Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian Americans. But this is really literature of globalisation and the immigrant experience — at the opposite end of Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Lahiri writes about highly qualified, professionally successful immigrants. But there is the aching loneliness of the outsider in a foreign land that will be familiar to immigrants everywhere in all stations of life.
What makes Lahiri all the more relevant and poignant is her ability to depict the gulf that separates the immigrants not only from their homelands but from their own flesh and blood — parents from children, first generation from second generation. While the parents create their Little Indias, the children are more at home in the big US of A. And that creates tensions and communication gaps. The Sound of Silence could be the theme song of Unaccustomed Earth, where Ruma and her father in the title story, despite their love and affection for each other, have become virtual strangers, unable to share their inmost thoughts.
Lahiri uses a dual perspective, showing the thoughts of both Ruma and her father, revealing the distance between them and making the story all the more touching. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. That is another theme explored by Lahiri — love, estrangement, infidelity are all explored in minute detail. Lahiri is always vivid and intimate: her characters come to life, burdened with all the flaws and expectations that make us human.
But she is too subtle a writer for me to portray adequately. Read the New York Review of Books instead, where Sarah Kerr reviews Unaccustomed Earth. The headline sums up the book perfectly: Displaced Passions. Time, while praising her, notes:
Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction are: humour, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.
But that is what makes her writing so clean and natural and, combined with her gift for the telling detail, all the more sombre and poignant. Like these last two sentences in Going Ashore, the last story in Unaccustomed Earth:
It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.
As she says in an interview with the Atlantic:
I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more.
Also worth reading is her interview with Newsweek two years ago. Talking about how speaking to her parents every day and seeing them once a month has kept her thinking of herself as Indian, Lahiri — who is married to a Guatemalan Greek American journalist — said:
I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.
The Indian connection is fading.
None of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth is set in India. That's a big change from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.