Jhumpa Lahiri, « Unaccustomed Earth », Bloomsbury ,2008
Excellent group of short stories about Bengali and Indian exiles and immigrants into northeastern academia in the US , that shows their difficult adaptation, their nostalgia for India , as well as their extraordinary expectation towards the chosen land . They are all eager to prove themselves and their imagined superiority, awaiting recognition of their unusual talents. They all without exception ,want to go to Harvard as a right , or an equivalent Ivy league college, and are incredibly snob about what they consider their due .That Harvard is he very best only does not occur to them and that others are better than they are is not possible .Their bourgeois background in India hardly prepares them for the American meritocratic system , its severe competition and its unavoidable cruelty towards the human failures .
The first story tell us how difficult it is to strike new roots in a new earth (hence the title, "unaccustomed earth") and grow things. A first generation immigrant man after a life time in Pennsylvania as an engineer., goes to visit his daughter out west in Seattle and although the west is foreign to him, avoids carefully her allusions to retiring with them in the " Indian way " (showing how American he has become and how little India now means to him now ) .He is content to grow a garden for her to care for when he has gone back home in the East . Her bafflement is sincere and her disappointment also since she is less autonomous than her father and thinks that somehow letting an old man live his own life, is betraying her dead mother and Indian traditional family ties. The father is also hiding a nascent love affair with a middle aged Bengali lady he has recently met, another infringement upon the role of the patriarch in India.
So, in all the stories, there is ambiguity and a betrayal of old customs in the new country and everyone is wondering where to go and how to assuage frustrations. One is not American as yet and not Indian or Bengali any more either. The return to India every summer becomes an ordeal for all indo –American teen agers who do not enjoy the company of all these wailing relatives in Bombay, showering you with sweets. They are vaguely ashamed of their foreign manners and silly cries..
A recent immigrant Indian student who after 5 or 6 years in the US, marries an American girl and not an Indian one chose by his parents at home, with sari and veil is seen as a traitor . A suitor who in non indian but speaks with a British accent is better that one who has an American accent. A son who does not become a surgeon, a lawyer or a scientist is seen as a shameful by his parents afraid of the judgment of other Bengalis . Success at all costs is a necessity and the highest accomplishments are an obligation, failure is only American , Indians exiles are not supposed to fail ever. All these derogatory judgments on the country which has welcomed you are amazingly rude and obnoxious, common to all immigrants perhaps but appear particularly ferocious amongst the community depicted by Lahiri , and to readers quite shocking .One becomes incensed by the pretentiousness and cruelty of these people blinded by their need for recognition and their Indian snobbery.
Lahiri describes all this with cold clarity and ironic detachment, neither apologizing nor judging her people . She shows quite a bit of compassion towards her characters and understand their plight. Immigration is perhaps harder for educated people and old cultures than for ^the poor and truly downtrodden from barbarous lands, who appreciate American generosity and openness, without complex. On the other hand, no Indian or Bengali was ever found to be a terrorist amongst their community as the recently arrived Somalis or Pakistani, Muslims it is true, turned out o be in the attacks of the London Subway . These indo Bengali exiles do not murder or attack, they simply despise most American customs as inferior and rather vulgar , and they want to be superior at all costs .They do succeed and work very hard indeed; universities reward them with degrees and good faculty positions, but they are rarely liked by colleagues or neighbors. They resemble a little Jewish immigrants of the past without their sense of humor "à la Woody Allen.", but with the same determination to wrestle the best of the new land and become one day proud new citizens.