In part two of her Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri takes the readers through a tragic love story of two young Indian Americans through a trilogy of stories, viz. “Once in a Lifetime,” “Year’s End,” and “Going Ashore.” It is my endeavour to examine problems of relationship among the characters that binds these stories together.
Lahiri’s plots are well planned in the backdrop of diasporic predicament of characters striving to cope up with problems of familial relationships and interconnectedness between people. The fictionist delves deeply into emotional tangles of her characters and establishes the need for reaching out in renewed emotional communication between them to resolve conflicts and problems of mutual adjustment.
Being essentially autobiographical in her writing, she includes details from her Bengali community and personal experiences in her fiction. Portraying life of the Indian migrants to America, Lahiri has been very poignant in capturing the diasporic spirit of her characters muddled in multiple emotional tangles. In Unaccustomed Earth, the novelist makes her observations of the second generation Indian Americans absorbed into the Western milieu, yet experiencing deep sense of isolation and alienation. All the stories deal with the theme of uprooting and assimilation with efforts made to establish connectivity among the characters.
Lahiri herself speaks of the eroding cultural links in diaspora creating problems of identity.
Some of the culture goes by the wayside, or the link is never made. I was aware of that myself when I had my kids. I really felt a sense that I was the end of a line, and that it was a very short line. I knew my parents had parents and so on, but to me, the universe was my parents and they were the far end and I was the near end. There were certain intensities to the experience of that first generation and their offspring that don’t carry over. I’m very aware of my parents’ experience, how I grew up, and now how my children are growing up. There is such a stark difference in those two generations (Lahiri, April/May 08).
Diasporic existence can mean living in forced or voluntary exile which leads to identity confusion and problems of identification in the backdrop of alienation from old and new cultures (Singh 41). Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories focus on relationships and on specific cultural experiences and the difficulties of human existence by which the characters yearn backward and forward in time (41-2). Lahiri’s own experiences make her come out forcefully in the stories.
In this book I spend more time with characters who are not immigrants themselves but rather the offspring of immigrants. I find that interesting because when you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always—or at least I was—very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself. One is conscious of that without even having ever done it. I knew what my parents had gone through—not feeling rooted (Lahiri 18 March 2008)
As she depicts diasporic characters, Lahiri also exposes their distinctly individualized identity and writes not about ‘a specific cultural experience’ but about ‘human beings and the difficulties of existence,’ probing the ‘mindscape of characters’ and ‘human predicament’ with the unique play on memory (Das 14-15).
In these stories, Lahiri has been remarkable in shifting the point of view from third person to first person narration, rendering them very realistic and moving as she herself acknowledges.
“Once in a Lifetime” started in the third person, and I never liked it. It started to come alive when I had Hema addressing him. I’ve always been curious about that form of narrative and that point of view….. I felt like I couldn’t sustain it for a third story, and it didn’t make sense for Hema to be, twenty-five years later, addressing Kaushik, because there’s been such a long hiatus, and it was their parents who were binding them in some way. I realized I was doing some strange things (Lahiri April/May 08).
2. Sequence I : “Once in a Lifetime”
Lahiri has skilfully clustered into one group her final three stories labelled “Hema and Kaushik,” exploring the histories of the duo belonging to two Bengali immigrant families in America. “Once in a Lifetime” begins to narrate the story of the two families in 1974, as Kaushik’s parents leave America to settle down in India. However, they later return to America to the utter surprise of Hema’s parents.
Lahiri lets her characters grow on their own while she accompanies them. They all grow with their individual differences in the unaccustomed earth like plants sprouting, blooming, maturing and decaying. The metaphor of garden is central to all her stories as she introduces her collection with a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” which reads: “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall sterile their roots into unaccustomed earth.”
The trilogy begins with “Once in a Lifetime” with Hema’s first person narration through her ‘innocent eyes.’ As she addresses Kaushik, Hema leads the readers through her past memories of events in their lives.
She recalls Kaushik’s presence in her life from 1974 when she was six and Kaushik nine years old. His parents decided to leave Cambridge and return to India abandoning their struggle in diaspora, unlike Hema’s parents and other Bengalis. Being what a child perceives at six, Jhumpa Lahiri narrates through the innocent eyes of Hema, who at that tender age recollects her mother preparing for parties and all the paraphernalia that went with it.
