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Friday, July 11, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

Book review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Random House India 2008, Rs. 450

I have just finished reading this book, and thought it might be as good an occasion as any other to pen down a review, seeing that so many blog-readers have been asking why I stopped writing reviews after just one.

As a rule I do not think very highly of the current crop of Indian writers in English – I find them too recherché at times, and clichéd at others, I feel they write too exclusively about NRIs for other NRIs, they take too little direct and involved interest in Mother India (probably because that doesn’t pay, as so many Indian writers in Indian languages have found out the hard way!), that they have too much sauce and too little substance, in contrast with the earlier generation, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, Khushwant Singh, Naipaul et al, who had a lot to say, and knew how to say it simply yet impressively… I am, of course, willing to pay tribute where I feel it is due; I have spoken and written highly of such works as Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Jhumpa Lahiri did not strike me as great stuff with her first volume, The Interpreter of Maladies (despite the fact that I couldn’t help being both very surprised and very proud that it had won the Pulitzer, putting an Indian in the elite company of titans like Hemingway – God knows how that happened!) though I did feel she had promise, and might go on to surprise us pleasantly with works that kept getting better as she kept thinking, observing and polishing her art. Even in that first book, the story about 'Buri-ma' and the one called The Third and Final Continent struck me as very good and sincere writing as soon as I read them: here, I thought, was a fine writer in the making. Since then The Namesake has appeared on the market, made waves and won accolades: it has also been turned into a movie I can vouch is worth watching. Now I have this latest collection of short stories (for want of a better expression: they are not typical short stories, but rather ruminative essays/travelogues/partial autobiographies) on my table, and I can say with conviction that Ms. Lahiri has definitely lived up to my expectations. This is good if not excellent writing. Indeed, if only the Indian diaspora knew a good thing when they saw one (or rather, if enough of them read books at all – far too many of them, alas, are money-minded and ‘busy’ doctors, engineers and traders to think of higher things such as books), they would have left no stone unturned to ensure that this writer became a global celebrity as, for instance, so many Latin Americans have managed to become. I am proud when I hear that an Arun Netravali has become director of Bell Labs, a Vinod Khosla has financed Sun Microsystems or a Vikram Pandit has become CEO of Citibank, but an Indian author who is acknowledged as great worldwide, as Tolstoy was, and Marquez is, would please me infinitely more. Tolstoy and Tagore are remembered as no tycoon or technical man of their times is – that’s the way of the world!

Other than being keenly observant and sensitive as any writer on lives, lifestyles and manners should be, Jhumpa is admirable for the many different ways in which she has portrayed the human condition of Indians abroad (and their families back in India). She writes not only about lonely children trapped and struggling between two cultures, but about fathers and mothers, wives, sons, daughters, in-laws, family friends and colleagues, and how they cope, each in his or her own distinctive way – though with many common features too – and how so many lives are crushed by failure and misfortune, and how happiness occasionally blooms despite everything, even if it is fated to be transient. I found the sister being forced to throw out the alcoholic and criminally-irresponsible brother truly tragic, and the way Kaushik is taken out of Hema’s troubled love-life by the tsunami of December 2005 is wrenchingly neat. The mother’s lifelong secret crush on her father’s young colleague forces a sigh from many of us who are old enough to know, understand and forgive such things: it happens all the time inside India, too; the setting on alien soil only makes it more plausible, and more poignant. The way Amit deals with Megan, or Sang with Farouk might not make great stories, but it tells us that some Indians have managed to become so thoroughly Americanized that their problems and solutions no longer have anything very specially Indian about them, either in their follies or in their triumphs. Truly, a new sub-species of Indian has been breeding over the last half-century, and society and politics in both India and America would sooner or later have to engage seriously with them! It is something important for both countries to know, and Jhumpa Lahiri will be remembered for being among the first writers to point out the phenomenon.

I have been reading up on Jhumpa on the Net. It seems she is quite candid (and why shouldn’t she be?) about the strongly (though fragmentarily-) autobiographical element in her stories. The protagonist of The Third and Final Continent was supposedly modelled on her father, just as The Namesake reflects much of her own youthful agonizing over her difficult double name (it was originally Nilanjana Sudeshna) which made her so uneasy and guilty in the American milieu that she replaced it with the short one they called her by at home!

