Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, blew me away. She builds on the strengths of Interpreter of Maladies and explores, often, the same themes but to an even more crushing, gripping degree. She leaves you feeling emotionally devastated from a single thirty-page story. She’s an incredible writer, and among so many talents (subtlety, for example, is a big one) I’d say her biggest strength is the characters.
I could go on about each individual story, but it was the title story that really stood out to me, and particularly the way it dealt, both overtly and subtly (but always beautifully), with the idea of death. From page 17 of the story:
Akash had no memory of her mother. She had died when he was two, and now, when she pointed her mother out in a photograph, Akash would always say, “she died,” as if it were something extraordinary and impressive her mother had done. He would know nothing of the weeks her mother had come to stay with Ruma after his birth, holding him in the mornings in her kaftan as Ruma slept off her postpartum fatigue. Her mother had refused to put him into the bassinet, always cradling him, for hours at a time, in her arms. The new baby would know nothing of her mother at all, apart from the sweaters she had knit for Akash, which he’d already outgrown and which the new baby would eventually wear.
“Unaccustomed Earth” (the story) focuses on the strained visit of a woman’s (Ruma) aged father while her husband is away. Ostensibly, the plot involves a number of mundane family issues, such as the father’s delicate attempts to conceal his new romance, Ruma’s struggle toward inviting her father to live with them permanently, and the rambunctious behavior of the grandson (Ruma’s son Akash) as he bonds with his grandfather.
But through these strands Lahiri deftly weaves the far weightier, foreboding presence of death. Curiously, it is the little boy, Akash, who most frequently gives voice to the persistence of death, though he does so unknowingly. And therein lies the story’s power.
The treatment of death relies on the lingering presence of Ruma’s late mother, who is eerily both present and wholly absent from the daily lives of her family members. The development of this begins in the above pull-quote: “Akash had no memory of her [Ruma’s] mother.” The idea of “no memory” is repeated later. It’s in reference to Akash, but also foreshadows the grandfather’s conviction that just as Akash has forgotten his grandmother, “he knew that the boy would forget him” as well. Akash’s refusal to acknowledge the memory of his grandmother, albeit unintentional and innocent, is rather ruthless.
When Ruma again mentions her mother to Akash later in the story, attempting to remind him of how she used to cook for him, he refuses, insisting, “I don’t remember it. She died.” Sure, he’s a little kid, but it’s still pretty flippant. Again, all the boy can be sure of is her death. The narrator even states overtly that it was “as if denying the very fact that she was ever alive.” The fact that she is dead becomes the most interesting thing there is to say about the mother, not just for Akash but also for Ruma and her father. Despite their respective attempts to honor her memory by thinking about her cooking or her interest in traveling, their nostalgia always brings them back to the stony, unavoidable fact of her death.
Of course Ruma’s mother once lived, and Ruma remembers her, but now that she is gone, all that matters to both Ruma and her father, in a pragmatic sense, is that she no longer exists. Her influence is further washed away by the father’s new relationship with Mrs. Bagchi, some woman he met on vacation. That relationship, by its sheer existence, helps to erode the memory of Ruma’s mother.
The repetition throughout the story of “know nothing”—the idea that death is unknowable—establishes an odd feeling that for the living, the dead become only a shadow on their lives, and one that will dissipate completely, just as the shadow of Akash’s grandmother holds no influence at all over the boy’s life.
My question remains, then, of why Lahiri infuses such a strong presence of death into a story that otherwise examines life in all its vigor—childhood, mothering, and interpersonal relationships. The act of gardening, especially, which involves the creation and nurturing of new life, feels diametrically opposed to the many mentions of the dead.
Lahiri is intent on reiterating the idea that death is final and unforgiving in its removal of a loved one. Memories of her mother are not enough to help Ruma through family discord, and this grim truth is clear even to the innocent child Akash, whose glib (yet preternaturally fatalistic) attitude toward the dead vehemently denies their influence. “Unaccustomed Earth” suggests that death eventually erases the impact of a person’s existence. That’s a tough moral, but damn, what a story.