and forgetting: an analysis of “Unaccustomed Earth”, by Jhumpa Lahiri
de Souza Gomes Carreira
This paper aims
at analysis of the short story “Unaccustomed Earth”, by Jhumpa Lahiri,
in order to show the way the dialectic relationship between memory and
forgetting intertwines with the issue of the migrant’s cultural
memory, forgetting, migration
have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within
my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
In On the
Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche analyzes the social conditions that
generated memory. The author sustains the hypothesis that memory is not
an individual attribute or isolated capacity, but a social
construction. The construction of memory is due to social pressures,
since man at first acts out of the spontaneous and impulsive forces of
Nietzsche, forgetting is a positive power that enables a kind of
relaxation of consciousness and allows the rise of the new.
The need of
living in group and getting its protection made man inhibit his
capacity of forgetting, developing memory, in order to become committed
with the collective interest. It is that commitment which gives man his
sense of belonging.
life is marked by the traits of memory. The experience of living in a
foreign country is always a history of a divided self: on one hand
there is the need to keep the links to tradition, homeland and
memories, and on the other one the sweet taste of freedom the contact
with a different culture gives.
Since her first
book, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri has been dealing with
the experience of a life with two separate cultures, and how people
cope with one and the other.
This paper aims
at analyzing her short story “Unaccustomed Earth” in order to
demonstrate how the internal relations between recalling and forgetting
operate in the text, and how this dynamic becomes problematic in light
of events that once were present but then became past.
2. From where
does the voice come?
Some years ago,
with the boom of postcolonial literature, the critical discourse
started to deal with the binary opposition colonist/colonized. The
literary studies evolved into an investigation of the traces of that
opposition in the migrant writers’ works, which in majority were
reports of the clash between cultures as well as of the process of
the works written by immigrants’ children tend to focus on the
complexity of relationships between the generation who lived the
diaspora and their children, born in foreign lands, who, differently
from their parents, had neither a native land to remember, nor
traditions to be kept alive.
Maurice Halbwachs, the preservation of memories is responsible for the
perpetuation of a sense of identity, and it is in society that people
normally acquire, recall, recognize, and localize their memories (1992,
38). Thus, he argued that it is impossible for individuals to remember
in any coherent and persistent fashion outside of their group contexts.
is part a construct of his own experiences and part a product of a
social set of rules, internalized by means of the operation of a
collective memory. As well as group membership provide the materials
for memory and prod the individual into recalling particular events and
into forgetting others, groups can even produce memories in individuals
of events that they never experienced in any direct sense.
children experience that borrowed memory in a more acute way, due to
the fact that they have never had a true contact with their parents’
Being an immigrants’ child, born in England and raised in the U.S.A.,
Jhumpa Lahiri is the true example of a “translated” individual, term
used by Salman Rushdie to refer to people to whom the experience of
migration conferred a cosmopolitan view, which is above the strict
meaning of belonging.
3. Roots into
Earth”, the title story, contains the narrative of the
inner conflict of an Indian-American woman, Ruma, who is married and is
about to have her second child, when she is visited by her father, an
Indian retiree, in her new home in Seattle. The visit brings about a
myriad of feelings, bringing back old resentments and a deep reflection
on her relationship with her past.
As in her
previous books, Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters tend to be immigrants from
India and their American-reared children, exiles who straddle two
countries, two cultures, and belong to neither; people who are too used
to freedom to accept the rituals and conventions of home, and yet too
steeped in tradition to embrace American mores fully.
The story begins with a retrospective of Ruma’s father’s latest
activities: his travelling in Europe, after his retirement from a
pharmaceutical company. It also reveals Ruma’s discomfort before her
father’s succinct communication, as well as her resentment for his
being so emotionally distant from her.
were the first pieces of mail Ruma had ever received from her father.
In her thirty-eight years he’d never had any reason to write to her. It
was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that
there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a
position to receive mail on his end (…) The cards were addressed to
Ruma; her father never included Adam’s name, or mentioned Akash. It was
only in his closing that he acknowledged any personal connection with
them. “Be happy, love Baba”, he signed them, as if the attainment of
happiness were as simple as that. (LAHIRI, 2008, p. 4).