I have started liking her for a number of reasons. First, she writes good, correct Standard English devoid of mannerisms, currently ‘in’ slang, prolixity, excess of innuendos, fanciful ornamentation and over-use of Bangla words in italics, yet manages to be as elegant and expressive and impressive as she would like to be: all worshippers of cant, jargon, bombast and ‘Indlish’ (including the likes of Kiran Desai and some blog writers I know!) may please note. It doesn’t stop her from winning prizes, either: I find that a most reassuring thing about contemporary critics and readers alike. Second, she writes about things she knows, understands and empathises with, and (contrary to what I have been hearing some people saying – ‘She’s writing about the same sort of people and issues again and again!’), I believe that’s exactly what an honest person who wants to be a good writer should do. It’s nothing new, actually, only people have forgotten: Erich Maria Remarque went back again and again to the lives of the generations in Germany torn asunder by the First World War, and Dickens wrote only about the middle- and lower middle classes struggling, losing out and profiteering out of the Industrial Revolution raging like a hurricane through early 19th-century English society – and oh my God, what books they have left behind! So more power to Jhumpa’s elbow. Maybe though, she should write about other Indians in America, too: till date, she has focused too narrowly on Bengalis. And while some critics back in India have accused her of not portraying our NRIs in a sufficiently positive light (long ago Nargis accused Satyajit Ray of ‘showcasing India’s poverty' through Pather Panchali! Some people never learn…), I would rather say she should take off the kid gloves and start telling the truth more like it is; not just mention but criticize, or at least laugh at all the petty spites and jealousies and backbiting and one-upmanship and little cruelties and provincialism that make up and embitter so large a part of the collective lives of all Indians in the US of A. (baggage that has been carried over and intensified). Without that, we would have become at least as strong a force in American social and political life by now as the Jews and the Chinese have managed to become! It is essential for a writer who wants to be remembered to be bravely and unashamedly didactic.

As for all folks back here at home, I wish more and more parents in my country (and in my little one-horse town) would read these books. They would then begin to wonder whether it’s really not quite silly, despite all the material goodies on offer, to boast of one’s son having moved to ‘Umrica’. A few of us have always known that it’s not the same thing as going to paradise; now the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri are telling us all why not. May her tribe prosper.

P.S.: here’s one interesting link to an article about J.L.:


Also, I read the following in wikipedia: “Upon its publication, Unaccustomed Earth achieved the rare distinction of debuting on The New York Times best seller list in the number 1 slot. New York Times Book Review editor Dwight Garner stated, ‘It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction – particularly a book of stories – that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout.’ ”

Finally, many thanks to young Abhishek Das, who has just finished class 10 with me, and who very kindly lent me the book to read. I was thrilled to bits to learn, too, that he has a mother who, despite being a doctor, has time to read books like this one. I wish her a long life of happy reading.


Greek.theatre said...

Thanks for your post. You know the 'take' I have on 'Jhumpa', post Interpreter of Maladies. But, it is an affected take, largely influenced by some other teacher of mine. It does seem that I do have to read this book. However, in Namesake, the allusion to Gogol was never fully explicated.

On my leaving Orient Longman for Pearson, my colleagues gifted me a book by Nalini Jones. Nalini does write 'standard English'; she refrains from the vices of most affected Indian-writing-in-English fiction, to wit, purple prose and effete nostalgia. She writes about Catholic households in Bombay. She does write beautifully--very English and very original.

Yet, one strand that I miss in all these writers is--power. Hardly do you have in them the kind of dark, powerful themes you would find in Coetzee, Achebe or even Gordimer. Where is our Lawrence?-- leave alone Dosteivsky. Samaresh Bose, Manick Bandyopadhyay--where have all our men gone?


Sudipto Basu said...

First of all, I really don't know if I'm eligible for commenting here-- given that I have not read The Unaccustomed Earth; but being an admirer of Jhumpa Lahiri after reading The Namesake (and then going through The Interpreter of Maladies), I will take the liberty.

I don't have any problem with Jhumpa Lahiri using the same themes again and again: as long as she does not recycle the same story to merely make money, an uniformity in her writing is welcome. It takes a lot of time for any person in this world to discover any one thing completely; who are we to stop Lahiri from doing her bit in writing about Bengalis away from their home, given that she is frank in her endeavour?

I don't know about others, but Lahiri's writing (I especially have The Namesake in my mind now) connects at a very basic level with me. The emotions of middle-class bengalis on leaving their homeland (especially, since we are generally bred in an environment where we learn to attach the smallest of things around us with our existence) is something that I can feel, though I have never left Bengal (save vacation-periods). Her writing is simple and lucid, her narration far from prosaic and the literary figures such that any of us back home can picturise what she wants to convey in the flash of a second. Her tales of dilemmas rising in the minds of children born in a foreign land regarding their cultural, and ultimately personal, identity are splendid in their honesty.

As for the allusion to Gogol in The Namesake, I think I wrote something about it in some stray piece of paper now misplaced. Let me see if I can elaborate on it later in some second comment. That's all for now.

email id: sudibasu@rediffmail.com

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Given the kind of people who visit my blog, I can confidently predict that the number of visits will fall off drastically as soon as they see a book review. And, of course, the number of comments received in three days can only be called pathetic, isn't it?

Ranajoy said...

Nothing much to say .....other than the fact that I must read this book. If it has impressed you to this degree, it should carry content.

