Diasporic Predicament in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth consists of eight unique stories on relationships, multiple identities and human predicaments. It is my endeavour in this article to trace the Diasporic predicament in the title story through the garden metaphor.
Though Diaspora (in Greek, διασπορά – “a scattering [of seeds]”) refers to the movement of any population sharing common ethnic identity who were either forced to leave or voluntarily left their settled territory, and became residents in areas often far removed from the former (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora), now-a-days the term is given more expansive definitions. Susan Koshi has introduced the term neo-diaspora to distinguish South Asian diasporas from other classical forms of diaspora. According to her there are several groups that claim diaspora status including voluntary and involuntary movements under the rubric, and have explored the functional compatibility between the flexible allegiances of diasporas and contemporary globalization ( Koshi 2).
With regard to dual territoriality, diaspora may also be viewed from following viewpoints: (a) the diaspora is at different times for or against the hostland; b) the host land is at different times for or against the diaspora (though usually the latter); (c) the diaspora is at different times for or against the homeland (though usually the former); and (d) the homeland is at different times for or against the diaspora (Mishra 28). Diasporic experience is one of exile, migration, dislocation and displacement that brings in 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 character yearn backward and forward in time (41-2).
Lahiri introduces her collection of stories Unaccustomed Earth 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 title-story surrounds Ruma’s relationship with her Indian-American father after her mother’s death. After his retirement from a pharmaceutical company, he began travelling to Europe through package tours. After one of his tours he comes to visit Ruma who lives with her white husband Adam, and her three year old son Akash, in their new home in Seattle. Though a lawyer by profession, being pregnant, she stays at home.
Garden metaphor is employed deftly by Lahiri to refer to the familial relationship and identity of the characters in the story. Garden here helps to think figuratively about a complex set of themes. The metaphor of garden is used as a lens through which she crafts rich and varied reflections on the task-at-hand – creatively and intelligently. The seed is to be buried in the ground where it can germinate and grow into something productive as the sacred saying goes, “… unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies. It bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Modern culture is a garden culture. It defines itself as the design for an ideal life and a perfect arrangement of human conditions…. Apart from the overall plan, the artificial order of the garden needs tools and raw materials. It also needs defence – against the unrelenting danger of what is, obviously, a disorder. The order, first conceived of as a design, determines what is a tool, what is a raw material, what is useless, what is irrelevant, what is harmful, what is a weed or a pest. It classifies all elements of the universe by their relation to itself. This relation is the only meaning it grants them and tolerates – and the only justification of the gardener’s actions, as differentiated in the relations themselves. From the point of view of the design all actions are instrumental, while all the objects of action are either facilities or hindrances (http://educ.ubc.ca/faculty).
The fictionist is autobiographical in her writings as she probes into her characters’ sensibilities and experiences. Her diasporic concerns are powerfully depicted through the anguish of Indian migrants to America. The novelist makes her observations of the second generation Indian Americans absorbed into the Western milieu. The deep sense of alienation and isolation experienced by her characters are superb soul studies in the backdrop of uprooting and assimilation.
Speaking on the first generation Indian-Americans and their inter-racial marriages bringing about a chasm in relationships, Lahiri observed:
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 (wwww.bookforum.com).
She has been passionate in expressing the basic tenets of familial relationships. “Some bits and pieces are taken from my own parents and other parents that I knew growing up.… The thing I took for granted when I was growing up is that I was living in a world within a world. … To me, they don’t represent immigrants or anyone specific. They just represent the human condition” (wwww.bookforum.com).
Lahiri herself felt strongly the sense of exile being in a constant state of being displaced. “I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even though in many ways I am so much more American than they are… I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children…. But it bothered me growing up, the feeling that there was no single place to which I fully belonged” (http://hinduism.about.com).
The Diasporic experience of the central characters in the story is multiple as the sense of exile, alienation, uprootedness, continues to overwhelm them. The traditional familial relationship in the Rupa’s Bengali household is getting diluted with her mother’s death, brother Roma’s absence and her father’s solitary life.
The final movement in the story is central to the garden metaphor by which the fictionist intents to establish relationships in a multifarious ways.
