The New Global Nomads

Jhumpa Lahiri and the perils of assimilation.

Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth.

The era of the global nomad seems to have arrived in the United States. Both leading presidential candidates—not just Barack Obama but John McCain, too—grew up shuttling between cultures and learning “to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places,” as Obama’s sister summed up the sunny cross-cultural credo of the campaign trail. Meanwhile, a pre-eminent chronicler of the hybrid consciousness has emerged as well: Jhumpa Lahiri, a Bengali-American who writes about darker transnational shadows. “Being a foreigner is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts,” reflects the mother who has been transplanted from Calcutta to Cambridge, Mass., in Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake (2003). The same character’s husband can’t escape an awareness of “all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world.”

The legacy of growing up in the grip of a globally mobile heritage is once again Lahiri’s theme in her third book, Unaccustomed Earth.In a collection of stories as limpid yet complex as her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), she returns to familiar terrain—most of her Indians are highly educated, upper-middle-class suburbanites on the Boston-New York corridor—and to her well-honed role. Lahiri is an unillusioned anatomist of the greatest immigrant success story in the United States. But this time, she has captured more clearly than ever before a restless feeling of uprootedness that is as representative of America now, in the post-9/11 era, as the credo of wide-eyed openness ever was.

Born in Britain in 1967, raised in Rhode Island, and regularly taken on long visits to India, Lahiri grew up feeling, she has written, “intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.” As dutifully high-achieving daughters (never mind immigrants) often do, she mostly felt she failed at both exacting tasks. And it seemed that nobody appreciated her plight. Her father and sari-clad mother, and the Bengali social circle that defined her home sphere, certainly didn’t. Nor did her peers, parochially focused on their own American meritocratic dreams.

But Lahiri was right in step with a globalizing world. In the late 1990s, she veered off her ethnically correct academic track (B.A. from Barnard, M.A.s from Boston University in English and creative writing, followed by a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies) to embark on fiction about the enigma of Indian-American arrival. By then, accumulated brain drain and boundary crossings and intermarriage had made hyphenated heritages “part of this country’s identity,” as she put it. Lahiri was already probing the aspirational strains, the blend of professional drive and personal unease, when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Her subject—the barriers and fears that haunt even the well-off in a newly porous world—had become, in a way, the subject. And her Bengali background bequeathed her a perspective she’s been developing ever since. What Lahiri never fails to miss is how the very wariness that isolates her Indians from their American neighbors, and divides custom-bound parents from their anxiously assimilating children, also inspires a common quest for a sense of kinship. In a time when borders—between genders and generations, not just nations—are more permeable than ever, no one can count on feeling fully at home in the world.

Assimilation, in Lahiri’s fiction, is about coming to terms with disorientation. It is about not fitting in or settling down, not starting over from scratch and freely forging a new identity or destiny. Her characters balance precariously between two worlds—not just Asian and Western, but inner and outer, traditionally circumscribed and daringly improvised, unwilled and willed—and they do so not just transitionally, but permanently. In fact, The Namesake was animated by the counterintuitive insight that the second generation’s sense of dislocation can be, in its way, harder to deal with than the full-fledged transplantation traumas of the foreign-born parent pioneers. In her new stories—which have grown longer—Lahiri pursues that theme. In various stages of setting up house, her mostly thirtysomething Bengali-Americans feel half-betrayed yet awed by their parents. Not that they ever let them know. Part of the burden they live with is unspoken ambivalence about elders who, against great odds, managed a feat that daunts their offspring. Well-aware of their own advantages—not least accent-free English and freedom from the old world custom of arranged marriage—these U.S.-born young adults still can’t help feeling adrift.

Lahiri is a narrator subtly in tune with her poised yet highly sensitive characters. She sets store, as they do, by emotional reserve and a studious display of control—all the while alert, as they mostly are, to powerful tensions coiled beneath the surface. They are well-aware of profound gaps in perspective, yet where they have trouble bridging them, Lahiri excels at just that. In the title story, and in the three linked stories that close the collection, she maps the divergent angles of vision and emotion that obstruct, even as they broaden, her characters’ search for a sense of belonging.

In “Unaccustomed Earth,” 38-year-old Ruma, with a 3-year-old in tow and another baby on the way, has recently moved from Brooklyn to suburban Seattle, where her husband, Adam, takes a new job that has him on the road a lot. It’s a classic American scenario, to which Lahiri adds a twist by having Ruma’s father pay a visit, alone; Ruma’s mother died suddenly the year before. Father and daughter, together and apart, are embarking uneasily on new stages of life untethered by a woman whose traditionalism had cramped yet also anchored them in different ways. Lahiri shifts throughout between Ruma’s and her father’s points of view, and between oblique Bengali generational strains and the more familiar affluent American family fault lines they can’t help resembling.

The father, who unbeknownst to his daughter has met a Bengali widow on one of the European tours he has started taking, worries that Ruma risks being marooned in Seattle. He’s haunted by echoes of his wife’s predicament decades before: “Like his wife, Ruma was now alone in this new place, overwhelmed, without friends, caring for a young child, all of it reminding him, too much, of the early years of his marriage, years for which his wife had never forgiven him. He had always assumed Ruma’s life would be different.” So, of course, had Ruma, a busy lawyer until recently. But she finds herself peculiarly unmoored without the mother whom she had vowed not to take as her model. Ruma had also assumed that, balking at Bengali custom, she would never want her parents to come live with her. So, she is surprised to end up hoping her father will move in. And she is bereft to discover what he, like the secretly autonomous adolescent she once was, doesn’t dare admit to her: that, far from feeling stranded, he has moved on to forge a new connection.

In her inspired concluding section—three stand-alone stories, with separate titles, grouped together as “Hema and Kaushik”—Lahiri again has younger Bengali-Americans unexpectedly pulled back into the old ways, only to find that the bonds they forge, unlike the ties their elders submitted to, don’t rescue them. As she has before, Lahiri plays with an updated variation on an arranged marriage, intrigued by the notion that perhaps chance can steer us more happily than choice seems to. Kaushik and Hema, thrown together briefly as teenagers by their parents’ tenuous friendship in suburban Boston, each narrate a story that prepares us for a much later, and brief, reunion. Their stories prepare subliminally for a rupture as well. Both unfold in the last, omnisciently narrated story.

The trio is a tour de force, embodying in its structure and voices Lahiri’s core themes. Outsiders at heart—Kaushik has become a roving photojournalist, and Hema has only lately broken off a long-term affair with a married man—the two characters reach back to probe a sense of homelessness, addressing their stories directly to each other. Here, at last, is a tie that feels foreordained, rooted in a shared past of family connection, reminiscent in that sense of their parents’ arranged marriages. Yet Hema and Kaushik are restless American romantics, born in the wrong place and time to have the fatalistic courage of their elders, who trusted that a shared future would truly yoke them.

As Lahiri steps in to thwart their convergence, she is as alert to “all that is irrational as well as inevitable about the world” as the father in The Namesake was. In her fiction, learning “to not build walls around ourselves” doesn’t begin to cover the challenges that await her characters. They are wanderers navigating elusive borders, bumping up against barriers and testing ties, uneasily wondering if they will hold or not. That doesn’t prevent Lahiri—or Hema and Kaushik, or plenty of others in these impressive stories—from finding “kinship and beauty in unexpected places.” But it inspires a perpetual vigilance and an awareness that, even as the globe shrinks, vast distances will never disappear.