Just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s title story Unaccustomed Earth in her recent collection of short stories. I had begun reading the story rather reluctantly – I hadn’t particularly enjoyed some of her earlier works. But as I read on, I was hooked to it. I would unhesitatingly call Unaccustomed Earth as an extremely perceptive short story. The author’s unerring insight into the human heart fascinates you and forces you to question even the basic truths about human nature, particularly that most elemental of all human emotions, love.
Ages ago Yajnavalkya, the sage-scholar of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, often considered the greatest of all Vedic scholars, had declared to humanity an eternal truth about love: a harsh, unpleasant, deeply disturbing and perhaps unacceptable truth about human love, but a truth, all the same.
Speaking to his beloved wife Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya had said in a long passage in the Upanishad:
Na va are patyuh kamaya patih priyo bhavati,
atmanastu kamaya patih priyo bhavati….
It is not for the sake of the husband, dear one, that he is loved,
but for one’s own sake.
It is not for the sake of the wife, dear one, that she is loved,
but for one’s own sake.
It is not for the sake of the sons, dear one, that they are loved,
but for one’s own sake.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story we once again run into the same truth about love. Reading Unaccustomed Earth becomes an enriching experience because the story is told without bitterness, without complaints, without even any real sadness, but as a matter of truth, and with tenderness and affection.
The long short story – some would call it a novelette, and a couple of books I read recently were smaller in length though they were marketed as novels – begins with the expected visit of Ruma’s father to her new home in Seattle, USA, where she lives with her American husband Adam and their three year old son Akash, with a second child soon to arrive. Ruma and her brother were born in the States where their Bengali parents had migrated some forty years ago. Ruma had in all her thirty-eight years never once written to her father; it was always he who wrote – and his letters never had any personal touch to them. They were always written from places he visited, on the back of picture postcards. She spoke to him on the phone though. Initially, after her mother’s death, she had called him daily, enquiring after his health, asking him how his day had gone, but gradually the calls had come down to about once a week.
Ruma’s mother had a short while ago died on the operating table, “of heart failure; anesthesia for routine gallstone surgery had triggered anaphylactic shock.” The mother had been far less formal and much more remonstrative in her affections than her father was. She was a person Ruma had related to easily whereas with her father there was always a distance – a distance both of them felt.
Ruma was uncomfortable about her father’s expected visit. She knew her father was independent, financially and otherwise, and was capable of looking after himself – he did not need her taking care of him. And yet she felt guilty about not asking her father to come and stay with her permanently. She knew she should do that as a daughter – her brother wasn’t in a position to do it – and had it been in India, “there would have been no question of his not moving in with her.” She was afraid “her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to. It would mean an end to the family she’d created on her own: herself, Adam and Akash, and the second child that would come…” Her mother had been a typical Indian wife, preparing all her husband’s meals and serving them to him by herself, attending to his every need. But Ruma was sure she would not be able to look after her father the way her mother had done. As for Adam, he believed in making her happy every possible way and had left the decision to her: it was for her to decide whether to invite her father to stay with them or not, she had known him all her life.
Ruma had offered to drive to the airport to meet her father on his arrival, but he had rejected the idea, saying he would rent a car and come on his own, following directions off the Internet.
Akash is cold to his Dadu’s arrival. He refuses to respond to Dadu’s pretended bewilderment at how big Akash has grown, to enquiries about how old he is. “Mommy, I’m thirsty,” is his response to Dadu’s questions.
Her father is delighted to see there is a small garden in front of the house. He comments her delphiniums need watering – she has no idea which of the many plants in the garden are delphiniums, they had all been there when she bought the house and she had never cared for them, though her father had always loved gardening. He goes to her kitchen looking for a kettle and then waters the plants with it – “They won’t survive another day.”
As they sit down to eat, Dadu begins eating with his fingers and following him, Ruma too eats with her fingers “for the first time in months, for the first time in this new house in Seattle.” Akash looks at his grandfather’s plate of Indian food and says, “I hate that food.” A while after the meal her father comes to her with soapy water on his hands – she discovers he had been washing the dishes. She protests, but he does it all the same.
Adam is away on an assignment. That evening she again consults him over the phone – should she ask her father to move in with them? Once again Adam leaves the decision to her – “We’ve been over this a million times, Rum. It’s your call. He’s your dad.”
Early next morning she wakes up hearing Akash and his grandfather in friendly conversation. They have already been to the nearby lake together and Dadu has made a video of Akash. “Dadu, Outside?” asks Akash, tugging at his pants as he talks to Ruma. He wants to go out again with his grandfather. When Akash goes to his weekly swimming lessons after breakfast, Dadu insists on accompanying him. Once again he makes a video, of Akash in the swimming pool.