She walked back outside, across the grass and looked at the hydrangea her father had planted, that was to bloom pink or blue depending on the soil. It did not prove to Ruma that her father had loved her mother, or even that he missed her. And yet he had put it there, honoured her before turning to another woman. Ruma smoothed out the postcard in her hand, scrapping away, with her fingernail, the dirt that obscured a bit of the zip code. She turned the postcard around and looked at the front, at the generic view her father had chosen to commemorate his visit. Then she went back into the house, to the table in the hall. From the drawer she took out the roll of stamps and affixed one to the card, for the mailman, later in the day, to take away (Lahiri 59).
It is the garden metaphor in the story that brings Ruma and her father deeply ponder over their intricate life-concerns and predicaments. The metaphor of gardening is very deftly employed by the novelist. Gardening is an excellent way to bring families together to build their emotional ties, giving an opportunity to share and learn together. The growth of a plant is like that of the siblings in the family, a symbol of nourishment and growth. The emotional bonding established removes loneliness and frustrations.
Like a young child, a tree goes through growth spurts, passing through juvenility and entering maturity. In maturity, it is able to share with others its fine attributes, such as shade to cool and add comfort to a yard or home, leaves to help make soil-building compost… The rewards of a vegetable garden are as exciting to adults as they are to children, giving both a sense of accomplishment. Sharing the joy and excitement or even the disappointment and failure of a vegetable garden strengthens family ties….The garden is a fertile ground of opportunities for families to grow together and learn more about each other while tending the garden. It offers the opportunity for adults and children to share ideas — to talk and, most importantly, to listen to each other and, by working together, to communicate the many messages that must be said without words. Gardening develops self-esteem, a sense of nurturing, and the quality of generosity. The garden is a wonderful family room! (www.pioneerthinking.com).
Ruma’s father lived alone. She was not familiar with his surroundings and had only a peripheral knowledge of his life in Pennsylvania. It is a clear indication of lack of intimacy in relationship, which is a Diasporic experience in transition. The selling of his old house, wiping out her mother’s memory had been painful to Ruma.
She knew her father did not need taking care of, and yet this very fact caused her to feel guilty; in India, there would have been no question of his not moving in with her… Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to. It would mean an end to the family she’d created on her own: herself and Adam and Akash, and the second child that would come in January, conceived just before the move. She couldn’t imagine tending her father as her mother had, serving the meals her mother used to prepare. Still, not offering him a place in her home made her feel worse. It was a dilemma Adam didn’t understand… Adam was doing everything in his power to make Ruma happy. But nothing was making her happy…” (Lahiri 6-7).
Her dilemma haunts her – her filial responsibility as per Indian tradition and the fear of added burden of having to look after her old father. Meanwhile her father’s relationship with Mrs. Bagchi had grown closer as they shared their lives to some extend, even planning to share a room on trips. But she was totally against their marriage. He began to dream of her often and did all he could to make her happy with full attention than he ever did to his wife. “He would soon see Mrs. Bagchi again, in Prague; this time they’d agreed, they would share a room, … She was adamant about not marrying, about never sharing her home with another man, conditions which made the prospect of her companionship all the more appealing” (9).
Akash’s recurring resistance is a pointer to her losing control of mothering him the Indian way she would have liked to. The boy demands more attention from her as he was more and more aware of the baby to be born. He is protective of his space as Ruma was protective of hers. The circle of life continues to get narrowed in relationship adding to the garden metaphor.
He was only three, but sometimes she already felt the resistance, the profound barrier she assumed would set in with adolescence. After the move he’d grown difficult. It was a combination, she knew, of the new surroundings, and her lack of energy, and Adam being away so much. There were times Akash would throw himself without warning on the ground, the body she’d nurtured inside of her utterly alien, hostile… Though she’d mentioned nothing about the baby, she was convinced that he’d figured it out already, that already he felt replaced. She’d changed, too – she was less patient, quicker to say no instead of reasoning with him… She didn’t understand how her mother had done it… caring exclusively for children and a household – had served as a warning, a path to avoid. Yet it was Ruma’s life now (10-11).
