Jhumpa Lahiri is, and is not, an old-fashioned writer. She is too natural to be anyone’s imitator. Yet the kind of relationship she invites readers into can feel familiar from some of the books we were drawn into long ago, when we were first learning about the good company reading can provide. Among the pleasingly varied, carefully sequenced notes struck in Interpreter of Maladies (1999), Lahiri’s first collection of stories, there are a couple of almost mythical-feeling character studies, painful in content but comic in execution, of unlucky Calcutta women and their watchful neighbors. A scene at an ancient temple casts judgment on a heedlessly selfish young Indian-American mother revisiting the old country. There are trysts and marriages: the flaming and fizzling of a Boston public radio worker’s affair with an unavailable Indian husband, a young couple undone by a stillbirth, a Hartford housewarming thrown by mismatched newlyweds, one stodgy and the other chic and carefree.
The stories have grace and poignancy and for someone so young they show an unusual, appealingly unshowy degree of prowess. In retrospect, though, they feel like stars on the far edge of the galaxy that it has been Lahiri’s real obsession to map. She has traced and retraced the arc of a quite specific generation of Bengalis who emigrated to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last story in Interpreter of Maladies, and at greater length and depth in her 2003 novel The Namesake, Lahiri showed how it was young, stoic male students who arrived first. As the men went for their advanced degrees in fields like engineering and microbiology and stayed on to take jobs, young women from India flew over to accompany them, sometimes following through on an arranged marriage. Once here, in the early days, the wives had little besides frugal homemaking to occupy the endless hours they spent alone. They suffered terribly at first from loneliness, and from the devastating absence of anything they could recognize from their youth.
As Lahiri has continued to describe this generation in her fiction, sometimes in stories that look back at the period through the eyes of their American children, they seem to have faced little in the way of real danger or want. Still, their journey must have been a mind-bender, an adventure the likes of which the children will never know—and, because of the greater cultural distance back then, a trauma, beyond the power of words to describe, whose fallout in the children’s lives both parents and children have trouble grasping. Occasionally, the parents (or if not the parents, some friend or colleague in their sprawling, painstakingly gathered orbit of fellow stranded Bengalis) had come from a wealthy household staffed by servants. Others, though, might have left behind homes with an outhouse out back, or never before eaten at a table. In many a case, their hearts weighed heavily with duty to their own parents in India, an ache compounded by guilt at having left them behind.
Sometimes these couples wind up living, in the later stages of one of Lahiri’s stories, in a nice suburban American neighborhood, having accumulated all manner of American stuff (though the women who can afford to also maintain a huge collection of saris) and sent kids off to schools like Cornell or Penn. Over time, the lonely mothers may have regained their bearings and gone out to get a job. The kids, meanwhile, have grown up in a draining state of ambivalence—their embarrassment at feeling different, and their frustration at strict Indian rules that apply to no one else they know, conflicting with their loyalty and love. Then they go off to fight for their own adulthood.
Lahiri’s interest in this particular stream of migration makes it tempting to try to place her work in a couple of categories: first, contemporary writing about India and its diaspora, and second, the tradition of writing about the American immigrant experience. It fits into both, to some extent, but into neither too neatly. Aesthetically—though not at all politically—she hews a bit to the conservative side. Her stories are lucid, discrete, empathetic yet satirical. They contain light clues (a brand name mentioned, a passing statement of attitude) about who stands where in the world she is describing, and who, at least temporarily, wields power over whom. At moments you can almost sense the ghost of an old venerable from the English fiction tradition sitting invisibly nearby, whispering advice on how to make a scene in dingy young-academic housing or at a hotel wedding signal the wider world of class-driven pride and shame.
