I’m not sure if any of you know, but I worked a summer in India in 2002. I fell in love with the culture, the people and, of course, the food. The Indian people, mostly Hindis where I was, have to be some of the most kind and gentle people on Earth.
I have done several things to stay connected to India, including frequenting restaurants, joining the Indian employee network at my company, etc.
I recently discovered Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winning Indian American author, who’s short stories blow me away. I just finished two of her collections of short stories and will profile one here. The other Interpreter of Maladies, I’ll save for later.
Review #2 – Unaccustomed Earth
When I got to the end of the first story in the book, I was speechless. I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or bad thing. It has been so long since I’ve read short stories, that I forgot that they don’t often tie up at the end in a bow. Ever notice that? (J. California Cooper’s short stories are sometimes that way, too.)
Anyway, I kept reading and fell deeper and deeper into book reading love with Lahiri’s stories. Each had colorful details of the reverence with which Indian traditions are treated and preserved. Often sad and haunting, her stories were memorable and had me holding my breath at time. The stories bounced between the challenges of assimilation from old school Indian life and new school Indian American life.
Some of the conversations and character situations so vividly reminded me of the people I worked with in New Delhi. This mostly manifest itself in the stories dealing with marriage and the expectations for it, as well as food, which seems to be a static backdrop in Lahiri’s stories.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCES
For example -- Arranged marriages are alive and real in India AND within Indian American families today. I had numerous discussions with my Indian friends in about why they would have arranged marriages as opposed to “love” marriages, as they referred to our Western tradition of marrying.
One guy, Mohit, told me that his mother does so much for his family, the least he can do was marry whoever she picks for him. *blank stare*
Another girl, Jyotsna, who I am still in contact with today (8 yrs later), had a boyfriend of 2 yrs that she loved dearly while I was there. They were both middle caste and well-educated with promising futures. However, their parents took them to a fortune teller (cards reader or something like that), who told them they were incompatible and their families would not agree to let them marry. They, rather than face being disowned by their families, broke up -- painfully. A couple of years later, Jyotsna married another guy (via arranged marriage), moved to Canada, had a baby, only to find herself in a physically abusive marriage. She is now a single parent living in Canada, struggling with her assimilation and raising a Indian American daughter. *blank stare* This very situation could easily be one of Lahiri’s stories.
I said all that to say that Lahiri writes beautifully and captures you, while also making you appreciate and understand cultural differences. The stories reminded me of why I became fascinated with the people and culture of India, but not only that…Unaccustomed Earth was an intense page turner to which people of all cultures can relate.
Favorite stories in the book:
- Only Goodness - An sister who deals with the guilt of the role she played in her brother’s alcoholism
- Hell-Heaven – A wife/ mother who struggles with the loneliness of a life lacking love and purpose
- Nobody’s Business – An American college student develops a crush on his Indian housemate
Pick up a copy from your local library and let me know what you think.