Ruma introspects further on her lonely existence in Siattle – rootless with no relations and friends in sight. Distancing from her father grows day by day. Her father in turn was becoming more and more adjusting himself to live the American way. As he alights from his car Ruma observes him in casual wear -sneakers, polo shirt and a baseball cap. She was surprised to see how her father resembled an American in his old age.
As her father meets Akash, Lahiri comments on the linguistic link between generations that is fading: “By now Akash had forgotten the little Bengali Ruma had taught him when he was little. After he started speaking in full sentences English had taken over, and she lacked the discipline to stick to Bengali….But it was another to be authoritative; Bengali had never been a language in which she felt like an adult. Her own Bengali was slipping from her. Her mother had been strict, so much so Ruma had never spoken to her in English” (12).
Showing around the house she wanted to prove to her father that her marriage to Adam was a success. But he was not impressed. The conversation turns to gardening as her father peeps out of the kitchen window:
“Adam planted all this?…
No. It was all here.
“your delphiniums need watering.”
“Which are they?” she asked, embarrassed that she had not known the names of the plants
in her own backyard…
It occurred to her that her father missed gardening….It had been his passion, working outdoors in the summers as soon as he came home from the office, staying out until it grew dark, subjecting himself to bug bites and rashes. It was something he’d done Alone; neither Romi nor Ruma had ever been interested in helping, and their father never offered to include them. Her mother would complain, having to keep dinner waiting until nine at night. “Go ahead and eat,” Ruma would say, but her mother, trained all her life to serve her husband first, would never consider such a thing….her father had grown expert over the years at cultivating the things her mother liked to cook with…Obvious to her mother’s needs…he had toiled in unfriendly soil, coaxing such things from the ground (16).
As her father went to water the garden with a kettle in hand, she observed him, now an old man, water the flowers. She listened to the sound of the water hitting the earth. Meanwhile Akash too observed his grandfather with curiosity. It is a perfect sequel to the story depicting the concept of nourishing the plants, symbolic of nourishing the family ties. The novelist draws attention to the memory of her mother. “Akash had no memory of her mother. She had died when he was two, and now, when Ruma pointed out her mother in a photograph, Akash would always say, “she died,” as if it were something extraordinary and impressive her mother had died” (17). It is very strange Ruma wished to forget the memory of her mother. She wants all past to be rooted out and begin a new life of her own with Adam and Akash. At the same time recollections of her mother coming to look after the baby for weeks after his birth and the sweater he had knit for him which was too small for him now. This episode is symbolic of the relationship that is getting narrowed.
Ruma is aware of the conflict in values and lifestyle as her mother used to complain about having no one to whom she could pass her things to. This is again symbolic of the link to the cultural and family tradition which is disrupted. Ruma takes possession of only three saris from the 118 her mother possessed. The rest she dumped in the closet in zippered bags to be given to mother’s friends. Ruma preferred her pants and skirts instead of the traditional Indian wear.
Another sequence that shows the symbolic new relationship that develops between Ruma’s father and Mrs. Bagchi is presented when he opens the presents he had brought for them all. The toys for Akash were selected by Mrs. Bagchi spending about an hour. Lahiri makes significant comment on her having no grandchildren of her own. Is Mrs. Bagchi taking over the role of a grandmother, replacing Ruma’s mother? The theme of nurturing continues to grow in the story despite disruption of relationship in diasporic isolation.
A few weeks after her mother’s death, her father was told by his colleagues at work to take a vacation. His frequent tours began from then onwards to forget his past.
In hybridity cultural differences come into contact and conflict, and unsettle all the stable identities that are constructed around oppositions such as past and present, inside and outside, or inclusion or exclusion. Hybridity offers a possible release from the singular identities that are constructed when class, race or gender are used as primary categories (Macey 192). Homi Bhabha celebrates the ‘in-between spaces’ created and inhibied by hybrids, and holds that all cultures are now caught up in a continuous process of hybridization. He argues that all cultural systems and statements are constructed in the ‘Third Space of Enunciation’ caught up in the on going process of hybridization. Hence, any claims to the inherent purity and originality of cultures are ‘untenable’. We are urged to enter into this third space in an effort to open up the notion of an inter national culture “not based on exoticism or multi-culturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. ”It is in this space “that we will find those words with which we can speak of Ourselves and Others. And by exploring this ‘Third Space’, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves (Ashcroft 183).