What I remember most clearly are the hours before the party, which my mother spent preparing for everyone to arrive: the furniture was polished, the paper plates and napkins set out on the table, the room filled with the smell of lamb curry and pullao and the L’Air du Temps my mother used for special occasions, spraying it first on herself, then on me…I was dressed that evening in an outfit that my grandmother had sent from Calcutta (Lahiri 223).
The nostalgia for the past takes the child to remember her roots in Calcutta, typical of diasporic yearning for one’s bearings. Following strictly the time and location, Lahiri builds up her setting very vividly with the geographical location, time, weather conditions, social conditions and the atmosphere. Her mother was worried about the weather as her guests had to come by public transport since they didn’t own their own vehicles, showing the social condition in which they lived as diasporics. But Kaushik’s father was better off among the Bengali families as he owned a car, had a PhD, and was employed in an engineering firm. The First Person narration furthers the story through Hema’s eyes as she experiences and knows the events. “Our mothers met when mine was pregnant…They became instant friends, spending their days together while our fathers were at work. They talked about the lives they had left behind in Calcutta” (Lahiri 224-5). Narrating the social backgrounds of the two women, the child finds it irrelevant in Cambridge as they “were both equally alone”(225). Such vivid comment put into the mouth of a six year old is over-reaching by the fictionist who has gone beyond her range in description.
A close and intimate relationship is established between the two women in their various household activities. “Here they shopped together for groceries and complained about their husbands and cooked at either our stove or yours, dividing up the dishes for our respective families when they were done… When I was born, your parents were the only friends to visit the hospital. I was fed in your old high chair, pushed along the streets in your old pram” (225). A strong affinity is thus established between Hema and Kaushik, since they both had shared the same furniture and tools, like siblings in a family. The reference to the ‘high chair’ and ‘old pram’ are props to build deeper relationship between the protagonists. When Kaushik’s family shifted to Bombay, they left many items with Hema’s parents including some clothing items of Kaushik which was later used by her with unpleasant memories. “One winter I had to wear your coat, which I hated so much that it caused me to hate you as a result” (226). She recollects how Kaushik’s physical presence in the house began to fade in course of time as the families didn’t keep up the contact. But on the new year’s day in 1981 Kaushik’s father called Hema’s parents to inform that they were returning to Massachusetts since he got a new job. He requested if they could stay with Hema’s parents until they got a house. From then on the conversation in the family began to be on Kaushik’s parents,
Kaushik was now sixteen and would be given Hema’s room while she would sleep on a folded cot in her parents’ bedroom. When Kaushik’s family arrived, Hema minutely observed: “You were pale like your father…. I had not expected you to be handsome. I had not expected to find you appealing in the least” (232). Hema took Kaushik to show her room where he would be housed, indulging in thoughts of their intimacy grow. “After dreading it all this time, now I was secretly thrilled that that you would be sleeping here. You would absorb my presence, I thought. Without my having to do a thing, you would come to know me and like me” (234).
Kaushik’s parents were very extravagant unlike Hema’s. By and by Hema’s mother began to complain about the guests in the house living indulgent lives, and awaited their settling in their own new home. But Hema didn’t mind Kaushik stay with them. “In my quiet, complicated way I continued to like you, was happy simply to observe you day after day. And I liked your parents, your mother especially; the attention I got from her almost made up for what I didn’t get from you” (246). She begins to think of some romantic moments as she lay in her cot dreaming of Kaushik kiss her.
The snow storm is narrated to show the symbolic relationship between the two families and the way Hema and Kaushik played on the snow. Kaushik led Hema into the thick of the woods and showed her a cluster of tombs and began to let her know that his mother was dying of breast cancer. His family came away to US to be left to themselves, separated from relatives and friends. Shockingly, Hema wept in his presence. Returning home she was disturbed at the thought of having a dying woman in their home. She had mixed feelings: “I was furious that you had told me. And that you had not told me, feeling at once burdened and betrayed, hating you all over again” (251).
Meanwhile Kaushik’s family shifted to a new home. Hema kept the information to herself, though her parents came to know of it when Kaushik’s mother was dying in the hospital.
The story is a ‘Once in a Lifetime’ experience for two young people, trying to establish a relationship with each other in the midst of Kaushik’s dying mother.
