Review : Unaccustomed Earth

November 22, 2012
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Random House India
Year: 2009
ISBN: 978-0676979343
Rating: ★★★★☆
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At times, to enjoy certain books completely, one needs to do something different than just the usual self-identification with the characters. Long time back, when we participated in Macmillan interschool tests, there used to be puzzles with figures instructing us to have a bird’s eye view on them. Though such views had little application in our future lives along with those tests which dared to judge our merit, one never really knows which art comes handy when. Moving back to the initial tone of the article, sometimes, to enjoy few books one needs to segregate oneself, move above and get that bird’s eye view. There is a pleasure involved in such kind of reading and viewing, one that provides a wonderful panoramic display of life, in every variety possible, through the words printed in black. Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ was one such book.

Every story in this book narrates different episodes in the lives of Bengali families dwelling abroad. That way Lahiri stays true to her roots. Being a Bengali myself, may be the book came especially closer to my heart through the descriptions of Tangail sarees, red vermillion or my own city Calcutta. But one can say with conviction that the book strikes a chord through every heart it comes across; as if it speaks about those distant cousins who live in the West and come to visit us during the summers or other long holidays. They are not one among us, maybe even separated from us by a few yards that the division between two completely disparate worlds creates; yet when two people come together they connect through their hearts, no matter how distinct the divides are. Thus even the farthest cousin of your clan might become your friend once you see his world from that altitude which gives its entire view and let him sink in your own.

There is a difference between unaccustomed and impossible. However while managing the vastness of our own lives and of everyone’s related to it, we often tend to forget that and confuse the two. Jhumpa Lahiri precisely tells through her stories this fact which says all that is unaccustomed might not be impossible. That, when we look at our mother or aunts and think they are supposed to cook, work and nurture families, is the usual possible thought. But even within the twenty yards of our age-old abodes resides something more primal than the family ties, it is the existence of individuals. Even after years of living together, our parents and aunts and uncles might long for other company. Even at the fag end of his life, when his wife is dead and kids are married with lives of their own, Ruma’s old father might wish to fall in love again with some Mrs. Bagchi and be in an indefinable bond, different from the one which tied him to his wife. Or like in ‘Only Goodness’ where Sudha’s perpetual effort to keep her family together ends in abject failure as her estranged brother would only slip away and move farther, all because of a carefree attempt to drink beer which she herself dared him. Amit’s discovery of love in his then sordid marriage much through a comedy of errors, at one odd marriage of a friend or Usha’s mother and her longing for Pranab Kaku who is like a gush of fresh fragrance in the four walls of a stale family life—– every single story puts forward those stray ripples which we usually fail to distinguish on the surface of a quiet pond, yet they exist along with the usual ones and can be seen, if wanted, in the most inevitable manner. Finally Hema and Kaushik show the poignant tale of how two people known to each other for ages walk together for a brief period only to fall in love in the most inappropriate manner, at a time when it seemed unwanted and frankly absurd from common angles. But love lies above every logical sanity. The heart wants what the heart wants and when its desires fall on the earth with a thud, it breaks with a clamour louder than the tearful wailing we undergo while healing it. These colours which the author paints in this book might not be those which are conceived as we lead our usual lives of definite aspirations and responsibilities, hence they are unaccustomed. But they do have the lustre of life like the yellow of hope, the blue of despair or the red of inebriety. They are true and much distant from being impossible.

The deft story-teller she is, Lahiri’s pen does a meticulous job which completes itself and requires no further appreciation or adjectives. In little sorrows, deeper agony and tender joys the curtain falls after each story, keeping us in awe, making us rather imaginative along an unknown tangent. The ocean that life is, is a vast one. And in it, nothing is wrong, everything is permitted.

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