Symbolically during dinner that night she ate with her fingers, like her father, for the first time in the new home. But Akash wanted to do the same, though she had not taught him to eat with his fingers. It was almost a silent meal together as they didn’t discuss any thing about her mother or brother with whom she had no close affinity except for her name tag – he was Romi. The mealtime was a strange coincidence – a strange bridging the old and the new ways of life. Ruma used to follow her mother’s advise to get Akash used to eating Indian dishes, but the boy hated it and loved the western dishes. It was disturbing for her to know that despite “her efforts he was turning into a sort of American child she was always careful not to be, the sort that horrified and intimidated her mother: imperious, afraid of eating things” (Lahiri 23). All her coaxing and reminding the boy to love the food his grandmother used to cook when she was alive, brings only negative response from the toddler, “I don’t remember Dida…I don’t remember it. She died” (23)
Ruma’s fears are for real. She is worried about what kind of a mother-son relationship she would have in the future when Akash would grow up to be a man. He has been showing signs of rebellion to her way of life and food habits. Later in the nigth Adam called on phone and Ruma had told him about her dad’s visit home. He was non-committal about his opinion on letting Ruma’s father stay with the family. The matter was left to Ruma to decide.
“And yet she felt no sympathy. “I can’t imagine my father living here,” she said.
“Then don’t ask him to.”
“I think the visit is his way of suggesting it.”
“And if he says yes?”
“Then he moves in with us.”
“We’ve been over this a million times, Rum. It’s your call. He’s your dad” (25).
After she hung up the phone, Ruma introspects on her marriage to Adam after they had both met at a dinner party in Boston as students. “She felt a wall between them, simply because he had not experienced what she had…It was wrong of her, she knew, and yet an awareness had set in, that she and Adam were separate people leading separate lives” (26). Her mother had warned against her marriage with Adam who she thought would eventually divorce her to take an American girl. Her parents had expressed their bitter opposition to the marriage which reverberated in her mother telling her, “You are ashamed of yourself, of being Indian, that is the bottom line” (26). But in course of time, Ruma’s mother took a liking for Adam like a son in place of Romi, her son, who had gone abroad. The mother kept her contact on phone and through e-mail with Adam. After Akash was born, Ruma’s relationship with her mother deepened in reconciliation for the many bitter feelings of bygone days. Now after her mother’s death Ruma began to feel mother’s absence in her life. It was an intimacy that was deepened and nurtured in death as she missed her mother forever.
Lahiri brings to focus reminiscences very vividly when the father finds both Akash and Ruma sleeping in the room. He began to experience some kind of an epiphany: “Something about his daughter’s appearance had changed; she now resembled his wife so strongly that he should not bear to look at her directly…Her face was older now, as his wife’s had been, and the hair was beginning to turn gray at her temples in the same way… And the features, haunting now that his wife was gone-the identical shape and shade of the eyes, the dimple on the left side when they smiled” (27-8).
On his moving in to Ruma’s home, her father was reluctant as she was not raised with a sense of duty. She was independent in living her own life after having been married to an American. Similarly her father had to leave behind his own parents in Calcutta. Therefore, he was happy to live a life of his own. His days were filled with his volunteering for the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania with frequent trips on tours. His relationship with Mrs. Bagchi was an added strength. It was more for the sake of companionship than for passionate fulfilment. Mrs. Bagchi was deeprooted in her love for her husband for two years, who died several years ago. In contrast Ruma’s father took his wife’s death as a matter of fact. “…he seemed happier now; her mother’s death had lightened him, the opposite of what it had done to her” (33).
While riding together in the car, Ruma’s father spoke of her career and forewarned her of the need to be prepared for any eventuality: “Self-reliance is important, Ruma, “ he continued. “Life is full of surprises. Today, you can depend on Adam, on Adam’s job. Tomorrow, who knows.” (38). It was a shock for her to know of a future that could become bleak.