3. Sequence II : “Year’s End”
The second story “Year’s End,” surrounds Kaushik struggling to cope up with his father’s remarriage after his mother’ death. His frustrations in his relationship with his step-mother and her daughters, expose his sense of loss and identity.
Kaushik takes up the narration and tells his plight to Hema. He was woken up at school one Sunday morning by his father’s phone call to tell him of his safe return to Massachusetts from Calcutta with a new stepmother and two stepsisters. He was told that Chitra, his stepmother, lost her husband two years ago. A school teacher by profession, she was thirty five, with two young daughters of seven and ten. Note his father’s detailing out certain information to his unarticulated queries: “I don’t ask you to care for her, even to like her…you are a grown man, you have no need of her in your life as I do. I only ask, eventually, that you understand my decision… They arrive in two weeks” (255). It was a registry wedding with a small dinner at a hotel. Kaushik knew that the marriage was not forced on his father as he wanted a life companion. He recollects how his father had loved his mother especially after she was declared with cancer. “He doted on her then, arriving home at our Bombay flat with flowers, lingering in bed with her in the mornings, going in later to work, wanting to be alone with her…” (255).
That day when his father called, Kaushik had a girl named Jessica in his bed, who knew nothing of his mother’s death or about his father. They had spent only a few weekends together and he had not bothered to tell anything about his family. This sequence brings in the element of free life in diaspora. He recollects how his mother had packed her ruby and pearls to be given to his future wife.
Reaching home to meet his family, Kaushik found the shy young girls who were told by their mother to address him Kaushik Dada. Rupa and the younger Piu spoke in their broken English and introduced themselves.
Kaushik went into the kitchen as he used to do in the last days of his mother, trying to do up the work. He went in for the bottle of Scotch his parents used to relish. His father came in to tell him he had stopped taking Scotch giving the excuse that Chitra was rather old fashioned. However, he poured the drink for his father.
Next morning Kaushik thought of going to Dunkin’s Donuts to pick up some coffee since Chitra found no coffee in the house. He invited the two girls to accompany him for the drive. This very first interaction between the trio breaks many barriers between them. He comes to know that the girls were over protected by their mother as they never went out anywhere with out her. Their holding hands together while walking through the parking lot is yet another indication of building warmer relationships. “I felt separate from them in every way but at the same time could not deny the things that bound us together” (272). Now his father in-between them was no more relevant as the two girls were like him, having lost a parent. “Like them I had lost a parent and was now being asked to accept a replacement… I was lucky, compared to Rupa and Piu, having had my mother for as long as I did. The knowledge of death seemed present in both sisters” (272).
During the course of the conversation the kids spoke of their premonitions of difficult times at school due to poor language skills (274). Kaushik reassured them that the adjustment problems would be overcome in course of time as he himself faced after returning to US at sixteen. At this juncture little Piu was curious to know if it was before his mother’s death. The query made him think of his own vulnerability in their presence. “I felt suddenly vulnerable in front of two little girls I’d known less than a day and yet who understood me better, in many ways, than friends who had known me for years” (274). They expressed their desire to see his mother’s photograph. He made excuses though there was one in his wallet. The girls were eager, so too their mother searched the house for a picture.
As they returned home, Kaushik observed Chitra anxiously watching for the car. The girls reported that it was a fun trip and they expressed their liking for Kaushik.
Calling Jessica, his girl friend, on phone, brought him a soothing sensation and she invited him to her parents’ home. In the confusion of his coping with the problem of establishing relationships, this was an opening – but he just couldn’t do it. “I wished I could, wished I could simply get into my car and drive to her parents’ home. But I wasn’t capable of walking out, not yet” (275).
His observing the girls with their mother combing and retying their hair, a daily ritual, spontaneously done by the trio, made Kaushik recall his mother wearing a wig even to her last days. Chitra, unlike his mother, had such smooth strands cascading almost to her waist. The mere sight repulsed him since his mother kept loosing her hair due to cancer. He began to imagine how the new relationship between his father and Chitra would mature into old age.
H is day dreaming was broken by Chitra offering tea, and making comments on the way the house was built. She was concerned about the steps too slippery with no railing on the floating staircase, which might let the girls trip and fall. Being annoyed at such silly remarks he cut short the conversation stating that it was the way they liked it to be. That was the end of the conversation and he longed for his father to return with the Christmas tree.
