Immigrants at the “Customs” in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth

5/5 Falcons

Kat Triantafyllou, Contributing Writer

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Unaccustomed Earth (2008) may have been published more than a decade ago, but its relevance today is undeniable. It offers an insightful look into the immigrant experience, unfolding within the Bengali-American community. In a time of increasing human mobility worldwide, this book masterfully navigates the reader through the struggles of its protagonists. 

Nostalgia, admiration, ache, truth, and a history of immigration are all skillfully intertwined.

This collection of eight open-ended short stories is especially relevant for Cambridge residents. Cambridge happens to be featured in the book, which creates an immediate point of connection. In the short story “Hema and Kaushik,” the narrator, Hema, begins reminiscing on Kaushik’s presence in her life. Their romance begins during the farewell party in 1974 that Hema’s parents threw for Kaushik’s family at their house in Inman Square. Hema recalls: “Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back, to India, abandoning all the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon” (223). This excerpt of a masterful narrative encapsulates both a person’s and a group’s “in-betweenness.” It weaves time and space, a person’s immigrant history, and a couple’s beginning romance together in a natural way, a distinction of this book. Nostalgia, admiration, ache, truth, and a history of immigration are all skillfully intertwined and give an unparalleled tone to this collection of stories. 

 Even from this aforementioned short excerpt, one can immediately understand the complexity of Lahiri’s characters, so vividly portrayed along with the setting through cinematic imagery and dialogue. What connects all the different characters is their shared experiences as Bengali-Americans in the U.S. Their actions, initiatives, and thoughts are illuminated to form a landmark phase or event, without necessarily chronicling their entire lives. Thus, the themes of identity, familial duty, expatriation, and assimilation are scrutinized, leaving the reader wondering what other possible scenarios might have taken place and expanding the reader’s imagination. So, operating on the grounds of an “unaccustomed earth”, these characters find themselves in a stalemate between their previous worlds and their newly reached worlds, as if they had to pay a “customs fee.” They deal with their struggles until they come to terms with the many facets of their identities. This is, at least, what the excerpt from the beginning of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Custom House alludes to: “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” 

Lahiri thus aptly portrays the intricacies of the lives of her Bengali or Bengali-American expatriate characters who are caught up between the core values of their families’ traditional beliefs and their desires of assimilating into a new country. That is the “fee” they have to pay at the “customs” from one homeland to another. But for the readers, their stories make for a trove!