Her father went out suddenly without telling her and collected plants from a nursery near Akash’s nursery school. Gardening metaphor is very forcefully employed by the novelist. As Akash grows in the nursery being mentally nourished, her father plants a garden for Ruma to continue nourishing. It was a relaxing experience for him. “The next morning her father drove back to the nursery to get more things: a bale of peat moss, bags of mulch and composted manure …. He bought back an inflatable kiddie pool, in the form of a crocodile sprouting water from its head…. Akash spent all day outdoors, splashing in the pool and squirting water into the garden, or searching for the worms her father dug up” (43). The sequel of events continue in the garden metaphor with congenial conditions for growth. Even the little boy’s splashing water in the garden could be compared to Ruma’s father sprinkling water with the kettle the previous day. Life must go on in spite of physical and emotional separation of the protagonists.
His love for gardening is associated with his love for his wife for whom he cultivated what she loved most. His struggling alone despite hardships was to produce from the land. The metaphor of ‘nourishment’ becomes ever stronger for family bonding. Symbolically the bonding continues to be present through emotional ties even when separated through death and distance.
While Akash played on the mountain of soil, her father kept shovelling the mud to remove grass. He prepared a small plot for Akash to plant his things. “Into the soil went a pink rubber ball, a few pieces of Lego stuck together, a wooden block etched with a star…He picked up a miniature plastic dinosaur…” (44). The little boy gets so involved in the garden that he comes to his mother barefoot, his golden legs covered in mud. The title of the novel gets perfectly synthesised here with the garden metaphor. Ruma also gets involved with her son. She began to pick items from his garden:
“What are you up to?” she asked him.
“Oh? What are you planting?”
“All this stuff,” he said, his arms full…” (44).
Ruma’s father directed Akash how to go about his planting his toys, symbolic of passing on the tradition to his generation:
“Not too deep,” her father said. “Not more than a finger. Can you touch it still?”
Akash nodded. He picked up a miniature plastic dinosaur, forcing it into the ground.
“What color is it?” her father asked.
“And in Bengali?”
“And neel!” Akash cried out, pointing to the sky” (44-5).
There is mutual involvement in making the garden – the unaccustomed earth becomes a unifying factor bringing three generation in diasporic synthesis of hope of further nourishment in their own new found world. This movement drives the garden metaphor to further connectedness to cultural and linguistic roots in diasporic alienation. Akash uttering “Lal” and “neel” links the distance created between Ruma and her father. Cultural and linguistic identity cannot be lost in diaspora as the sense of being rooted in culture and tradition is innate to any human being. This sense of belonging is a diasporic experience Jhumpa Lahiri powerfully portrays through the sequence.
That night Ruma told Adam that her father had been planting flowers in the backyard. Adam’s ironic query if her father would stay on to look after it made her feel irritated. She wanted to test for a few more days if her father would stick on and stay. Meanwhile he had become fond of Akash and spent time with him. She also observed him turning the pages of Green Eggs and Ham signalling that he had fallen in love.
In the meantime the plants in the garden grew well. But he wondered if Adam and Ruma would sustain it properly. He began to think of his old house and the garden he kept, reminiscing the time with his wife. However, at bed time he wrote a card for Mrs. Bagchi writing in Bengali that he was planting a garden for Ruma.
Once the garden work was completed, Ruma’s father prepared himself to go as he didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. She persisted with the idea that he stays with the family. But he would be off with his plans of the trips with Mrs. Bagchi to Prague. He felt that Ruma wanted his presence only for her self interest. He didn’t want to oblige her. “He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage” (53).
Ruma gets more and more emotionally attached to her father during the gardening episode which the novelist very deftly handles. He gives his tips on how to get the garden going:
“Make sure to keep the tomatoes off the ground.”
“I have a trip scheduled. I’ve already bought the ticket.”
Her father had been looking down at his dirt-rimmed fingernails, but now he raised his face
and Looked around him, at the garden and the trees.
“It is a good place, Ruma. But this is your home, not mine” (52).
He has to be going as she has to get used to the unaccustomed earth to build her home. On his part he has to build his world in the typical diasporic life not becoming a burden to any one, not even to his daughter. His introspection leads to revelation of his own inner conflicts in the midst of familial ties.