Kaushik was asked by his father to get the box in the basement with all the Christmas decorations. Spotting the box labelled “X-MAS” in his mother’s hand, he didn’t want to bring it up letting Chitra go through. Kaushik couldn’t tolerate the way Chitra handle the things his mother had handled. He was all the more angry at the way his father had tried to remove all signs of his mother in the house. The Christmas tree was decorated and his father hung the gifts with their name tags. The girls were delighted to see the tree so beautiful. Spontaneously, his father asked him to take a snap. He declined it saying he hadn’t brought his camera. An argument ensued, the depth of which only Kaushik and his father understood.
Kaushik was forced to join the family trip to Boston to show the city to Chitra and the girls. It was a strange trip for him, yet momentous since they never went on any such trips when his mother was ill except for the transit trip to Rome on their way back to US.
Kaushik had his share of Christmas gifts from his father, a sweater, a shirt and $ 1000 which he felt was too much. His father had also arranged a special trip for the girls to visit Disney World. Though his father invited him to join, he felt it not a convincing invitation. But the girls were keen on having him for the trip. “I sensed that they needed me to guard them, as I needed them, from the growing, incontrovertible fact that Chitra and my father now formed a couple. My presence was proof that my mother had once existed, just as they represented the physical legacy of their dead father” (282).
Kaushik began to be more kind towards the girls as they established some kind of an affinity with each other with their losses in life of a mother and a father. He took them out to visit the Science Museum and the Aquarium. The incident when Piu lost a tooth while eating her cone and Kaushik sopping up the blood in her mouth is indicative of the mystery surrounding blood ties as he reflects, “Though I was only twenty-one I remember wondering, just then, what it might be like to have a child. I did not hold it against them that they had begun calling my father Daddy. They never spoke of their own father, but one night I woke up to the sound of Piu screaming, locked inside a nightmare, asking for her Baba again and again” (283). In diaspora relationships seem to get easily disrupted being in a different social milieu, but at the root of it all blood ties remains a great bond.
When the family was invited for a party before the New Year, the girls wanted to remain home since Kaushik was not going. The children preferred their own party with Kaushik. The trio once again affirmed their unity in division. The three went out together for their pizza at the restaurant. Kaushik’s releasing his tension by smoking cigarettes is indicative of the conflict in him. The girls kept reminding about his joining them for the Disney trip. As they return home Jessica called him and was glad the family would be off to Disney World and she could keep him company. He longed for her in such times of difficult relationship with his father. “I missed her, I thought about her and desired her at night in bed, and yet I did not want to see her in my parents’ house” (284). He showed his reluctance to her invitation. He felt guilty being sandwiched between “avoiding her…saying no to Disney World”(285). His only escape was to tell Jessica the lie he told the girls that he would think it over.
Observing the two girls look at his mother’s photograph in a shoe box makes him fume with anger, “You have no right to be looking at those… They don’t belong to you….Well, you’ve seen it for yourselves, how beautiful my mother was…. Your mother is nothing in comparison. Just a servant to wash my father’s clothes and cook his meals. That’s the only reason she’s here, the only reason both of you are here” (286-7).
In his fury he took all his things and drove off in the night and landed up in a motel. Next morning, he felt sick of what happened the night before , “afraid of myself and ashamed. I kept seeing Rupa and Piu with their heads bent, their bodies prepared to be shaken again, absorbing all the things I was too afraid to tell my father and Chitra” (288). He felt guilty for having ill-treated the young girls. He felt that he owed apology to them. When calling his father on phone he understood that the girls had not reported against him for having terrified them, instead Chitra felt it was due to her fault that he was off at night.
Kaushik kept driving for four days without any map, and was told he would hit Canada. His mental anxiety is symbolically presented through the awe-inspiring landscape. “The sky was different, without colour, taut and unforgiving. But the water was the most unforgiving thing, nearly black at times, cold enough, I knew, to kill me, violent enough to break me apart. The waves were immense battering rocky beaches without sand. The farther I went, the more desolate it became” (288). He was consumed by the frigid and frightening landscape which exposed his guilt and fear. This was the first time he ever travelled alone. “No one in the world knew where I was, no one had the ability to reach me. It was like being dead, my escape allowing me to taste that tremendous power my mother possessed for ever” (290). He had spent five days on the road to reach the border of Canada and headed back as the year came to a close. The title is derived from this e4xperience of Kaushik at the ‘year’s end.’