During their drive to the pool and back, her father tells Ruma of the need for her to begin working again – she is a lawyer by education and had worked a few years before Akash was born. She tells her father she plans to take it easy for a while more, at least until the new child was in KG. Her father tells her strongly she is wrong about it – it is now for her to begin working again, she is already thirty-eight, a few more years and it would be too late for her to begin again. “Self-reliance is important, Ruma,” he tells her. “Life is full of surprises. Today, you can depend on Adam, on Adam’s job. Tomorrow, who knows?’ Ruma does not like what he says.
That night he shows them the videos – the ones he has made of Akash and of the conducted tours that he has been going on. There is an Indian woman seen for a moment in the tour videos – but he makes sure that she does not draw Ruma’s attraction. She is Mrs. Bagchi, a Bengali woman he has met on the tours, and the two of them have been friendly. They have no plans to marry, but they have decided on their next tour, to Prague, they would share a room and then later that year, they would go on a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.
The next morning Ruma discovers to her horror that her father has disappeared. Akash comes running into her room and tugging her arm, says, “Dadu went away.” “He is not here,” he explains. She sees his rented car is gone too. She is thoroughly confused. All kinds of disturbing thoughts come to her.
Just then she hears the sound of gravel cracking under tires. It is her father. He had gone to the nursery some six miles away – to buy what he needs to grow a garden in her backyard. “You could have let me know you were going out,” Ruma says. “I did,” he replies. “I left a note on the bureau downstairs saying I was going for a drive.” For a moment she is angry at Akash for misguiding her. But then she tells herself her son is too young to see the note on top of the bureau and to read it.
Soon her father makes a second trip to the nursery, to fetch more things, and this time Akash tugs along with him. An hour later they return, with bags of topsoil, a rake, a shovel, a hose and plenty of flower plants. He works in the garden without stopping until noon, and after a light meal at noon, again until the evening. Akash plays with him all the time, enjoying himself in a growing mountain of soil. The next morning another trip is made to the nursery, for more things needed for the garden. This time when he comes back there is an inflatable kiddie pool too with him – Akash’s own private pool. He makes a separate small garden for Akash along with the garden he is making for his daughter – the smaller one the size of a spread open newspaper.
For the first time in months, Ruma is free from the need to constantly watch and care for Akash. She starts doing things that have been pending ever since they had moved into the new house. Akash fetches things to plant, to ‘grow’ in his garden – and crouching over the ground just as his grandfather did, plants them in the soil, supervised by Dadu: a pink rubber ball, a few pieces of Lego stuck together, a wooden block etched with a star.
Ruma had all along feared the very thought of her father coming and settling down with him. Now when he tells her it is time for him to go back to his own one room apartment at the other side of the country, she begs him to stay, tears welling up in her eyes. It is then that she learns his decision would not be changed – he wouldn’t live his life on the margins of her life, in spite of his love for her and in spite of the fact that he had ‘fallen in love’ with his grandson Akash. She also realizes that her earlier fears were without ground – he has never once thought of spending the rest of his life with her.
It is only after he leaves that she discovers one additional reason why he wouldn’t stay with them: Mrs Bagchi. She discovers a postcard he had written to her, but had misplaced. The words in Bangla script, which she couldn’t read, tell her all she needed to know about him and Mrs Bagchi. She realizes her father loved her and loved her son, but it is with Mrs Bagchi that his heart longed to be.
But of course, if her father’s love had been selfish in any sense, so had her own been. She had dreaded his arrival, dreaded the possibility of his moving in with her. She had dreaded the possibility of his moving in and destroying their small world. It is only realization that he is not a burden but on the contrary a big help that had changed her mind.
As Yajnavalkya told Maitreyi, “Atmanastu kamaya sarvam priyam bhavati: All things become dear for one’s own sake.”
Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story Unaccustomed Earth is a memorable retelling of Yajnavalkya’s truth: the bitterest truth of life, but a truth one has to learn to live with. To Jhumpa’s great credit, she tells her story of life without pessimism – lovingly, tenderly, affectionately. Jhumpa’s human beings are self-centered, like all human beings are, and yet she makes us love them. Self-centeredness is a flaw in a human being, but despite that flaw, man is capable of soaring into worlds of love.
Ruma affixes a stamp on her father’s misplaced postcard to Mrs. Bagchi so that it could be posted.