Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Never-Ending Domestic Drama

From four stories by Jhumpa Lahiri's collection Unaccustomed Earth, four Indian mothers express themselves by serving Indian food:
"... I would find [my mother] in the kitchen, rolling out dough for luchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me." ("Hell-Heaven," p. 63)

"The dining table had been set since the afternoon. This was my mother's way when she gave parties, though she had never prepared such an elaborate meal in the middle of the week. An hour before you were expected, she turned on the oven. She had heated up a panful of oil and begun to fry thick slices of eggplant to serve with the dal...." ("Once in a Lifetime," p. 231)

"A single place had been set for me ... with translucent luchis piled on a plate, and several smaller bowls containing dal and vegetables arrayed in a semicircle..... I was no longer accustomed to Indian food." ("Year's End," p. 259)

"When Akash [age 3] was younger she had followed her mother's advice to get him used to the taste of Indian food and made the effort to poach chicken and vegetables with cinnamon and cardamom and clove. Now he ate from boxes." ("Unaccustomed Earth," p. 23)
Lahiri has a talent for describing the domestic scenes in Indian immigrant homes in American college towns. In almost every story well-educated and well-paid doctorate-holding fathers, whose careers were established in approximately the 1960s, live with their arranged wives and one or two quickly assimilating children. The children resist their parents' ways, though they rarely make a self-destructive choice. Their pizzas and donuts illustrate their feelings about their silently and servilely cooking mothers who are rarely fulfilled by life in American suburbs. In most of the stories, we learn about both the adolescence and the adult lives of these children, especially about their relationships with lovers -- mainly not Indians. Frequently we learn a bit about their own children, often born when they are far older than their mothers were.

Every story varies a little from the others (and one has a seriously different plot), but when I finished this book and compared it to my memories of the author's other books, I feel as if I was stuck in a repeating trap something like the day that would never end in the movie Groundhog Day. Each iteration just a little different, but somehow the whole never quite changes. Lahiri is a talented writer and I hope she finds a way to use her talent for something new next time.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Interesting way to describe the book -- a bit like "Groundhog Day." Maybe if you haven't read others by her, it wouldn't be so jarring. Nonetheless, given the height of the stack, I may give this one a miss.