As a young girl, Ruma had thought extremely difficult to live according
to the Indian mores. To her parents’ displeasure, she and her brother
Romi, were excessively attracted to American way of life.
When Ruma and Adam, her husband, started to date, she kept it in secret
until the day the engagement was officially announced. Her parents
interpreted her choice as shame of her own roots, as a refusal of her
Even before her marriage, her relationship with her parents had been
difficult and later it resulted in a cold distant tie, turned longer
when she moved to Seattle.
The proximity of her father’s visit brings her back to conflict.
Intimately, she fears that, with the end of his trips, he might come to
her home to stay, making her recall old habits she is no more used to,
and resuscitating the past she had once buried.
Adam’s constant work trips make her double exile, from her roots and
from New York, even lonelier, what makes the threat her father’s visit
represents more serious.
According to Indian tradition, it is the daughter who cares for the
father in his old age, but Ruma does not feel prepared for that. She
knows that the visit will take place between two of her father’s trips
and that the next stop will be the city of Prague.
From the beginning it is clear for the reader the ambiguity of Ruma’s
feelings, for at the same time she watches the news when he is
scheduled to fly, to make sure there have not been any plane crash, she
still keeps inside a series of motives to support her own attitudes.
After her mother’s death, she assumed the duty of communicating with
him every evening. As the time passed by, the phone calls had become a
unique weekly conversation, usually on Sundays afternoons.
Differently from her mother, who would have simply told her the date
and timing of her arrival, if she had wanted to visit her, her father
phoned asking her to. This fact make clear how different was the
relationship she had with them.
Ruma had been engaged in a successful career in a law firm, but after
the two weeks for bereavement due to her mother’s death in an
unsuccessful surgery she decided to quit her job and stay home, taking
care of her child. In fact, her renounce started even earlier, when she
asked for a part-time schedule after Akash was born.
Unconsciously, Ruma left behind a condition that gave her independence
as an individual to devote herself to household, repeating her mother’s
mornings she wished she could simply get dressed and walk out the door,
like Adam. She didn’t understand how her mother had done it. Growing
up, her mother’s example moving to a foreign place for the sake of
marriage, caring exclusively for children and a household had served
as a warning, a path to avoid. Yet this was Ruma’s life now. (LAHIRI,
Her solitude arises when she sees her father getting off a rental car
on his arrival. Seeing him, she becomes aware of her having left behind
the old connections, the contacts she had made along those years.
Her father is surprisingly old, in western clothes, looking more
American than Indian. He had a cosmopolitan look, without traces of
origin. Were she alive, her mother would come in colored saris. That
thought makes her understand how different they had been.
She herself had tried to keep one foot in past, teaching Akash a few
words in Bengali, but when her son became a bit older, she did not have
enough discipline to teach him. In fact, her world was divided into two
languages: Bengali, in childhood, and English, in her adult life.
By now Akash
had forgotten the little Bengali Ruma had taught him when He was
started speaking in full sentences English had taken over, and she
lacked the discipline to stick to Bengali. Besides, it was one thing to
coo at him in Bengali, to point to this or that and tell him the
corresponding words. But it was another to be authoritative; Bengali
had never been a language in which she felt like an adult. Her own
Bengali was slipping from her. (LAHIRI, 2008, p. 12)
Her mother, as
other first generation immigrants, refused to speak English in family.
Her father was more flexible, facilitating assimilation to the new
culture. As well as her parents’ language, other old habits had been
left behind, as, for instance, removing shoes before entering the house.
little, other images come to her memory: her mother’s displeasure
before her preference for western clothes; her prediction that all her
clothes would go to strange hands after her death; the realization of
her prediction, when Ruma decided to keep only three of the two hundred
and eighteen saris her mother had, asking her mother’s friends to
divide up the rest.
