Life | Exploratory Tales

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Exploratory Tales
Published: Volume 16, Issue 5, May, 2008

In Boston, Jhumpa Lahiri weaves an ‘unaccustomed’ tale with her new collection of short stories. Nitasha Manchanda explores the book and the discussion that ensues

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth transports us once again into the world of Bengali immigrants living in the United States. But while the immigrant identity is a part of the rich tapestry she weaves, the beauty of these stories lies in Lahiri’s exploration of the emotions and conflicts common to us all. Whether it’s the ambivalence and heartbreak that comes with being a parent, or the surprise at finding a deep connection outside one’s marriage, Lahiri’s stories bring these universal dilemmas into sharp focus. The father in the title story wonders if ‘the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.’ The young girl narrating Hell-Heaven admits that a graduate student who befriended her parents, ‘…brought to my mother the first and, I suspect, the only pure happiness she ever felt. I don’t think even my birth made her as happy. I was evidence of her marriage to my father, an assumed consequence of the life she had been raised to lead.’

The eight stories that make up this collection reflect upon the complex relationship between children and their parents, husbands and wives, and also between friends. Lahiri switches between the perspectives of children, parents, men and women with ease and authority; one story is even narrated by a male American graduate student who watches his house–mate, a young Bengali woman, from an outsider’s view.

Fans of The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake will find much to love in this accomplished new collection. While the situations are often unfamiliar, the emotions they generate in the characters will be recognised by us all. Readers will once again find comfort and inspiration in Lahiri’s exploration of these issues, one reason her work resonates with a number of people around the world. As the author responds to an Indian American audience member’s request for advice on balancing two different cultures, she states, “I, too, have grappled with the same sort of issues, and I write about them through various characters. For me, my writing is a way to better understand the situation and helps me accept the more complicated aspects of my upbringing.”