Kaushik reminisces the past when his family lived with Hema’s parents. Though he hated to be with them, now remembers those days with nostalgia. “Though we didn’t belong there, it was the last place that had felt like a home” (291). He had not experienced the warmth of his home when mother was ill, as every corner was strewn with medicine bottles and all paraphernalia of her illness. He was never happy in their own home
Close to the Canadian border, he found a striking spot where he brought the shoebox of photographs of his mother. Scanning through them he couldn’t but think of scattering them. But he desisted the temptation and put them back in the box. It was his symbolic burial of mother’s pictured memory in the unaccustomed earth.
A few weeks before his graduation day his father informed him of the family shifting to a new more traditional house in the suburb of Boston. Kaushik had decided not to follow his father to the new house, instead would be travelling to South America after graduation. Herein Jhumpa Lahiri brings out powerfully her central motif of ‘unaccustomed earth’ in the diasporic life of her protagonists.
The story concludes with Kaushik’s graduation ceremony where all meet for a final time. He was glad to know from the reaction of the girls that they had not revealed his mean behaviour when he threatened and walked out of home. The bitter episode remained only between the three of them and the girls “in their silence continued both to protect and to punish me. The memory of that night was now the only tie between us, eclipsing everything else”(293). In his present state of isolation, Rupa and Piu were the closest siblings he could ever have. The story ends symbolically. It was their last meeting as his father moved forward with the idea of “New roads to explore” (293). Kaushik was thankful to Chitra “I knew we were both thankful to Chitra for chaffing under whatever lingered of my mother’s spirit in the place she had last called home and for forcing us to shut its doors” (293).
4. Sequence III : “Going Ashore”
In the final story, Lahiri becomes an omniscient narrator bringing together Kaushik and Hema in Rome after many years of separation. She, very artfully brings self realization in both the protagonists as they get very intimate with each other. But the break in narration comes with Hema taking over in the last portion like a coda.
Hema has come to Rome as a Latin professor at Wellesley, taking advantage of a colleague’s apartment in the Ghetto. Neither her parents, nor her would-be husband Navin, knew what she was doing in Rome. She merely called it a visiting lectureship at the institute of classical studies. “Her scholarly life was a mystery to them, something at once impressive and irrelevant. It had earned her a PhD and a tenure-track job” (Lahiri 294). Her friend Giovanna had arranged for her research at the American Academy. However, in October she would take an improvised leave of absence to visit her retired parents in Calcutta, and to get married to Navin in an arranged wed-lock. She had only three weekend contacts with Navin before their engagement. From Rome she kept contact with him by e-mail and through occasional phone calls, exchanging words purely out of formality. Navin was a professor of physics at Michigan State. They were both physically attracted to each other and since they got on well with each other, it would eventually culminate in their life together. In the meantime in Rome, she continued an affair with a former lover Julian, a married man with wife and daughters. She expected Julian to divorce his wife and marry her. Since it didn’t happen, they had to separate bitterly.
Still there was something that prevented her from going deeply into any relationship with people. Lahiri deftly comments on her inner conflicts: “Now she was free of both of them, free of her past and free of her future… She was alone with her work, alone abroad for the first time in her life, aware that her solitary existence was about to end” (298). Now as a professor, having researched on Lucretius, she was soaked in Latin literature which enabled “her to bring a dead world to life” ( 299). Focussed on further research into Etruscans, she was trying to escape her own loneliness, and she spent her days in quiet study. In her earlier days she never went about flirting and men kept away from her, since she had made up her mind for Julian. Now, she was into a new relationship with Navin, yet she knew for sure “that her heart did not belong to Navin in the same way” (299).
Being an introvert, she never openly shared her life with any one and it remained one of denials: “She denied herself the pleasure of openly sharing life with a person she loved. Denied herself even the possibility of thinking about children” (301). Being well aware of her age, Navin kept reminding her of his eagerness to begin a family. One day, observing a joyful couple, she felt “something dead about the marriage she was about to enter into… she was conscious only of its deadness” (301).
