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The Comfortably Sad

By Margaret Black

Unaccustomed Earth

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Knopf, 333 pages, $25

Thank heaven Jhumpa Lahiri has gone back to short stories! Although the ones in her new book, Unaccustomed Earth, are not as short and crisp as those in her debut volume, Interpreter of Maladies, each accomplishes the same close illumination of one or two people intertwined in a single dynamic. While her novel, The Namesake, has many fine individual scenes, the author is imprisoned within one family; she makes their collective lives incorporate so many emblematic immigrant situations that what begins as plot increasingly unravels into mere strands of incident.

With Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri has taken artistic possession of the cultural and emotional experiences of one particular set of immigrants: well-educated young men who have come to this country for graduate studies, enter the American workforce as professionals, and achieve significant wealth, or at least a solidly middle-class existence that easily outstrips that of many fellow Americans. Lahiri writes specifically about Bengalis, whose rich Indian culture, distinct family and social practices, and amazing food, give spice and piquancy to all their problems adjusting to American life. The young man arrives with a wife—theirs is always an arranged marriage and usually the wedding has just occurred—who, regardless of her education and social class at home, must try to perform her traditional duties of cooking, housekeeping, and caring for children in a totally alien, sometimes hostile, usually indifferent, environment. Lahiri does a splendid job of portraying such women learning to live this new life. But she truly excels when she depicts the second generation, firmly American young people on the surface, who are often propelled, even swamped, by powerful undercurrents from their Bengali heritage.

This new collection deals with difficult situations that are possible in any ethnic setting, but here configured to fit a Bengali heritage. In “Only Goodness,” Lahiri captures the anguish of a sister dealing with her beloved younger brother who gradually becomes an alcoholic, at first in secret, but eventually openly and with increasing destruction. Although many of the details (the mother’s stolen gold jewelry) come immediately from the Bengali context, the brother’s descent into total preoccupation with the next drink and his sister’s futile attempts to change him speak volumes to anyone, from any culture, who has been involved with an alcoholic.

Similarly, “Unaccustomed Earth” explores a young Bengali-American woman’s conflicting desires and obligations with regard to her widowed father. She fails to realize that her father has moved along in his life, changed his cultural expectations, and made his own plans for his future. The new mother has finally begun to see some benefits in the old Bengali ways, and finds herself wanting her father to stay with her and her little boy, who adores his grandfather. But her father has created a different existence and has no desire to become entangled again in family life.

Two stories, “Hell-Heaven” and “Nobody’s Business,” explore love relationships that are very culture-specific in their particulars, but their obsessiveness and the personal havoc they cause are universal. “Hell-Heaven” is especially powerful for both the tremendous happiness the love confers and the vast desperation that follows its loss.

The final three stories are linked by their narrators, Hema and Kaushik, who tell each other about events in their lives. Hema’s two tales involve her feelings about Kaushik, while Kaushik’s examines his reaction to his father’s second marriage. Kaushik’s parents helped Hema’s parents adjust when they first came to America. Much later, Kaushik’s parents live for several months with Hema’s family after they have been away in India for seven years. This progressively uneasy and prolonged visit, when Hema is 13 and Kaushik is 16, erodes the friendship between the parents, and only Hema learns, at the end of their stay, that Kaushik’s mother is dying. One of the most striking revelations comes with the understanding that Kaushik’s mother wanted to return to America because she doesn’t want to die within the suffocating embrace of her extended Bengali family. Hema and Kaushik meet again in Rome, nearly 25 years later, when Hema is taking one last vacation before making a very late, essentially “arranged” marriage with a Bengali she does not love. They have an affair, but part ways. Because Hema and Kaushik have been so little involved in each other’s lives, the stories never threaten to become a novel, which works much better than the sometimes-forced connections in Lahiri’s The Namesake.

If there is one chilling aspect to these stories, it is the consistent lack of warm compassion. Older couples in arranged marriages, where a great gulf once separated husbands and wives, can become companionable, even fond and thoughtful. But obligatory affection, more than spontaneous warmth, seems about as good as it gets. And sometimes the characters are appallingly self-absorbed. Kaushik’s love for his dead mother doesn’t excuse the sudden and vicious turnaround in his behavior toward his young stepsisters when they find the photographs of his mother. And while you can accept that he might well be angry at his father’s remarriage when it first happens, eventually you just wish Kaushik would grow up and think about someone else occasionally.

Lahiri’s portraits of life among financially comfortable, even rich, immigrants brings alive an often unacknowledged element in the American immigrant experience. With globalization, we have not only Emma Lazarus’s “wretched refuse,” but also technical and professional immigrants and now significant numbers of investors, entrepreneurs, and financiers. Many have homes in several countries and move freely among cultures. But this also means that no actual place is home. It is here that Lahiri’s stories make an additional contribution, for she captures precisely the muted sadness that such deracination can generate.

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