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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth begins with a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is the source of the title for this eight story collection; in it, Hawthorne speaks of family roots, of generations of children that will not flourish unless planted “into unaccustomed earth.” This quotation brings unity to the collection and highlights the major theme of all the stories it contains, as well as the entire body of Pulitzer prize-winning Lahiri’s work: the struggles of Bengali immigrants and their attempts to set roots in foreign soil.

Each story contains rich attention to detail in terms of setting and character. Lahiri often repeats certain places and personality types; many of the stories are set in Boston, and some of the characters begin to seem familiar (the reserved, withdrawn older male doctor, the lonely wife isolated by her children, the young child eager to assimilate into American culture). But this does nothing to take away from the brilliance of the writing. In fact, it only adds to it; Lahiri writes of these subjects with an authority and authenticity that breathes life and adds fullness.

“Unaccustomed Earth” is the first story and the one that most blatantly connects to the Hawthorne quote. Ruma, a Bengali housewife, receives a visit from her father after the death of her mother. He stays with Ruma and the two discover much about each other in the context of the recent death. Ruma’s father becomes close with her son, Akash, and the two begin to plant a garden; with this, the metaphoric family roots are planted, and the metaphor serves the story well.

In “Hell-Heaven,” the second story of Unaccustomed Earth, the narrator, Usha, mentions many places familiar to Bostonians and Cambridgians: Massachusetts Avenue, the Harvard Coop, Central Square. It is only an added bonus that these are familiar places to many of us attending school in this area; Lahiri paints an accurate picture regardless. “Hell-Heaven” is a standout piece. In it, the stories of three characters are fully and beautifully portrayed in spite of the limitations of first-person narration. Usha is a girl whose married mother takes in a young MIT student and falls in love. This event changes each of the three monumentally and Lahiri expresses this with subtlety and care as she shows their evolutions over the course of many years.

The collection is divided into two parts. The second is labeled “Hema and Kaushik” and contains three separate stories that intertwine, all involving the same two characters, Hema and Kaushik. The final story, “Going Ashore,” elegantly connects the previous two stories together, while the final line in the collection takes it one step further by emphasizing the metaphoric connection between family ties, setting down roots, and what you leave behind.