Somewhere, too, this young writer—London-born but raised in Rhode Island, and for years now based in New York—learned to override the anxious modern taboo that says a writer shouldn’t claim too much authority when working in the third person. It’s all right to drill down to an essence of character and reveal it in quick, telling strokes. Of a loudly complaining old Calcutta woman in Interpreter of Maladies Lahiri tells us:
So she garbled facts. She contradicted herself. She embellished almost everything. But her rants were so persuasive, her fretting so vivid, that it was not so easy to dismiss her.
Of a depressed Boston husband—a grad student member of the sophisticated, though sometimes worryingly adrift, younger generation—she quips, almost Jane Austen–like, “He was a mediocre student who had a facility for absorbing details without curiosity.”
In a recent interview in Bookforum to mark the publication of her new story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri offered her own grounded and modest understanding of the terrain she occupies as a writer. “Some bits and pieces are taken from my own parents and other parents that I knew growing up,” she says.
And sometimes they’re totally invented. The thing I took for granted when I was growing up is that I was living in a world within a world. It was a tight world, but I knew a lot of people and was privy to the whole spectrum of types and personalities and characters. To me they don’t represent immigrants or anyone specific. They just represent the human condition.
To have grown up in a cohesive “world within a world,” to have at her disposal what amounts to a kind of portable village, with reliably distinctive types whose life experience calls up broad human themes (grief, guilt, and striving) that are perennial, but also resonate with our anxiously global moment: this is not so common a heritage for your typical American writer today. Lahiri’s confidence in her material seems to free her up to be rigorous with her craft, but in the manner of a composer who accepts that she is working within a well-established range of chords. At her best she is both a pop artist and a nimble classically trained one, tending with technical knowhow to questions of structure and flow: the right moment to shift from harmony to dissonance, to change key, to introduce a variation and then circle back to the opening theme.
Still, Lahiri remains contemporary, working at a time and temperamentally suited to a form, the story, that are both by long habit suspicious of happy endings. And so—with a few exceptions—her final chords tend to remain unresolved. Many of her stories follow with sympathy the next generation as it walks the tightrope between the fetishized expectation of two cultures: from the Indian parents, the unrelenting pressure to excel and to follow duty, and from American surroundings the even less realistic pressure to strike the gold of self-fulfillment and of perfect love discovered instead of arranged. Between these two poles, Lahiri has developed her method for capturing modern doubt and dissatisfaction. You could call it a formula, if we didn’t have a hard time these days accepting that formulas have served many a fine writer and a few great ones through the ages.
The first (and the title) story in Unaccustomed Earth takes place in a gleaming house in Seattle, built in the mid-century modern style. This pretty, sterile box is where the protagonist, Ruma, has chosen to move from Brooklyn with her husband, who draws a hedge-fund salary, and their young son. The husband, not of Indian parentage, often travels for his job, leaving Ruma alone much of the time: here already is an echo of the dependent, abandoned-feeling spouse theme that has shown up previously in Lahiri’s work; it will reappear a few times later in the collection, always with an added twist. Meanwhile, at the age of thirty-eight Ruma is pregnant again, and further extending a long, possibly permanent break she’s taken from her work as a lawyer. Work, it seems, lost meaning and purpose for her a few years ago, back in Brooklyn, after her beloved mother died during what should have been a manageable surgery.
That is the story of Ruma’s rut. Yet on the first page, before we learn much about Ruma’s life, we learn that her widowed Indian father, retired from his job at a pharmaceutical company, has taken to traveling on package tours to Europe, most recently to Italy. So we begin on a note of change—a late-in-life venturing off the well-worn path between Calcutta and America, an opening up with old age that’s one of the surprises in the cycle of life that Lahiri delights in pointing out. Exploring this wider world would have been Ruma’s mother’s privilege had she lived.
As a visit to Seattle by her father approaches, Ruma has worried into the ground the question of whether to invite him out of his lonely, widowed isolation to come live with her family. Her husband is fine with the idea, and she thinks it’s what’s expected of a dutiful daughter. On the other hand, her first impulse is to guard her separate life. Then again (you can see her problem: she has no idea how she feels) she has been neglecting her life—distractedly feeding her son quick-fix macaroni and cheese—and she may be confusing her father’s need for grounding companionship with her own.