The Washington Post article was also very good.Sometimes I ask myself- now that (as fate would have it)I am in "Umrika"(as you refer to it), could Jhumpa Lahiri have been the same Jhumpa Lahiri if she were to write from a corner of India? How much of her fire was actually from USA? I must laud her incisive eys, sensitiveness and delving quite a bit into complex maze of minds.I do feel proud of her.But has it ever crossed your mind, that maybe this is an NRI who targets a different audience?Could an equally prolific writer who was brought up in India but staying in USA for 10,20 or 30 years have earned the same respect?
You said that an honest writer is committed to the similar backdrop time and again like Dickens or Remarque....But look at Tagore whose diversity is enormous.A person who could write"Kinu goalar goli","Chuti" and also portray the subtle hypocrisies within Swadeshi movement or even the complexities of a triangular relation in "Chokher Bali".......Look at even the genius of Bonoful who I can only compare with O Henry.He had such a great bandwidth of subjects.Is bandwidth not an indication of one's wideness of perspective?
Pardon my ignorance for commenting before reading this third gem of Jhumpa.May be I am just thinking aloud.

Sayan Datta said...

Having read 'The Namesake' and just one stray short story of Lahiri's that came out in a magazine, even I am not sure whether I am eligible to comment here. I know however, that a chance to comment upon one of Sir's book reviews is an opportunity that doesn't come by everyday; so I will, like Sudipto, take the liberty.
First of all, forgive me when I say that I approached her writing with a few preconceptions and prejudgments in mind. In short I approached her book with the somewhat disconcerting feeling that probably it wasn’t worth the investment. But on actually reading the book my overwhelming feeling was - she simply doesn't disappoint. Her style though simple, part sparse, is remarkably descriptive of even the smallest facets; letting the reader take a peek into the minds of her characters without the use of too much dialogue. Her way of expressing complex and deep emotions sans words is what makes her style all the more appealing. Her writing is unwaveringly precise and intricate, yet detailed without being verbose and emotional without being melodramatic. I can also sense fine balance, the necessity of getting into the essence of the characters without cluttering her work with ornate prose. And yes, her narration has stark honesty without any underlying sense of contrivance or scholarly solemnity.
I too don’t have a problem with her using the same theme again and again. In fact I like writers who have unified themes. And her stories of collisions of cultures and expectations, dilemmas, quiet desperation (something I can connect with rather deeply), loneliness and the striving for happiness are human experiences after all; nothing so very alien in them! So why are people so bored of her using the same theme again and again in the first place?
Those were my thoughts in a nutshell.
Sayan Datta.

Greek.theatre said...

We all end up talking a lot about language and theme. In fact I loved the maturity of Sayan's prose. But, in India, we simply do not talk of 'tone', plot structure' and 'narrative point of view'. I'd love to have a few posts on these strands, even as I must admit that a book review is not supposed to get into these issues.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Without detracting in any way from Ranajoy's observations, I must say that I need to expect less from every writer than another Tagore: otherwise I shall find precious few new writers in my life worth reading!

Shilpi said...

I've finally returned to this review of yours, and am still wondering how to respond. I thought I was going to end up violently disagreeing with your review - but your review is sane and it isn't over-the-top. You're not gushing over Lahiri's writing - you're pointing out that the book contains good writing, and you give some pointers - she is observant and sensitive to lifestyle and manners, she writes good English, she writes about things she understands and empathises with...and your review is a sane and sensible critique for I can’t entirely disagree with the majority of your direct comments regarding her book or her writing.

Yet I must say that she keeps disappointing me. She is observant and she does use the language well yet there seems to be nothing that moves the heart or the mind - leave alone the soul. Her stories are somehow uninspired and uninspiring. I say this with sadness. For each time I try her I do try to keep an open mind (shelving my annoyance aside). It's almost as though I would like to like her stories because she writes about little things, cross-cultural aspects, people's habits and preferences and idiosyncrasies which should be interesting and amusing and ironical – even if nothing else. But there is something missing in her stories. I can't say she tries too hard because there is something genuine in her presentation - maybe it's the fact that she draws so much from real lives and real people, that she displays a lack of imagination, and that she leaves nothing that I, as a reader, can fill in or even be involved enough to imagine. I too can think of a couple of other writers who do quite simply draw from their lives and real lives, and write about things, which may sometimes be quite mundane – but their passion, their own beings, and their imagination come through, and that’s what makes their stories, anecdotes and writings strike something fundamental within - even if they do not always directly point out to the 'greater message'.

On another note: fewer things would please me and make me proud than to see an Indian writer remembered and acknowledged at a global level as being great – yet it has to be the ‘right’ writer!

I’m glad you wrote the review, Suvro da.
Take care.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I only said this is good, not excellent writing, Shilpi, and expressed the hope that she will live up to her promise. Also that I was pleasantly surprised she had won a Pulitzer. I have absolutely no reason to put Lahiri on my list of 100-most admired authors. Besides, she hasn't written anything significant for quite some time now. I shall not stop expecting better works from her, if only because there are so few good living authors around, and so pitifully few of them are of Indian origin!

One reason I write this sort of thing is to give the lie to the widely-held opinion that I cannot think of good things to say about anyone, I am such a grouchy old ogre...