Of the two
hundred and eighteen saris, she kept only three, placing them in a
quilted zippered bag at the back of her closet, telling her mother’s
friends to divide up the rest. And she had remembered the many times
her mother had predicted this very moment, lamenting the fact that her
daughter preferred pants and skirts to the clothing she wore, that
there would be no one to whom to pass on her things. (LAHIRI, 2008,
things she has never thought before start to appear in her mind: the
perfectibility of her mother running her household; the excellence of
her ability as a cook, which had never been praised by her husband; her
devotedness to family, without recognition.
and the childbirth proximity make her remember how much her mother’s
presence had been important when Akash was born, giving her a feeling
of safeness and comfort. Her mother, in all her traditionalism, her
linkage to roots, was her true homeland.
The word “homeland’ is used here with the meaning attributed by Rushdie
in Imaginary homelands (1991): the locus where identity is anchored.
Given its mythical nature, it assumes idealized, unreal characteristics.
In “Reflections on exile”, Edward Said(2000) argues that albeit
expatriates, who voluntarily live in an alien country, may share in the
solitude and estrangement of exile, some of them take benefit of their
ambiguous status whereas others seem to adhere to an everlasting
feeling of homelessness, trying to reproduce in the new land the
principles that guided their lives in their native land.
To the reader is not imperceptible the fact that, along the years, Ruma
had built a paradoxical relationship with her mother. At the same time
she recognized in her mother attributes she herself would never have,
she rejected submission to tradition.
The essence of that relationship was the conflict Ruma had faced all
her life: her difficulty to understand who she actually was and to what
world she belonged.
That ambivalence is also true for Ruma’s father. By means of an
alternance in focalization, the narrator reveals another version of
happenings. On the father’s perspective, the reader is before a
seventy-old man, to whom the loss of his wife, his daughter’s marriage
and his son’s departure had only given the basic certainty of being
On making the trip Ruma and her mother had planned before that fatal
surgery which changed their lives, he started to give his existence a
meaning. The ties had been broken. In one of the trips that followed
the first one, he had found a woman who called his attention: Mrs.
Bagchi. As well as Ruma did some years before, he omits that
relationship. Perhaps due to the same reason: not to hurt anybody.
He saw no point
in upsetting them, especially Ruma now that she was expecting again. He
wondered if this was how his children had felt in the past, covertly
conducting relationships back when it was something he and his wife had
forbidden, something that would have devastated them. (LAHIRI, 2008,
Through his eyes, the change in Ruma becomes more intense. The young
rebel from the past has been turning into a woman who resembles her
When he was
finished he poked his head into Akash’s room and found both the boy and
Ruma asleep. For several minutes he stood in the doorway. Something
about his daughter’s appearance had changed; she now resembled her
mother so strongly that he couldn’t bear to look at her directly (…)
her face was older now, as his wife’s had been, and the hair was
beginning to turn gray at her temples in the same way, twisted with an
elastic band into a loose knot. And the features, haunting now that his
wife was gone –the identical shape and shade of the eyes, the dimple on
the left side when they smiled. (LAHIRI, 2008, p. 28)
In his journey to Europe, he had been able to remember his first days
in America; his difficulty to communicate in a foreign country whose
language he did not know. He can remember now, being in Seattle, how
hard life had been, how gloomy and small the apartment where he lived
with his wife and children was. Ruma and Romi would only remember the
big house he had bought later, when he finished his PhD in biochemistry
and got a good job.
Ruma and Adam live in a house highly superior to that he was able to
give to his family. That house had been sold, because there was no
reason to live there alone. His friends had suggested him follow the
custom and go to live with his daughter, but he knew that was
impossible. Once, he had left his parents in India and parted. Not even
his father’s death made him go back. He had made his choice and now it
was Ruma’s time to make hers.
His attitudes were quite different from his wife’s and that contrast
becomes evident when he thinks that were he to die first, she would
never thought twice about moving to her daughter’s house. They had been
really different: she was happy, always in need of people around her;
he was serious and enjoyed solitude.
Just as his daughter, who had been some many times accused of breaking
the ties that linked her to her family, he now notices he has done the
same. He moved to another place: sufficiently near not to feel a
foreigner again, but distant enough to part from his old life.
