Would Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction still work if the Rahuls and Chitras were Roberts and Charlottes? If the mango-lime pickle on the refrigerator shelf were Best Foods mayonnaise? It’s an interesting experiment to run while reading Lahiri’s elegant, unsettling new story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. As in her two previous books, Lahiri writes about the dislocation of upwardly mobile Bengali-Americans. But strip away the exotic trappings and her urban professionals could be any anxious, overachieving Americans adrift from their cultural moorings.
Earth is full of lost old-world parents and the shaky modern marriages that can’t quite replace them. In the startling title story, Ruma, a lawyer-turned-housewife mourning her dead mother, struggles with the decision to invite her father to live with her. She worries he’ll interfere with the tidy nuclear family she’s built with her non-Indian husband, Adam. (Tellingly, Adam is always off stage, traveling on business while Ruma raises their son in affluent isolation.) When Ruma gets around to asking, her father’s answer dismays her; it’s clear he’s been enjoying his freedom. All along it has been she, not he, who craved the traditional connection.
Another dead mother haunts the three linked stories about the ill-fated romance of Hema and Kaushik, whose parents met in the 1960s as homesick grad students in Massachusetts. In ”Once in a Lifetime,” Hema recalls the awkward winter when she was 13 and developed crushes on both the oblivious teenage Kaushik and his casually glamorous mother. Kaushik narrates ”Year’s End,” describing his mother’s agonizing death from cancer, his father’s remarriage to an old-fashioned Indian-born woman half his age, and his own abrupt departure from their lives. And in ”Going Ashore,” Hema and Kaushik run into each other decades later at a dinner party in Rome. Though both are accomplished, cosmopolitan adults, what brings them together are the memories of the vanished, provincial world they once shared.
Admittedly, their relationship closely resembles Gogol Ganguli’s misguided marriage to a childhood acquaintance in Lahiri’s 2003 novel, The Namesake. But the short, sad saga of Hema and Kaushik is nonetheless a masterfully written and powerful drama. Though her characters construct sophisticated new identities for themselves, they are still irresistibly drawn to the reassuring traditions they’ve abandoned. The past exerts a wicked pull, even (maybe especially) when you’re all grown up and least expecting it. And that’s true whether your name is Hema or Heather. B+