“Indians are everywhere these days,” observes a character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s exquisite new collection of eight short stories. In addition to one billion in south Asia, Indians comprise a diaspora numbering some 25 million worldwide, three million in the United States. Authors of Indian background, including Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, and Anita and Kiran Desai, are prominent and proliferating. With her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, a story collection that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, Lahiri emerged as the Bernard Malamud, Aleksandar Hemon, and Junot Diaz of Indian emigrant experience. The Namesake, a 2003 novel that was adapted into film by Mira Nair, consolidated her reputation. Unaccustomed Earth arrives now as that rare phenomenon, a triumph both commercially and artistically. It debuted as number two on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, and critics have been virtually unanimous in its praise. This reviewer is no exception.
Unaccustomed Earth takes its title — and epigraph — from the preface to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, where human nature is compared to potatoes, which cannot flourish if planted and replanted “in the same worn-out soil.” Hawthorne’s narrator declares: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” Lahiri’s characters strike their roots in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington State, corners of the earth unaccustomed to Bengalis. However, the transplantation does not produce the vigor Hawthorne expects in relocated tubers.
Lahiri herself was born in London, to Indian parents, but has lived in the United States since age three. Her characters belong to generation 1.5; children of immigrants, they were either born in the United States or arrived too young to have formed an Indian identity. They tend to be affluent professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors — educated at prestigious American colleges such as Harvard, Swarthmore, Columbia, and Princeton. Though dragged along on family visits to Calcutta, they lack an appetite for Indian foods, languages, and spouses. In “Hell-Heaven,” when Pranab Chakraborty, an engineering student at MIT, announces his engagement to an American named Deborah, it so upsets his parents back in Calcutta that they disown him. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit Sarkar is deposited in a New England prep school when his opthamologist father decamps for a position in a Delhi hospital. The only Indian at Langford Academy, Amit falls in love with the headmaster’s daughter, Pam, and later with a medical student named Megan. And in the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma, a lawyer who cannot read Bengali and has lost the Asian habit of eating with her hands, marries a hedge-fund manager named Adam. Though Ruma’s American husband adores the Bengali dessert called mishti, her mother, who met her father through an arranged marriage, regards her daughter’s conjugal choice as treason: “You are ashamed of yourself, of being Indian, that is the bottom line.”
But, even if they make do with salads instead of chorchoris or refuse to embrace a match made in Asia, Indians in America are expected to make their people proud of their achievements. However, in “Nobody’s Business,” not only does Sangeeta, a grad-school dropout who works part-time at a Harvard Square bookstore, rebuff all calls from eligible Indian suitors, she loses her heart to a callous Egyptian philanderer. In “Only Goodness,” Lahiri offers an even more acidic portrait of an Indian American screwup.
After dropping out of Cornell and moving back home, where he works in a laundromat, Rahul disgraces himself through public drunkenness: “And so, he became what all parents feared, a blot, a failure, someone who was not contributing to the grand circle of accomplishments Bengali children were making across the country, as surgeons or attorneys or scientists, or writing articles for the front page of The New York Times.”
Built upon the patient accumulation of detail and spare, incisive sentences, Lahiri’s stories lack the spectacular effects found in Rushdie or Roy. Her style approaches tragical — not magical — realism, a clinical account of lives unmoored and unfulfilled. The final three stories in the book form a sequence about Kaushik, whose childhood is spent migrating between Massachusetts and Bombay and who becomes a professional nowhere man, a photojournalist who wanders the world recording others’ misfortunes. The devastating epiphany that concludes “Only Goodness” is downright Chekhovian in Lahiri’s ability to expose a universal anguish not unique to Indian Americans. We are suddenly left with: “the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other.” •