With the awareness that only time gives, he is able to notice that Mrs
Bagchi had loved her husband of two years more than he had loved his
wife of nearly forty. Through the narrator’s words, it is possible to
see that it is not love that impels him to Mrs Bagchi, but the habit of
The change he suffers does not render imperceptible for his daughter.
Intimately, she feels that her mother’s death had produced different
reactions: she had endured great pain while her father seemed to have
been given a new reason to live.
The man who
tells her to go back to work, not to live for other people, as her
mother had done, is almost an unknown man: a father who never told her
how demanding her mother had been, her unwillingness to appreciate the
life he had worked hard to provide; a father who was afraid that she
would repeat her mother’s frustration, becoming equally unhappy; a
father who gave Akash the attention he had never given to his own
From this point
on the story becomes a succession of discoveries from part to part.
between memories and forgetting has the status of a more complex
dialectics: between sticking to roots or surrendering to change.
before his leaving, her father decides to plant a garden and asks Akash
to help him. As they do it, he teaches the boy the objects’ names in
Bengali. The relationship between them turns solid to the extent Ruma
is led to think that, for the fisrt time in his life, her father had
found the meaning of loving someone else.
that he will not be able to see the boy into adulthood makes him sad
and it is reinforced by the experience of a man who had seen his own
children go away, who had once been a son and done the same, without
Before that so different and sensitive man, Ruma decides to ask him to
stay. Despite the temptation that his grandson represents, he refuses.
Staying would be part of another story, re-build ties that had been
solved, and, after all, the boy who was the core of his doubts would
forget him soon, as his own children had done.
On his leaving, he leaves an envelope— written in Bengali and addressed
to Mrs Bagchi— he had not mailed. Being unable to read with her poor
knowledge of the language, Ruma guesses its content. That has a bitter
savor for her. All the time her father stayed with her she wanted to
ask him if he had actually loved her mother, if he missed her. That
letter seems to be her mother’s second death.
Her father chose forgetting in order to give way to new things. Before
the battle between past and present, Ruma gives up and decides to send
the letter to its addressee.
At her eyes,
America is exactly the place she thought it was when she was young: the
land where new identities may be built; based on present and future and
free from the ties of a memory that is not hers any more.
view of the experience of migration updates the reflections on
collective memory. For her, the place of belonging is that which
permits the individual be what he effectively is, no matter where he
was born, no matter the traditions he was exposed to.
dialectical struggle between memory and forgetting accompanies the
migrant man who flounders between past and present. However, being a
second-generation migrant, Lahiri gives to that dialectics a particular
nuance. “Unaccustomed earth” neither focuses on tradition nor on the
process of acculturation. It is a narrative that exposes the conflicts
inherent to a hybrid identity, resulted from the negotiation between
The social and cultural collective memory of diasporic peoples consists
of ties with an idealized and distant homeland. Jhumpa Lahiri grants
herself the privilege of building those ties differently. Her narrative
style, due to transculturation, transpires the fluidity of alternative
Hers is the
double view of one who effectively lives in the third space described
by Homi Bhabha. From that point of view she narrates her stories.
The introducing epigraph, a quotation from Hawthorne, suggests that
men’s destiny can be changed, when they sow their seeds in new soil.
That soil is exactly the place where new bonds of belonging can be
built; no more based on the culture of homeland, not even based on the
culture of a new country, but on the belief that we belong to the place
where we want to stay.
Maurice. A Memória Coletiva. São Paulo: Ed. Centauro,
HEDGE, M. G.
Movements and migration: tales from the third space. In: SHUKLA, S.
& SHUKLA, A. Migrant voices in literatures in English. New Delhi:
Sarup & Sons, 2006.
Unaccustomed earth. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
Friedrich Wilhelm. Genealogia da moral: uma polêmica. São
Paulo: Companhia da Letras, 1998.
Michael. Memória, esquecimento, silêncio. Estudos
Históricos, Rio de Janeiro, vol.2, nº 3, 1989.
Memory, History and Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Salman. Imaginary homelands. Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London:
Reflections on exile and other essays. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2000.