists. He has photographed hundreds of violent pictures and now his instinct is to click a photograph first.

We are told this when he later narrates an incident wherein France, Kaushik sees a car crash ahead of him in conjunction with the sound of a baby’s crying. In this case, he first goes to photograph the accident instead of asking if the people involved are okay. We see that he has gone through desensitization.

When Hema and Kaushik meet each other they just hit it off immediately so much so that they are assumed to be friends or even lovers by the guests present. An assumption of a guest, which Kaushik doesn’t try to clarify. Later on, they find a place amongst each other through the next few days as they rekindle old affection.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Both of the characters, who themselves don’t have any place find a place with each other and hence spend the days in each other's company. They reveal themselves to each other and on a trip to a place in their last week together, they come across a party. Kaushik says that it's a party of an office (more specifically, a bank) and that all of those people were born there and will die there. To which Hema replies that she wishes she belonged to a place.

Whilst ending their trip, Kaushik asks Hema not to marry Navin and to leave with him to Hong Kong. Hema says that it is too late for her to accept this proposal and sees Kaushik’s idea to cancel the wedding with Navin and not marry himself with her as not being fair. He then calls Hema a coward after which she is left in tears.

After boarding the airplane, Hema realizes that she left her Golden Bangle she wore on her wrist at the airport, and hence this can be seen as leaving one's identity behind. She accepts the fate that she might not get her bangle back as it was too late to do so which also signifies an acceptance of her dead marriage. 

Kaushik confronts his fear of swimming in the water after he sees a projection of his mother in the water. It is here when the tsunami hits and kills Kaushik off. Hema is shocked to hear of this news, far away as if someone had demolished the only place had left in the world. She marries Navin and writes a final letter addressed to Navin in which she mourns his death. She also mentions how little her parents know of her and even Kaushik’s family by asking her to remember a family that once stayed with them(thereby passing them as trivial). She writes in the end that, had she accepted Kaushik’s proposal she had been with him in his death.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

It ends with a simple question. Would you accept death with someone you find your place with or would you remain a placeless nomad being somewhere physically but never belonging anywhere?

- Harsh Kichambare

To read more article written by Harsh Kichambare - CLICK HERE


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