Lahiri’s stories are so depressing… yet not in a ‘real depressing’ way but in a way that leaves you in a helpless state of void emotions, that writing a review for her book is like… one of those nightmares I often have, where I absolutely have to run, away from danger, but I can’t, because my feet feel like they weigh a hundred tons each and all I can do is drag my whole body 1 mm for an equivalent of a hundred times the effort. (Result: I’ve been staring, writing, erasing and re-writing for the past hour and a half).
In that way, her work is quite similar to Chang-Rae Lee’s. Their works all bear a similarity to one another, and they are certainly marked by their signature. Not like Jeffrey Eugenides, whose scope of writing is one of the more extensive ones I’ve experienced so far. Their beginnings are never too ominous, yet there is a definite feeling of uncertainty and even stillness that makes you ill at ease. Their endings are never happy-endings per se, nor are they tragic, and even with the unshakable feeling that it could have gone better, you know that this was how it was meant to end.
Some may criticize them for sticking to what they know best and what they are familiar with, without escaping much from their ‘comfort zone’. Their characters are never too emotional – never too happy nor too sad – at first glance, they may even appear dull and as failures of adjustment, sexually, racially and socially. Yet each one is a bundle of identities, often conflicting, but also complementing one another at times. And it does make one wonder, whether writing about the search or the lack of search for identities and the effort of adjusting oneself to one or multiple societies can ever be titled as a writer’s, or anyone’s, ‘comfort zone’. That is why I don’t get tired of neither of their writings, I guess (side note: writers whose similar works I have indeed gotten tired of: Jodi Picoult and Isabel Allende).
Just like ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories, and one longer story, and most of them are about the lives of Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans. You would think that after a collection of short stories, and a full novel (‘Namesake’), there would be nothing new to tell anymore on this topic. Yet the struggle to adjust and the search of that feeling of belonging, one way or the other, never ceases, for anyone, and it is even more so for immigrants and their children.
‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is about the dutiful daughter left to rummage through her brother’s fall, it’s about the middle-aged retired widowed Indian man who finally wants to have a life of his own, it’s about the daughter of that man at loss facing the side of a father she never knew, it’s about the helpless white boy who can only observe the emotional tumult his Indian roommate is going through. It could be something you experienced yourself, maybe to a different degree, but it could also be something you could never even fathom for your life.
But when it comes to finding the strength to merely survive on this earth, to root yourself wherever life takes you, only to find that this earth is never to be accustomed, this is about all of us.