Saturday, April 5, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

In a glowing review in today's New York Times of Jhumpa Lahiri's new book Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf, 2008), Michiko Kakutani writes,

"The last three overlapping tales in this volume tell a single story about a Bengali-American girl and a Bengali-American boy, whose crisscrossing lives make up a poignant ballad of love and loss and death. Hema and Kaushik get to know each other as teenagers....Hema secretly nurses a crush on Kaushik, but he is oblivious to her schoolgirl antics and preoccupied with his mother’s deteriorating health."

Kaushik becomes a photojournalist; "Hema, meanwhile, becomes a professor, a Latin scholar, who...impulsively decides to opt for a traditional arranged marriage; though she is conscious of the 'deadness' of this proposed partnership, she tries to convince herself that the relationship will endow her life with a sense of certainty and direction. Then, against all odds, Hema and Kaushik run into each other in Rome — on the eve of Hema’s departure for her wedding...[The story has] an operatic denouement..."
"In the hands of a less talented writer it’s an ending that might have seemed melodramatic or contrived, but as rendered by Ms. Lahiri it...[is] a testament to her emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer."
I haven't yet read Unaccustomed Earth, but the comparison that this particular plot line brings to mind isn't with opera, but Bollywood (although, as Memsaab points out, they have a lot in common). The bride who, on the eve of her arranged marriage, once again encounters her true love is a Bollywood staple: it features in such films as DDLJ (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). And while the brave heart usually does take the bride, it's not always so. In Devdas (2002) the arranged marriage proceeds; in Veer-Zaara (2004) the couple is separated. And in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998) the meeting with the lover occurs after the arranged marriage, with an unexpected result.

Perhaps Kakutani thought that invoking Bollywood in a review of an Indian-American writer's work would be a cliché. And ordinarily I might agree; however, in this case it seems that Lahiri herself is explicitly making the connection. I'll post again once I have a chance to read Unaccustomed Earth.

(Apologies to those who read the first version of this post, but I came to feel that both Kakutani and I gave too much away. The above is a version edited to avoid revealing the endings of both Lahiri's story and the films.)


  1. Hey there Pessimissimo:

    Love your blog. Thanks for bringing the plot of Unaccustomed Earth to my attention, I'd been looking for it. And thanks for not spoiling it.

    It's interesting that you say it reminds you of Bollywood movie plots. Funnily enough, I have an uncle, who, having grown up with Indian films (and its requisite sense of somehow being inferior to its English counterparts) never liked Hollywood romances. He laughed away Love Story saying it was just any random Indian movie that you could pick up at a store.

    "We may not know our action/dialogue, but we know our love". ;)

  2. dhevi, thanks for the kind words about the blog!

    The story about your uncle points up the complexity of our responses to the films we grow up with and how those responses change as we get older (or not). Some of the strongest negative remarks I've gotten when playing Bollywood soundtrack music at my bookstore have been from Indian-American university students. One woman wrinkled her nose in distaste and said, "My mom plays this [it happened to be the soundtrack from Veer-Zaara (2004)] in the car all the time." She found Bollywood to be mildly embarrassing, or annoying, or corny, because it was something her parents liked.

    That's one reason it occurred to me that in the final stories of Unaccustomed Earth Jhumpa Lahiri--whose books are in part about the emotionally charged relationships children can have with their parents' culture--might have been working through some of the complicated feelings aroused by Bollywood movies. Pure speculation on my part, of course, and before I make too many more unfounded assumptions about the book and Lahiri's motives for writing it I had better get a copy and read it.

    Meanwhile, I vote with your uncle: most contemporary Hollywood romances do nothing for me. But watching Kal Ho Naa Ho or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Veer-Zaara for the tenth time is sure to bring a lump to my throat. It's a contradiction that I may never fully resolve, but thinking about the possible reasons for it was one of the things that motivated me to start this blog. Thanks for reading, and for your comment.