What Ruma doesn’t know but we do is that on his travels, the father has already found a companion: a fiercely independent Bengali woman from Long Island. Ironically, it is the old man who seems ready to claim his independence, to make his fresh escape from the clinging and the chronic role-assigning of family, like a boy heading off to school. It is the daughter, crushed by her mother’s absence, who seems committed to old patterns, yet absorbed in her tangled feelings in a way that suggests she has not quite grown up.
The father in this first story is well drawn, as was the heartbreaking father in Lahiri’s novel The Namesake. They are a specialty of hers, these fathers who place a value on equilibrium and daily discipline, less because of an inherent calm than because life made them into great survivors; they can be opaque, or in the case of Ruma’s father bruisingly impersonal in their dealings, but they have made moving sacrifices for their children, and they notice and care more than they let on. In the next story, “Hell-Heaven,” Lahiri gives us a woman joined in arranged marriage to a man who has all of the cool she might have expected, but not enough, alas, of the caring. Narrating the story is the couple’s now grown daughter, looking back to her childhood in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The time is again the early 1970s: we’re back in the crucible years after arrival from India, before America felt like a fully embraced home.
The girl’s mother is in her youthful prime, married to a remote Indian academic several years older who treats her as not much more than a live-in maid. On the steps of Widener Library she meets Pranab Kaku, a Bengali closer to her age—bright, scrawny, casually open-hearted, pampered back in India and unconsciously presumptuous here. He hankers after reminders of home, and so he starts joining the family almost every night for dinner, welcomed like a brother. But of course, the woman’s adult daughter now realizes that from a passive and proper distance, her mother loved this boy with the only passion of her life.
Eventually, Pranab Kaku meets and marries a beautiful blonde (whom he goes on years later to desert as well). Lahiri gives us opportunity and motive, if we wish, to dislike the mother for her reaction: her riffs on the American interloper are provincial and petty. But the pathos of her awful situation accumulates. The visits by Pranab Kaku had at least spurred her into activity. Now her isolation seems to refract on itself, inviting new cruelty from the daughter who has reached her own adolescent phase of ungenerosity:
She had never worked, and during the day she watched soap operas to pass the time. Her only job, every day, was to clean and cook for my father and me. We rarely went to restaurants, my father always pointing out, even in cheap ones, how expensive they were compared with eating at home. When my mother complained to him about how much she hated life in the suburbs and how lonely she felt, he said nothing to placate her. “If you are so unhappy, go back to Calcutta,” he would offer, making it clear that their separation would not affect him one way or the other. I began to take my cues from my father in dealing with her, isolating her doubly. When she screamed at me for talking too long on the telephone, or for staying too long in my room, I learned to scream back, telling her that she was pathetic, that she knew nothing about me, and it was clear to us both that I had stopped needing her, definitively and abruptly, just as Pranab Kaku had.
The quote is a reminder that there often lurks beneath the smooth, elegant poise of Lahiri’s prose the potential for emotional violence, sometimes sadistically acted out on others, but most often quietly, and with mysterious deliberation, self-administered. Lahiri has a minor genius for chronicling depression, that form of sabotage whose many distinctive strains (reckless or repressed, distracted or obsessively focused, self-pitying or self-punishing) she seems to know like a medical specialist.
Characters in her work constantly go on tiny, utterly ineffectual emotional strikes, or postpone living out of what they deludedly call common sense. They fail to brush their teeth, or start wearing sweatpants instead of fitted clothes. They paint their rooms a beautiful mauve and spend far too much time inside. They study for, and then blank out during, exams. They pull the shades down and place plastic wrap on their furniture as if they were squatters afraid of leaving a mark. In myriad, vivid, and quite resourceful ways, in their houses and their precious physical bodies, they conspire with themselves to let time pass them by.
