The unusual title is borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "The Custom House," to suggest a shift in fortune when immigrants "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."  Set almost entirely in the United States (the unaccustomed earth), eight separate stories are connected most obviously by cultural dissonances affecting characters who are Indian or have Indian parents.  Three of the stories, however, are linked by a strong narrative connection that is unexpected, profound, and unforgettable.

For Indian readers, the narratives describe complexities about migration patterns, cultural issues, alienation, and generational differences. The stories deal with well-educated children of immigrants who become offspring their parents barely recognize.  For other readers, the stories reveal situations about families and customs that are strangely familiar, especially those stories dealing with relationships between parents and children.
The forces of globalization have created and accelerated shifts that can seem staggering to all parents intent on preserving cultural patterns and traditions. Whether Indian or not, most parents experience a sense of alienation while watching their children flourish in a world that increasingly appears unfamiliar and foreign.

Not surprisingly, the stories concern strains and challenges affecting mixed relationships and/or mixed marriages and stresses on disapproving and disappointed parents, while others focus on children succumbing to drugs and alcohol(for the latter, see annotation of "Only Goodness").  All deal with some kind of emotional loss, but provide connections to feelings experienced by children and their parents in life's quiet and more kinetic negotiations.
The first story is about Ruma, a well-educated woman who lives in Seattle with her work-alcoholic American husband, and child, Akash.  Generational and cultural contrasts are revealed in overt and more subtle ways when her recently widowed father arrives for a short visit. Even though Ruma's complete assimilation into her non-Indian home as well as her on-going worries about her father's loneliness are major considerations, another story thread is spun, one that quietly reveals the father's thoughts about himself and a new relationship made recently during a vacation in Europe. Ruma's assumptions about her father, his loneliness, his possible dependency on her, and the Seattle vacation as a possible signal for relocating to her household turn out to be entirely wrong. 
The last three stories follow a boy, Kaushik, and girl, Hema, into adulthood.  In the first story, "Once in a Lifetime," Hema recalls her first memory of Kaushik when he was 9 and she was 6. The occasion was a farewell party for Kaushik's parents who were returning from the United States to live in Calcutta. The mothers, who grew up in Calcutta, but met in Cambridge, Massachusetts had become very close and were saddened by this separation.

Seven years pass before Kaushik‘s parents return to the Boston area and stay with Hema's family. Hema found the now 16-year old young man appealing, but brooding and totally uninterested in her. Even though Hema expected Kaushik to be Indian-like in behavior, he was more Americanized than she was. That the family had flown first-class shocked Hema's conservative family as did their new smoking and moderate drinking habits.

After a long search, and to the relief of Hema's parents, Kaushik's family found a  modern house on the North Shore.  Before they moved to their new home, Kaushik surprised Hema with confidential information-- his family had left India to seek treatment in Boston for his mother's breast cancer.  All medical efforts had been unsuccessful and his mother had only a short time to live.  Hema promised to keep this disclosure secret and grieved for the woman she had come to admire and love.
The second story in the link, "Year's End," is narrated by Kaushik.  With the opening line, "I did not attend my father's wedding," readers know that Kaushik‘s mother has died.  His father, in Calcutta for a visit, had married Chitra, a woman with two young daughters, and all would be returning to the North Shore house to live. Most of the chapter recounts the ordeal of the mother‘s dying, Kaushik‘s tremendous sense of loss, and the loneliness experienced by him at Swarthmore College.  No mention is made of Hema by the desolate narrator except to remember he had hated every day spent under her parents' roof, but later had come to think of that time with nostalgia.  

"Going Ashore" brings Hema and Kaushik together in Rome where she has a study grant and a visiting lectureship and he is on vacation from his work as an award-winning photo journalist.  Hema's parents have arranged for her to marry Navin in Calcutta.  Navin has accepted a teaching position at MIT. Until her unexpected reunion with Kaushik and the intense love affair that follows, neither had experienced any real connection with another person.  The story about them in Rome seems to represent an independence from the cultural forces that have shaped their lives, but this independence is short lived.  Ultimately, she is unable to set aside the expectations imposed by her parents.  The consequences of their final separation are more than any reader might imagine.


Most of Lahiri's insightful writings concern the betwixt and between challenges associated with immigration and with generational shifts.  This collection of engaging and beautifully written stories examines both challenges.  Many readers will be haunted by these quietly developed narratives.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York & Toronto



Page Count