I have read both of Jhumpa’s earlier books. I enjoyed them both, and the movie based on The Namesake. Those stories and the writing made for excellent reading, and the underlying theme of Indian immigrant nostalgia was one I could relate to at some level. Unaccustomed Earth has all of the nostalgic elements of her prior work. But it compares poorly in story and characterization with its kin. This is not to say that the book is a bad one, rather one that does not quite live up to the expectations set by the previous books.

5 short stories, and one trio of linked stories make up this book. They deal with relationships, mostly; a widowed father in love, a sister that suffers from self-guilt at her brother’s alcoholism, unrequited love. The characters are all either immigrant Indians or their children caught up between cultures and places. They are well-educated, and their academic credentials and Ivy League affiliations are reinforced, with every tale, to the point of odiousness. The immigrant parents have loveless marriages and dwell in the nostalgia of their homelands to the extent that you wish for them to return back, but Jhumpa rarely relents to offer the reader such respite. For she has a larger role for them. They have to see their kids through their Ivy League advanced degrees, reminding them that they are wasting their careers if they drop out or quit their profession. The kids, for their part are quick to shake off the shackles of their upbringing as soon as they leave home. They end up as adults, unsure how to deal with their parents, and their relationships or marriages outside of the diaspora offer the occasion for conflict and awkwardness where it involves their parents.

It is the above characterization that is my main grunt with this book. It draws out the immigrant nostalgia – the incomplete adaptation, the prosaic existence, the generational and cultural gap – to a rather excessive degree. Yes, we (and I mean those that reside in a country different from the one where they grew up) have our moments where we go back to the memories of the places we left behind; the people, the events, that hypothetical alternate existence if the leap across the oceans had not been made. But it is not a constant phlegm of moroseness that surrounds us every living moment, not the way Jhumpa makes it out to be, or at least not, I hope, for most of us. Another reader of the book may have a different perspective, one that I may have missed in my reading of this book. The book does not dilute the fact that Jhumpa is a wonderfully talented writer. Despite the characterizations and weak plots, her style retains that distinctive quality that made her prior books so worthy of praise.

“Old wine in new bottle”, Parth had said about Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns that followed his bestseller, The Kite Runner, “but you can squeeze the Afghan agony only so much.” Replace the situation-borne Afghan agony with the choice-borne agony of the Indian immigrant, and the description fits this present book. One hopes that in her next opus, Jhumpa redirects her talents to a different, more refreshing theme.

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