The story also points up Lahiri’s tendency, once in a while, to give us a deftly sketched but function-serving character whose role seems to be that of a yardstick, or counterpoint reminder of the lives of others. Deborah the blonde is an open-minded WASP, effortlessly beautiful in the austere, almost Scandinavian, makeup-free way of New England privilege. At first she seems winning and lucky enough in her background to be invulnerable. But of course she’s not.
The protagonist of “A Choice of Accommodations,” an Indian-American husband and father of two, used to idealize a similarly perfect-seeming girl in his youth—the daughter of the headmaster of the boarding school he went to, who always seemed at ease. The story follows him in the present day, back on school grounds for the weekend with his self-possessed wife, a hard-working doctor from middle-class Long Island. They’re there for the wedding of the husband’s old crush. At the reception he drinks too much, speaks to a horrified stranger with unforgivable contempt of his marriage, and passes out in the hotel room. The story is tightly narrated, with some well-turned yuppie satire. Still, the hero’s behavior seems like a slightly too telegraphed reenactment of his own abandonment in this very place, years ago, by parents who left him there and returned to Delhi.
Early family patterns in these stories have a way of lurking, a disease in remission that suddenly reerupts. In “Only Goodness,” a plucky caretaker sister tries to give her little brother the liberal American upbringing that their rigid Indian parents have no clue how to supply. Unwittingly, while in college she introduces him to alcohol, which he disastrously takes to; she goes on to find her own eminently respectable, productive-citizen form of escape, moving to London, working as an economist, and marrying a cautious, bleached Englishman whose brittle boundaries support her goal never to reveal herself. “Nobody’s Business,” meanwhile, is a story of round-robin romantic distress, told from the point of view of a shy graduate student, alone in the world after his older adoptive parents passed away. He gets a crush on his beautiful Indian housemate, but she clings masochistically to her affair with a preening philanderer. When it comes to love in Lahiri’s world, we luck into a lasting union or adjust with inborn resilience to the arrangements life planned for us; when we attempt to pick for ourselves we seem to long for our inappropriate twin or our contraindicated opposite.
The last three stories make up a trilogy, which follows a girl and a boy who though not related have been linked to each other irrevocably since childhood. Their parents knew each other back in those first days of acclimation in America—to go back to the ultimate beginning, in fact, the mother of the boy helped the mother of the girl get through her pregnancy. After that, for several years, the family of the boy, Kaushik, moved to Bombay. The girl, Hema, first sees him at her parents’ lively Bengali party (Lahiri is in her element describing the fussy, sensual food and clothes of Bengali pageantry) when she’s six and he’s nine. The next time Hema sees Kaushik she has turned into a teenager pining for connection, while he has turned into a budding photographer, sixteen years old and intriguingly sullen. His supposedly more successful family has returned to America to stay for a while with her steadier one—though why they have done so is something her mother judgmentally gossips about but fails to guess.
I won’t spill that reason, or trace out in detail the thread of consequence that winds itself around the next two decades. It’s enough to say that Hema and Kaushik turn for a while in their adulthood into two quite different kinds of wanderer. Ambitions run high in these last three stories: to give narrative shape to rootlessness; to tease out the puzzle of why the passage of years helps some people figure out enough of what they need to know to help themselves, but not others. With her knack for layering in symbols, Lahiri can fall into telling when the reader wants more showing; and for my taste she draws too pat a parallel between personal problems and travails of the world. But the stories do hum elsewhere with organic life. In the big picture, Hema and Kaushik may be vaguely star-crossed lovers for unmanageably complicated times. Yet more than this relationship, by the end we remember small vignettes of solitude, and fragment scenes of fragile families: each with its distinctive collective personality, its technique of hiding things from one another as a means of support, its pattern of contesting or intimately sharing space. Here may be where Lahiri’s passion ultimately lies; here in any case are palpable physicality, anger, a dash of horror, and involuntary love.
May 15, 2008