…life grew and grew until a certain point. The point he had reached now. The only temptation was the boy, but he knew that the boy would forget him. It was Ruma to whom he would give a new reminder that now that his wife was gone, even though he was still alive, there was no longer any one to care for her….By the time his wife was Ruma’s age, their children were already approaching adolescence. The more the children grew, the less they had seemed to resemble either parent – they spoke differently, dressed differently, seemed foreign in every way, from the texture of their hair to the shapes of their feet and hands. Oddly, it was his grandson, who was only half-Bengali…with whom he felt a direct biological connection, a sense of himself reconstituted in another (54-55).
Next morning he didn’t want her to drive him to the airport either. Expressing his joy of being with the family for a week, he bid her farewell saying, “But please understand, I prefer to stay on my own. I am too old now to make such a shift” (56). When Akash woke up he looked around for his Dadu. He was disappointed when he was told he was gone. To her surprise she chanced to find a postcard Akash had removed. It was composed in Bengali and addressed to Mrs. Meenakshi Bagchi. Akash wanted to take it back from his mother wanting to plant it in his garden. She was convinced that her father had fallen in love. She took the card and stuck stamps to post it as a sign of letting the relationship grow.
The introspection further leads him to think of the irony of family life. “He wanted to shield her on the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start” (55).
Jhumpa Lahiri sums up her own family’s unique diasporic experience:
They were here for the sake of greater opportunities, perhaps a better standard of living. And yet it was tough, because they had taken such a huge step and left so much behind. …they have spent their immigrant lives feeling as if they are on a river with a foot in two different boats. Each boat wants to pull them in a separate direction, and my parents are always torn between the two. They are always hovering, literally straddling two worlds, and I have always thought of that idea, that metaphor, for how they feel, how they live. It is an enriching experience if you look at it in positive ways. I think being an immigrant must teach you so much about the world and about human beings, things you can’t understand if you are born and raised and live your whole life in one place. It must be an amazing experience in many ways, but it has a price (http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com).
Ruma’s story may be compared to that of Gogol in The Namesake depicting problems of divided loyalties. The way the two protagonists handle the situations are unique yet with traces of similarity. Gogol suffers crisis of identity as he hated his name since he is more and more Americanised and little drawn to Indian traditions. At the end after failures in relationships and sudden death of his father, he is drawn to his cultural roots and “attracted to the comfort of his heritage, one that has settled deep in the marrow of his bones. His perspective changes dramatically over the years, and he becomes a man who seeks a connection with his family of origin” (http://www.curledup.com).
In the final analysis Ruma’s predicament takes her through a process of assimilation and acceptance into American society, and yet cherishing family ties. It is evident that in the title story, the angst of exile remains; but parenthood also plants sustaining roots in the newly turned soil of an adopted motherland (http://www.startribune.com). Lahiri deftly probes into the secrets of the heart through subtle dialogues rendering them intense soul studies.
The novelist is rather outmoded in her approach, yet she is contemporary in her treatment of the issues pin-pointed with biographical overtones. It may be observed that Lahiri suffered the pangs of diaspora being of Indian descent, born in London and raised in Rhode Island; married to an American and mothering a inter-racial child. Her own tension of bridging the old and the new finds powerful psychological expression in the story. She further explores familial relationships with keen observation of life. Individuals and their quest for identity in a given milieu, with deep sense of dislocation is superbly handled by the fictionist. The family dynamics is central to the story with its unpredictability in a mixed cultural set up. Elegiac in nature, the story keeps moving with a sense of exile and identity crisis accompanying it throughout. What brings together the multiple identities of characters is the emotional and familial relationships. There is also sufficient humour and suspense to arrest the readers’ attention.
Lahiri is a miniaturist and a microcosmologist as one finds pull from multiple directions in the story: parents pull characters backward in time; children pull them forward; America pulls them west; India pulls them east; The need to marry pulls them outward; the need for solitude pulls them inward. (http://www.hindustantimes.com). Therefore the sense of assimilation the writer portrays is not one of settling down in the old or starting afresh to establish a new identity for her characters.
The metaphorical title is evocative of “a sense of dislocation… such as moving to a new house shortly after the death of a beloved parent and trying to think of the place as home despite knowing that the deceased person had never even seen it; or an elderly man taking hesitant steps into a new relationship after years of being with the same woman. In the title story, a woman nervously awaits a visit by her widowed father with whom she has rarely been alone in the past (her mother having always served as the go-between)” (http://www.business-standard.com/india).
