Sunday, February 13, 2011

Unaccustomed Earth - My Review

"That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet."  - From ‘The Namesake’ 

     Truer words haven’t been spoken! And with that line, she had me! Jhumpa Lahiri belongs to that rare breed of Indian origin writers who did not vanish away as one-book wonders. Nor is she the kind who can churn out a book every year. But each of her books, irrespective of the time interval that passes between two consecutive ones, make for very good reads! Especially for someone like me, who steers clear of any book that wins an award( I did not enjoy reading many of the award winning books), Jhumpa Lahiri has the rare distinction of being an award winning writer who has managed to keep me hooked on to her books. This post is dedicated to her in general and her book ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ in particular :)
       Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of 8 brilliant short stories. If the length of my blog posts is anything to go by, I am sure some of you would know by now that I am not a big fan of keeping it short ;) The more the words, the better! So, that kind of explains my aversion for short stories. I like lengthy, thick novels that run into hundreds of pages. With short stories, everything ends sooner than I like and the characters generally lack the depth of description and somehow at the end of it, even when a short story is good, I am left asking for more! So when I picked up ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ in 2008, I was skeptical. Back then, I had just completed reading ‘The Namesake’ and had loved it! So I started reading ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ without any high expectation! One short story into the book and I knew I had been wrong. Wrong in not expecting something spectacularly brilliant out of a Jhumpa Lahiri book! Because that is what she does...Her writing is silent, poignant and intense. When it’s her, you don’t just read, you FEEL. And that is exactly what happened in each of the 8 short stories. I felt an instant connection with the characters, as far removed from my life as they were, thanks to Jhumpa’s unfailing knack of inducing the reader’s love and empathy for each of her disparate characters.

The title of the book was inspired by one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote, which appears on the front page.
"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 strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." 

       Hawthorne opines that human nature will flourish when transplanted in foreign,unaccustomed land. In that context, the title of the book could not have been better chosen as all the eight stories, as expected, are about the lives of immigrant Indian parents and their subsequent generations in America, the land of opportunities. The theme of Indian immigrants is repetitive in all of Jhumpa’s works and comes out very strongly in ‘The Namesake’. One would wonder possibly how different could the stories be, if they all circled around one single theme? Jhumpa artistically builds her stories around this common theme, making them look very similar and surprisingly different, all at the same time! Contrary to Hawthorne’s opinion of lives flourishing on foreign land, Jhumpa’s stories bring to fore the struggle of the Bengali immigrant parents and their children as they struggle to build their lives on a foreign land, subtly hinting that lives may not always flourish!

Lahiri is richly gifted when it comes to examining the extremely beautiful bonds that exist in a family. Husband and wife, sister and brother, father and daughter, son and mother, she displays extreme maturity and sensitivity as she dwells on how each role is exquisite and unique in it’s own way! She then moves on to explore bigger bonds, this time, between cultures.  Globalization has made this world a small village. But the implications are many. The turmoil and confusion that one experiences growing up in a society that has a confused concoction of multiple cultures and what such clashing ideologies can do to individuals has been brilliantly portrayed.
      Unaccustomed Earth runs slow, drilling into the depths of human nature, culture and society. Jhumpa’s style of writing moves you as you read along, and compels you to pause and think, instead of just reading. And if a book can get you to think, it is worth every penny you paid for it.
With eight different stories, you would be bound to think that one story could be better than the other. But in this book, there is no way you could rank one above the other. Each story stands out in its own way, creating a world of its own, in spite of the recurring theme.
In the interest of the people who are yet to read this book, I will not dwell into the details of the stories or their characters. That is for you to read and find out :) Just know that this book worth buying and reading! :) It will not take you long to finish reading it, in spite of the stories being longer than usual. Though the reading will not take much of your time, the thinking will! At many points through the book, I paused to think about something that struck  me and when I got back to reading, I would find that Jhumpa had written down my EXACT thoughts in the next few lines...It was like reading my own mind a second time :) No bigger joy than reading the work of a writer you can connect to! I have read the entire book twice in the past two years…I rarely ever read a book twice ;) So that’s saying a lot about ‘Unaccustomed Earth’!
        When I wrote a review of the book Shantaram on my blog few months back ( Click here to read it), I intended to get at least two readers to buy the original book... That goal was fulfilled with four people mailing back to let me know they bought their own books :) Thank you! Following the trend, I request you to buy or borrow the original ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ from a book stall/library instead of downloading/buying a pirated copy :) And once you are done reading it, do let me know what you think! :)

          Ok, here are some lines from the book, just enough to get you started ;) Happy reading!

"He owned an expensive camera that required thought before you pressed the shutter, and I quickly became his favorite subject, round-faced, missing teeth, my thick bangs in need of a trim. They are still the pictures of myself I like best, for they convey that confidence of youth I no longer possess, especially in front of a camera." 

"And wasn't it terrible, how much he looked forward to those moments, so much so that sometimes even a ride by himself on the subway was the best part of the day? Wasn't it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one's life with, after making a family with that person, even in spite of missing that person...that solitude was what one relished the most, the only thing that, even in fleeting, diminished doses, kept one sane?" 
"She supposed that all those years of loving a person who was dishonest had taught her a few things." 

"He did not want to be part of another family,part of the mess,the feuds,the demands,the energy of it."

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