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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Unaccustomed Earth: Somber Stories About Culture Collisions

You don't read Jhumpa Lahiri if you need a giggle. The short stories here in her 2009 collection Unaccustomed Earth are at best somber (with just a smidgen of hope here and there?), and at worst, downright depressing. But you do read Lahiri to be awed, if not by the stories themselves, then by the polish of her prose. In fact, I didn't like all, or even most, of the stories in this collection. But I loved reading them.

This collection includes five stand-alone stories, and then three connected stories about the same two characters. If you're familiar with Lahiri (and if not, I'd highly recommend checking out her new novel The Lowland, one of the best books I've read this year), you'll be familiar with the theme here — the collision of old tradition and Indian culture with new tradition and American culture. Many of these stories are about marriages or relationships between the children of Indian immigrants and Americans, and the sometimes uncomfortable tension between Indian traditions (like arranged marriages) and American ones (not arranged marriages).

My favorite story in the collection is titled "Nobody's Business," about a young Indian woman named Sang, who rents a room in a house in Boston occupied by a nerdy grad student named Paul. Sang is constantly getting phone calls from ambitious Indian men — directed to her by her parents — asking, in so many words, to marry them. Sang, meanwhile, is dating a guy named Farouk, who may or may not be cheating on her. Paul, as well, has found himself with a crush on Sang, and soon things get all tangled up and feelings are trounced upon. I loved the idea of the tradition of Indian arranged marriages juxtaposed with Sang's "modern" relationship. Both are rather fraught with difficulty.

The title story "Unaccustomed Earth," the longest story in the collection, is also a favorite. It's a quiet, somber story about a woman named Ruma, who has moved to Seattle with her husband Adam. When Ruma's widower father comes to visit, she debates whether to invite him to live with them, per what Indian tradition would expect of her. But Ruma's father isn't willing to give up his independence so readily — nor is he willing to reveal his new secret late-in-life love.

The quasi-novella of three connected stories tells the not-so-whirlwind romance of Hema and Kaushik, the children of two families of Indian immigrants. The stories shift perspective and follow the characters into adulthood, where they eventually meet up again by coincidence. This forces us to wonder that since these two knew each other as children, and meet again later in life, what is the difference between "fated" lovers and arranged lovers? Don't read this story if you're already feeling a little down. It's a downer times ten.

I read these stories one-a-day over the course of a couple weeks, and as I said, really enjoyed the experience of reading them, if not each of the stories themselves. But as far as short story collections, you could definitely do worse than this — especially, if like me, you're totally enthralled with Lahiri.

2 comments:

  1. Somber, yes, but sooo good. Can't wait to start The Lowland.

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  2. Oh I love her short stories and have read her two collections and her novel The Namesake. She's awesome!

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