I first read Jhumpa Lahiri years ago, when her Interpreter of Maladies was making a huge buzz. At the time, I didn't catch any of the buzz, but for some reason, when I saw the book on the shelf at the store I was browsing in, I felt it just might be a decent read. Funnily, I read the entire short story collection without complaining about it, but for some reason, I cannot read any collection anymore without agonizing over its disjoint nature.
I did enjoy Interpreter of Maladies, but I did get bothered by the thread of loneliness and infidelity and distrust that laced through the stories. For that reason, I have been reluctant to read Unaccustomed Earth. However, when I came across Hell-Heaven at the NewYorker - a free short story from her book, I decided to go ahead and read it. I can't resist the pull of stories set in India or featuring Indian characters, and it is that same aspect that hooked me throughout this story.
In Hell-Heaven, the narrator contemplates the relationship between her mother and a friend of her parents'. Pranab Chakraborty was a fellow Bengali who met the narrator's parents when he was a graduate student at MIT. The narrator's mother, Aparna, developed a soft corner for Pranab and would wait for those moments when he would visit them. (Her own husband had given himself completely over to work.) Over time, she began to feel a deep affection for him, but being a married woman, she drew the line there. Still, when Pranab falls in love with an American woman, Aparna reacts poorly, waiting for Pranab's girlfriend to leave him. Pranab and his girlfriend however get married, leaving Aparna to nurse some deep resentment for the couple.
Despite the unsaid and unacknowledged feelings that Aparna had for Pranab, there is nothing in the story to make one uncomfortable or judgmental. I found Hell-Heaven to be a nice character-focused story, with Aparna being the main focal point. There is not much in the way of a plot, but there is enough to move the story along and leave you feeling for the characters. I did however, feel that the story was a typical Jhumpa Lahiri fare. There are her usual elements of loss, love, yearning and family. I kind of knew where it was going, but I didn't mind the predictability because the lyrical prose held a lot of emotion. Is that emotional manipulation?
Still, I enjoyed the story because I could relate to the middle-class status of the family - their need to move away from orthodox customs and yet struggling to cut those threads away because what did they have if not those customs? And like other immigrants, their desire to be accepted is very palpable - they are treated as foreigners both in India and in the US - where then is home?
I read this book online on the NewYorker. Go ahead and read it.