Sometimes, a short story sticks with you until you find it with pleasure living in a larger collection. In 1991, I read a short story by Tobias Wolff standing up in a Chicago bookstore that I looked for until it was included in The Night in Question.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, contains another haunting story, “Nobody’s Business,” first published in The New Yorker in 2001. It gives a stark account of graduate student despair—first at life delayed due to years of study, then postponed because of deferred relationships left to explode into messy life. Paul, the narrator, gives an outsider account of Indian courtship rituals drawn into housemate drama. Desperate to prove his innocence of what he learns, he provides telephonic evidence of how she is being betrayed.
Lahiri isn’t afraid to show life as it is. Painful, entangled with family obligations and academic aspirations, the stories show adult parents and children reaching accomodations with hidden truths and adjustments to immigrant life. Her stories show how second-generation Bengali immigrants draw pleasure from their Harvard and MIT PhDs, just as their accomplishments push them away from their families of origin. When the characters marry outside their connections, as in “Only Goodness,” they feel guilt and relief in equal measure.
The final three stories, linked through the characters Hema and Kaushik, give a tragic account of a family left to reconstitute itself after a mother’s early death rips it asunder. Though Lahiri leaves a narrative option for easy closure, the devastating ending feels, well, like life in the midst of death.