‘Unaccustomed Earth’: Lahiri and The Subtle Art of Short Stories
“Human nature willl not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted and replanted, for too long a serioes of generations, in the same worn out soil.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom House” (Introduction to The Scarlet Letter)
It is rare to find that one book on my reading list leads so effortlessly into the next one, but no sooner had I emerged from Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ did I stumble upon ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, opening with this vivid epigraph (above). Long having claimed her place on my ‘Favourite Authors’ shelf, Lahiri brings her skill with the short story form to a life of travel and rootlessness.
This theme strikes close to home: I have ranted, previously, on the nature of life as a third culture kid. It’s a multi-layered experience that I found perfect to explore through my Extended Project Qualification, a 5000 word short story. By picking apart Lahiri’s poignant, succinct prose, as I do here with the first short story in the collection, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, I hope to bring myself some way towards getting to grips with the form.
The first short story takes its name from the book itself. It follows the story of Ruma, a Bengali-American mother of two boys, when her widowed father comes to visit .
Structure: Spoiler alert: the structure of the story allows for tensions to develop between the father and the daughter, at first, but also pushes the plot forward with complications – Ruma ends up wanting her father to stay after so long of keeping distance; her father is the one who unexpectedly falls in love again.
The perspective switches from the father’s to the daughter’s, bringing forward the conflicts that rule their respective minds. They explore different interpretations of duty: for Ruma, it’s the thought of her son, her husband and her pregnancy that seem important. For her father, we find a traditional sense of duty as he helps out in the household and looks after Akash, his grandson; yet he abandons duty by falling in love again.
The theme is also brought forward with analepses (flashback) on both Ruma and her father’s side: needed to emphasise the grief of losing her mother.
Characterisation and Themes
Lahiri does not play with the emotions of too many characters, but manages to show how difficult it can be for families to change. The stream of consciousness reveals that Lahiri’s characters are human; they’re uncertain and they make misjudgements, even when it comes to family.
Much of the understanding of loss is evoked through pathos – through Ruma’s son who slowly grows attached to his grandfather, but is in tears when he leaves without notice one morning; through Ruma’s own growing affection for her father, conveyed through her observation of small details about him. The symbolism and imagery of postcards reveals the itinerant, rootless lifestyle that many have to adopt today while a garden in Ruma’s new house, revitalised by her father’s gardening, becomes a vehicle for understanding the role of family.
At the close of the story, Ruma cannot hold onto her father. Yet, she decides to send the postcard her father wrote to his love interest (which he accidentally left behind in Ruma’s house): perhaps showing how love goes beyond attachment to someone, beyond holding onto them for your own happiness.
Keep reading and read-joicing,