Many readers will be aware of Jhumpa Lahiri as the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of short stories The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), elegant, unsettling tales that invariably draw the reader into a state of anxiety for the welfare of a group of characters living for the most part between two worlds: Calcutta, where Lahiri’s Bengali parents grew up, and New England, where they later moved and made a family. Her two novels—The Namesake (2003), The Lowland (2013)—and a further collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), all present lives tensed between freedom and entrapment. Typically, the immigrants, or children of immigrants, with whom we are invited to identify are simultaneously drawn to Western values of independence and individualism while fearing the loss of security provided by a patriarchal society in which decisions of career and marriage are taken very largely by the family.
Lahiri shows great resourcefulness in finding ways to dramatize the conflicting emotions that can arise in people pulled so peremptorily in opposite directions. In the fine story “Hell-Heaven” (in Unaccustomed Earth), the woefully homesick Pranab, recently arrived at MIT from Calcutta, accosts an Indian mother and daughter on the steps of Widener Library and manages in very short order to charm his way into their family. The story is told, from a distance of perhaps twenty years, by the woman who had then been the young daughter. Her mother, lonely in the States, clinging to her Bengali origins, is only too willing to welcome Pranab into her secluded world where he reinforces an old sense of belonging, to the point that he is soon being known as Kaku, the Bengali word for uncle, and calling the mother Boudi, the proper way to address the wife of an older brother. He turns up every evening to eat the home-cooked, spicy Indian food that reminds him of home and that the lonely mother is delighted to prepare for him. The relationship would appear to be entirely positive.
However, the mother is marooned in an arranged marriage with a man who won his parents’ approval for his emigration only on condition that he marry a Bengali woman first. He is not greatly interested in his wife. The young mother falls in love with Pranab and he seems affectionate to her, in a distracted kind of way; but for these two to move toward a relationship would mean a rejection of Bengali for Western values, something unthinkable for the mother. Eventually, Pranab starts bringing a young white American woman, Deborah, to these Bengali dinners, and even asks his adoptive family for their blessing on his marriage to her, something his own family in Calcutta refuse to grant.
The narrator, meantime, in early adolescence, is drawn to the glamorous Deborah and embarrassed by her mother’s apparent backwardness. There…
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