A middle-aged woman sits in her suburban home, gazing at her wizened father, who gleefully plays with her toddler son. Though she feels a motherly joy watching the father who raised her as an American enjoy the company of his grandson, she cannot bring herself to utter the words at the tip of her tongue. The loneliness of being a stay-at-home mom looms over her like a stark shadow. She is unable to ask her father, who lives across the country, to move in with her.
“Unaccustomed Earth,” a book of short stories, published in 2008 and written by Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, tells eight stories about characters of Bengali and Indian descent living in America. Though the stories involve such disparate individuals as a teenager growing up in Boston, a house-wife in the suburbs of Seattle, and a man fighting his alcoholism, they all show the characters’ difficulties as they attempt to fit into society while holding on to their own cultures. Many struggle to connect with younger family members who seem to have fully embraced their American identities.
The titular short story of Lahiri’s compilation examines one woman’s difficulty connecting to a distant father. “Unaccustomed Earth” tells the story of Ruma, who, after her mother dies, moves with her husband Adam and her son Akash to the suburbs of Seattle. She leaves most of her life behind in New York, including a multiplicity of other mothers to chat with, a job as lawyer at a successful firm, and proximity to her widower father. Her husband is often away on business, and most days she stays home and takes care of her son, too exhausted with life to pursue her legal career.
The short story takes place during her father’s one-week visit, his first to the Seattle home. For weeks prior, Ruma encouraged him to move in with the family, as a favor to her mourning father. In truth, she does it mostly as a way to cure her chilling ennui.
Though it only describes a small snippet of Ruma’s life, the short story shows the trials faced by a stay-at-home parent. What it does best, though, is to show the compassion Rumba begins to feel for her father as he buys Akash toys, gardens with him, or simply reads him a bedtime story. She is able to bridge the emotional and generational gap between her and her father through their mutual love for her soon.
In another of her short stories, “A Choice of Accommodations,” Lahiri examines the wavering connection between Amit and Megan, a married couple that experiences great divide after many years of marriage. In the piece, they attend the wedding ceremony of Amit’s old college friend, Pam. Megan is initially jealous, because part of her knows Amit was in love with the bride when they attended Columbia University together. Throughout the story, the reader can sense a stark passive-aggressiveness between Amit and Megan as a result of this rooted jealousy.
As the wedding continues, Megan and Amit grow further apart, despite pledging to stick together during the event. Amit complains about the woes of marriage to another guest, a hopeful bride-to-be who is insulted by his cavalier attitude toward his wife. Meanwhile, Megan’s flirtations with other men simply make Amit thankful that she is occupied.
Lahiri paints a realistic portrait of marriage that is refreshing and relatable throughout the text. Though the two partners are flawed in the way they treat one another—showing mutual disregard during the wedding—they put aside their trivial conflicts the day after the ceremony and rekindle their romance by re-consummating their struggling but lasting love.
In both stories, Lahiri shows the emotionally charged, yet ultimately stable bonds that exist between family members. Through the timeless struggle between daughter and father, husband and wife, and many others, “Unaccustomed Earth” details the hardships of Indian- and Bengali-Americans as they adjust to their new identities, as all immigrants must learn to do in the overseas homes they build for themselves.