The story depicts conflict between Indian parents and their American born children. There is separation of identities and yet can emotional and cultural affinities be torn apart? Lahiri’s own statement is to be observed: “No country is my motherland, I always find myself in exile in whichever country I travel to; that’s why I was tempted to write something about those living their lives in exile” (http://www.startribune.com).
Answering a question on her stories centring exile, Lahiri spoke of people moving from place to place. In “Unaccustomed Earth” it is the mystery of family dynamics in diaspora that is analysed: “It interests me to imagine characters shifting from one situation and one location to another for whatever the circumstances may be. 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” (http://www.theatlantic.com).
As Michiko Kakutani points out, Jhumpa Lahiri’s immigrant characters live between two countries and cultures, belong to neither. They continue to live in the midst of conflicts, experiencing a Chekhovian sense of loss. The missed connections plague her characters – husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends. The conflict leads some of the children to sidestep and even defy their parents. However, they continue to be disturbed by the dreams of their families in their generational process of Americanization (http://www.readinggroupguides.com).
In an interview to Steve Inskeep, Lahiri confessed her own diasporic predicament revealed through her stories. She felt a sort of a half-way feeling of being American. Her parents never thought of themselves as American, despite the fact that they applied for and received citizenship. Finally she was ready to confront the truth to find a solution to the intriguing problem which is superbly revealed through the title story:
They’ve lived here now for more than half of their lives, and they raised a family here and now have grandchildren here. … It has become their home. But at the same time, for my parents, I don’t think either of them will ever consciously think, ‘I am an American.’ …The accent, the fact that my mother wore traditional clothing — that marked them immediately as soon as we went out in the public sphere….My name was different, I wanted to pull away from the things that marked my parents as being different….I think this was a two-way street….It wasn’t just that they were afraid or unwilling — there was a fear, an unwillingness on both sides….A lot of my upbringing was about denying or fretting or evading ….It has been liberating and brought me some peace to just confront that truth, if not to be able to solve it or answer it (http://www.npr.org).
Through her fiction, Lahiri has attempted to capture this predicament to a great extent. She presents very simple and affectionate characters expressing the secrets of their hearts. Ruma’s vulnerability comes in contrast to her father’s secret love relationship brings in the conflict in the story. She wants to retain him, while he wants to leave her home – paving the way for the ‘Unaccustomed Earth.’ The emotional distancing between Ruma and her father is typical of the immigrants of Indian origin. Raised up in America, Ruma is in between two cultures, belonging to neither fully. When the two meet, they hardly ever talk about themselves, their family, concerns and relationships. Ruma didn’t want anything to come in-between to break their frail relationships, be it with her father or her husband. They were all individuals trying to cope up with their lives in their own terms. Both Ruma and her father suffer the pangs of guilt. Ruma wants him for the familial connection and feels it her filial duty to invite him into her home. On the other hand, he wants to break off to find a new secret love relationship with Mrs. Bagchi.
As it been pointed out, “The gardening analogies in “Unaccustomed Earth” are laboured (“he had toiled in unfriendly soil, coaxing new things from the ground”), providing just the right ammunition for critics who would dismiss Lahiri’s work as, dare one suggest, coaxing new clichés from the soil of immigrant fiction”(http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com).
The fictionist explores very powerfully familial ties and emotional relationships. Her intricate dialogues with detailed observation renders the stories powerful and universal in application. The novelist is able to let the readers enter into the interior of the characters. She has successfully touched the hearts of her readers with the losses and uncertainties in the title story. The Story revolves around minute observation of life with humour and suspense. The story being elegiac, leads the readers through a kind of personal introspection in relationships. She is able to enter into her characters thoughts and feelings like a superb psychoanalyst.
Ashcroft, Bill et al. The Post-Colonial Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
Koshi, Susan and R. Radhakrishnan. Eds. Transnational South Asians : The Making of
Neo-Diaspora. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. New Delhi: Random House, 2008.
Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Mishra, Suresh. Diaspora Criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.