The plot thickens as Lahiri introduces Kaushik coming to Rome as a photojournalist who had wandered for about twenty years, mostly in Latin America. He had been to war zones of Israel, Guatemala, Mexico, Buenos Aires, Africa and the Middle East, eking out a living by taking pictures of corpses. He had little connection with his family except through occasional e-mails. His father and Chitra had visited him in Rome on their transit to Calcutta. He was planning to move to Asia working for a magazine.
Since he owned little, moving was easy like the way “his mother had set up households again and again”(309). The concept of disapora as a recurring theme is very vibrantly portrayed by Lahiri. For Kaushik, migrant life began from childhood and he “was always happiest to be outside, away from the private detritus of life” (309). His photojournalism matched his life:
He was reminded of his father’s moves every time he visited another refugee camp, every time he watched a family combing through rubble for their possessions. In the end, that was life: a few plates, a favourite comb, a pair of slippers, a child’s string of beads. He wanted to believe that he was different, that in ten minutes he could be on his way to anywhere in the world. But he knew that it was impossible, wherever he landed, not to form attachments (309).
He became a man from nowhere, devoid of emotional and physical attachment to any one. What was his identity? His origin didn’t matter to him as a photographer, though in Europe he was regarded as an Indian.
In Rome Kaushik chanced to meet Hema who remembered their living together when she was thirteen and how she nurtured her longing for him. He took her to his apartment. “It was unquestioned that they would not part yet…something precious had been stumbled upon, a new born connection that could not be left unattended, that demanded every particle of their care” (311). Having spent a long time talking about her exploits, finally she told him she was going to marry Navin. His sudden reaction is shown through his smoking a few cigarettes. Meanwhile, she rested her hands flat on the table, exposing her gold bangle which she wore from childhood in memory of her grandmother. When Kaushik points out her wearing no engagement ring, she confesses the truth she hardly knew Navin.
That night was one of intimacy between the two. ‘She stayed awake, listening to his breathing, craving his touch” (314). In the morning she noticed some small red bumps around her lips and “was pleased by the unbecoming proof, pleased that already he had marked her” (314). They spent a lot of time together in the night, in out of the way restaurants, bars and abandoned squares, sitting together like teenaged couple kissing one another. She talked about belief in Estrucan’s love of natural world and portents. They never cared to say anything about “their own future, of where their days together would lead” (314). Strangely, they never recalled their past lives together and the friendship between their parents over the years. He let her surf his web site on his laptop and saw countless images of bomb blasts, bodies on stretchers and other war scenes he had witnessed. The images now affected her because he had become her lover. She appreciated his willingness to connect to strangers and vice versa. Hema found that such willingness was also needed to disappear at any moment as he did in his life. It was her guess that he had been with many women in his life as well. That night they fell asleep without having sex, since familiarity was growing between them.
Though Navin called, she didn’t answer because, Kaushik was busy engaged in passionate moments with her. But she knew that it would all end within weeks as they would be in different countries. Whenever they shared their sexual intimacy, he wore a condom, clearly indicating that they remained separate even in sexual union. At the same time when Navin called, she brushed him aside, telling him lies about her travels around, to avoid his calls.
After travelling together in Italy for some time, both Hema and Kaushik would choose different routes – she would go off to India and Kaushik to Hong Kong. After the last meal together, Kaushik asked her to go with him to Hong Kong and refrain from marrying Navin. This came as a jolt as she felt him telling her what to do than to join her instead. She was quick to reply, “It’s too late, Kaushik” (322). Retorting in anger he called her a coward and she knew he would never forgive her for refusing him. Hema argued that though he told her not to marry Navin, he had not asked her hand in marriage. All she could do was to cry her tears out. Spending the night apart, they parted company the next day when she realized she had left her bangles, “the one she never removed, the one Kaushik had hooked his finger through the first night, drawing her to him” (323). She had left it at the security check while boarding the aircraft. The bangle is a symbol of her traditional and cultural link with her family and others with whom she had established relationships. Kaushik had symbolically hooked on to it to pull her into his life. But she had other plans and had to leave the past behind to begin anew. Though the bungle would be replaced ten fold at her wedding, “… she felt she had left a piece of her body behind. She had grown up hearing from her mother that losing gold was inauspicious” (324).
