The experience of Indian immigrants is unusually ripe for fiction. Almost every family faces a built-in generational conflict, an intense educational burden placed on children and the uniquely Austenesque anxiety of the arranged marriage. In short, no writer mining this vein should ever run short of material.
Jhumpa Lahiri certainly hasn’t, although you might think so at first glance. Unaccustomed Earth is her second collection of short stories, after 1999’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, which was followed by her 2003 novel The Namesake, and it finds her settling in rather than branching out. Having found her subject—the choices facing a second-generation Indian in affluent America—she attacks it with uncommonly analytical rigor.
Every single story in Unaccustomed Earth concerns a second-generation Bengali protagonist between the ages of 15 and 35. Their backgrounds are almost identical, but someone from that background faces a labyrinth of choices, and Lahiri methodically catalogues each one. Like the son who drops out of college to write plays and drink, or the son who trades a medical degree for journalism, or the daughter who passes the bar but raises her child instead of practicing law. Most of her characters are wash-outs in one way or another, but they rarely fall too far out of affluence. The stakes are social, not financial.
As The Namesake suggested, Lahiri is at her best when she takes a broad view of the pressures of assimilation. In the Alice Munro homage “Hell-Heaven,” she crafts a multigenerational story about the conflict between strict Indian cultural codes and America’s personal and sexual freedoms, culminating in a brilliant statement on the Indian practice of bride burning. The highlight of the collection is “Hema and Kaushik,” a triptych of stories following the titular pair from their intensely structured childhoods to their wandering and alienated adulthoods.
India itself is mostly absent from the stories, and Lahiri’s characters are never tempted by the life their parents left behind. The parents, born on the subcontinent, feel some nostalgia, but Lahiri makes it clear that there’s almost nothing left of who they were in the old country. Describing Hema and Kaushik’s respective parents, she writes: “In Calcutta they would probably have had little occasion to meet. Your mother went to a convent school. … My mother’s father was a clerk in the General Post Office, and she had neither eaten at a table nor sat on a commode before coming to America. Those differences were irrelevant in Cambridge, where they were both equally alone.” Lahiri shows little interest in who they were in India, because it doesn’t matter.
This eager assimilation also shows up in Lahiri’s prose. Her voice is a familiar, cosmopolitan one (four of Unaccustomed Earth’s eight stories have appeared in The New Yorker), and it suits her cast of characters perfectly. Her narrators are rootless cosmopolitans themselves, and, like Lahiri, they’re making their way in America without having to worry about India.