'Unaccustomed Earth' by Jhumpa Lahiri

Indians' new American lives are fraught with pain, confusion

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Every short story in this latest book by Jhumpa Lahiri is a marvel.

Lahiri, a young Indian-American writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, a short story collection, "The Interpreter of Maladies," before writing the novel "The Namesake."

   
"UNACCUSTOMED EARTH"

By Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf ($25)

   

And she once again shows why her short stories will win over even people who don't like the genre. In just a few pages, she draws Indian-American characters who seem real, writing with devastating accuracy about the long silences and miscues between people -- between immigrant parents and their rebel children, between husband and wife, between sister and brother.

Consider the story called "Year's End" that begins with:

"I did not attend my father's wedding. I did not even know there had been a wedding until my father called early one Sunday during my final year at Swarthmore."

The story, which first appeared in the New Yorker, reveals the painful homecoming of a boy named Kaushik to the Massachusetts house where his beloved mother had lived before dying of cancer.

Unknown to him, his lonely widowed father's visit home to India had included an arranged marriage to an old-fashioned woman named Chitra, the mother of two daughters, Rupa and Piu.

Rupa and Piu move into his old bedroom. But the real shock to Kaushik's system comes when he sees Chitra coming out of his mother's kitchen, vermilion in her hair, a tradition his own mother had shunned.

Chitra's old-fashioned ways -- her fussy Indian cooking, her traditional dress, her complaint about the lack of a hand rail in the modern staircases -- irritate him.

Almost against his will, Kaushik feels sympathy for the daughters, who were forced to move from India to Massachusetts as he did years ago. Like him, they are being asked to accept a replacement for a dead parent. He takes them to Dunkin Donuts, and the shy girls are delighted by the sticky treat and his attention.

When the girls ask him about his mother, he stammers. "I felt suddenly vulnerable in front of two little girls who I had known less than a day yet who understood me better, in many ways, than friends I had known for years."

The story builds to a devastating crescendo that literally took my breath away.

It is part of a trio of linked stories called "Hema and Kaushik" about a boy and girl whose paths cross over the years.

This trilogy, which comes together like a moving novella, is the best part of the book. But every story here stands on its own because it is exquisitely written with delicate characters.

In the title story, a widowed father visits his daughter, Ruma, in Seattle. She's feeling lost and alienated after her mother dies and has quit her job at a law firm to raise her son.

Her father, jaded by his own bad marriage, urges her to go back to work. In the process, he comes to adore his grandson, then tries to hide a new love interest from his daughter.

Another story, "Only Goodness," explores the deteriorating bond between a sister and her brother once he starts drinking.

There are no villains and no heroes in her stories and very little action. Because Lahiri's writing is filled with both great restraint and compassion, it feels as if you are staring into the souls of the characters.


Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.


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