Lahiri employs the significance of the flight of the aircraft to depict Hema’s aspiration and dreams, which she wished at that moment would end up with a blast in the sky.
Kaushik’s route takes him to Thailand. But he keeps yearning for her all the time. He wondered what went wrong in his attempt to get connected to her, though she happened to be the only one in his life, who knew his past, and the only person to whom he wanted to remain connected to. “He didn’t want to leave it up to chance to find her again, didn’t want to share her with another man… without her he was lost” (326). It was more frustrating for him to imagine her living with “someone she did not love” (327).
The story concludes with Hema taking up narration as if to put an end to the story she began, recollecting from her childhood memory. She couldn’t just forget the past. She searched for information on Kaushik, to get in touch with him. She surfed his web site and found the last images he had posted with the background of the shore scene they had both seen from Volterra. “Three blackened faces, supposed to be Estruscan divinities, that loomed over our heads. And then, scenes of another coast. Two children playing, a gentle turquoise sea” (332).
The shore scenes are indicative of migrant spirit as well as emotional rift in relationships that the two have experienced. Now they have to live their lives on different shores, pining for each other- so close, yet so split apart. The rest of the events in Hema’s life take place as planned. She is married to Navin. But things didn’t click: “I was repulsed by the sight of him, not because I had betrayed him but because he still breathed, because he was there for me and had countless more days to live. And yet without his even realizing it, firmly but without force, Navin pulled me away from you, as a final gust of autumn wind pulls the last leaves from the trees” (332). Lahiri adroitly brings to focus how marriages of convenience replace those of love.
Hema returned back to her life in Massachusetts thirty years after Kaushik and his parents left for India. The cycle of life is complete: sprouting – blooming – dying – and sprouting again.
In February she came to know from an obituary in the New York Times that Kaushik was no more. It was a shocking piece of news. “I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering and shaping themselves in my body. Those cold, dark days I spent in bed, unable to speak, burning with new life but mourning your death” (333). Her mourning became more painful as Kaushik “had left nothing behind” (333) since the child in her womb was not his. Though the story is one of intense love and passion, it does not end in wedding bells, rather in grief, isolation and death. Through the story, Lahiri has captured the agony of people trying to survive in a situation of having lost familial and cultural relationships due to circumstances in migrant existence.
The stories of Hema and Kaushik are full of pathos ending in unfulfilled love. “Once in a Lifetime” can happen to any family in diaspora, leading to establish family ties and growing up in love. The sense of uprooting and being replanted recur in the stories. The breaking point comes with the death of Kaushik’s mother. But life must continue with resurgence. In “Year’s End” when Kaushik’s father marries Chitra, he fails to understand the emotional and physical needs of his father, Chitra and the two young children. Both Kaushik and Hema attempt to flee their own protected worlds. Kaushik’s search leads him to globe trotting as a photojournalist, trying to take roots in the unaccustomed earth. Succeeding no where, he finds the turning point of his life in the arms of Hema. But that too is shattered, climaxing in his final uprooting from life itself. Life moves on with Hema, though unfulfilled in love, with the foetus growing within her, giving meaning to life through “Going Ashore” to new places.
The Diasporic predicament in relationships are well wrought out by the fictionist when she let her protagonists take different roads, quite opposite of those travelled by their immigrant parents. This is where the cultural and familial ties are broken in the unaccustomed earth. They all become strangers in their own worlds and have to fend for their own survival in diaspora as Kaushik experienced. “From childhood, he realized now, he was always happiest to be outside, away from the private detritus of life” (309). Both Hema and Kaushik have to escape their pasts and their parents’ way of life to begin to live in unaccustomed earth, striving to set up homes.
The stories are intense studies of individuals caught in between conflicts of family relationships and cultural traditions. They try to establish their individual identities in a new milieu, experiencing at the same time the sense of displacement, alienation, and isolation. These individuals, caught up in the confusion of their migrant lives, need to get connected to family and friends for emotional fulfilment.
“Hema and Kaushik” stories are a compendium of all Lahiri’s ideas and thoughts about life and its intriguing predicaments. Her narration is simple and straightforward for the simple reader. At the same time her subtle nuances with psychological undertones, can be brain-teasers for a perceptive critic.