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Aranca Muradian
Ethnic American Literature
Professor Draga
Rooted by Identity in Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

The garden was coming along nicely. It was a futile exercise, he knew. He
could not picture his daughter or his son-in-law caring for it properly, noticing
what needed to be done. In weeks, he guessed, it would be overgrown with
weeds, the leaves chewed up by slugs. Then again, perhaps they would hire
someone to do the job. He would have preferred to put in vegetables, but they
required more work than flowers (Lahiri 48).

As simple as this passage may seem its one of the most important quotes out of Jhumpa
Lahiris short stories entitled Unaccustomed Earth. Focusing on the first story of the series with
the same title as the book, Lahiri portrays the theme of identity with storytelling. Fictional
characters with real characteristics are intertwined by everyday situations, giving a sense of
realism to the decisions and thoughts that they have. In addition to this, the following stories
seem to have this theme incorporated along with the Americanization of families and how it
directly affects the old generations view of the new generation. All of her stories either mention
or are set in the United States, using elements that are exclusively part of America as a way to
illustrate the differences between Bengali and American Culture.

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For the purpose of better identifying the connections made regarding the theme of
Identity, its important to have some background. The main character in Unaccustomed Earth is a
second-generation Bengali named Ruma who makes her living as a lawyer in the USA. Although
a successful lawyer she decides to take a break and be a stay at home mom with her son Akash
who is three years old. Due to her husbands job they are forced to move to a new city,
specifically Seattle where Ruma knows no one and is socially isolated because of this. She
identifies herself as Bengali in some aspects, but also chooses to live an American Lifestyle. She
reminisces about her mother who had lived her life serving others, something that Ruma had
always tried to avoid. Her independence is very important to her and 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 Rumas life now(Lahiri 11). However, she regrets
forgetting the Bengali language that her mother had tried so hard to instill in Rumas upbringing,
teaching the few words that she remembers to Akash as a way to pass on her Bengali roots to the
new generation. She does not reject the American lifestyle she has created for herself, but at the
same time she feels trapped between two places. On one hand she is career-oriented and self
sufficient, on the other hand the American Dream is distorted in her situation. Her husband is
away most of the time and she is left to take care of their son by herself. She left her job in New
York to become a better provider which collides with the idea of what the American Dream
really is.
Subsequently, her father is desperate to cut all ties with his Bengali roots starting with
the house that he had shared with his wife. His idea of the American dream is that of freedom
from the past. Therefore, freeing himself from the life he had lived up until his wifes death gives
him a sense of liberation, making him able to move forward with his life. He is content with

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doing activities typical Americans tend to do such as, becoming a volunteer for the Democratic
Party in Pennsylvania and constantly immersing himself in traveling to different places around
Europe. These activities fulfill his expectations and he enjoys this solitude that he has created for
himself. Ruma is struck by the degree to which her father resembled an American in his old
age(Lahiri 11). Even Ruma is surprised at her fathers new lifestyle, constantly asking herself
how hes doing, and what hes thinking about since her mothers passing. She feels that he has
forgotten about her mother, something that eats away at her thoughts regularly.
In addition to this clash of identities its important to note Rumas concern about the
decisions she has made. Bengali customs indicate that she should have taken her father into her
home to take care of him; however he is reluctant to have this happen since he enjoys his small
apartment and doesnt want to interfere with Rumas home life. Unaware of his thoughts she
thinks about whether or not she should tell him to stay for good while he visits for the week. She
feels selfish when she thinks about not asking him and even calls her husband to further discuss
what shes supposed to do. Ironically her father has no intention of staying, making Rumas
concern unnecessary. This example indicates how the Americanization of her father has made it
so that he is actually the one that has no interest in being taken care of.
Focusing on a different aspect of the story, the relation between Rumas father and Akash
is directly related to the old and new generation. Akash is third generation Bengali, making him
even more reluctant to learning Bengali traditions. Rumas father however manages to make
Akash want to be like his grandfather, whether it is by gardening in the backyard, learning colors
in the Bengali language, taking off his shoes when entering the house, or eating with his fingers
(Heveiov). Akash has formed a bond with his grandfather and he absorbs any type of
information that is given to him. He looks up to his grandfather and tries to mimic him any way

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he can. Ruma feels a sense of relief with her father taking some of the burden off of her giving
her time to unwind. Her loneliness makes her feel that her fathers moving in might not be so
bad. With such a positive influence on Akash she would be able to maybe go back to work and
she feels as is Akash would be much happier with his grandfather around. Under these
circumstances its clear that the act of gardening symbolizes much more to Rumas father than
just a process of relaxation. Regarding the opening quote of this essay, the uncultivated garden,
the lack of flowers or vegetables symbolizes this lack of belonging, not being rooted to the
earth where she is currently living. Rumas father has found his roots in all the places he has
travelled, but Ruma is still trying to find herself and this lack of belonging is keeping her back
from finding her own identity and being able to move forward from the past, like her father has
already done. Rumas father tries to make the soil familiar to Akash, as he puts in all his toys in
the little holes he dug in the ground Akash asks When will the plants come out?(Lahiri 49) and
Rumas father responds with Not so soon, these things take time(Lahiri 49). The act of
gardening for Ruma has never truly occurred to her. However, for Rumas father it has always
been a routine for him to plant all sorts of flowers and vegetables. Routine is a part of his life,
and gardening can be done anywhere so he will always have the opportunity to relax and do
something he enjoys, no matter where he is (Ravy). This is why he is able to be a part of any
place that he visits; his routines keep his identity in place regardless of where he travels. Ruma
has lost this sense of routine; quitting her job has made her feel inadequate about herself, and
being unable to socialize with anyone has also made her feel depressed.
He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the
demands, and the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his
daughters life, in the shadow of her marriage. He didnt want to live again in

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an enormous house that would only fill up with things over the years, as the
children grew, all the things hed recently gotten rid of, all the books and
papers and clothes and objects one felt compelled to possess, to save. Life
grew and grew until a certain point. The point he had reached now(Lahiri 53).
Its clear that Rumas father has no intention of staying to help, he feels as if he would
repeating past actions and would collide with the progress hes made moving forward.
In parallel to Lahiris concern with identity in a foreign land, the article written
by Frederick Buell entitled National culture and the new global system talks about
Kingstons book Woman Warrior (1975) which poses similar remarks. Stating the
following On the one hand, Woman Warrior is a story of ethnic revival. Kingston sets
herself the task of separating what is merely individual, socioeconomic, or simply
spurious from what is Chinese(Buell 183). This is similar to what Lahiri is trying to
do with Bengali culture, traditions and meanings of what it means to be a certain
identity are blurred due to this constant globalization of different people mixing
together. Buell goes on to say that Woman Warrior is a very different immigrant novel,
one that evokes the model of immigrant success and the frustrations and dilemmas of
conflicts between seconds and first generations(Buell 183). However, in contrast to
Unaccustomed Earth, Woman Warrior deals with different subjects such as, Chinese
women and men in society, Kingstons own relationship with her Chinese mother, the
sanctity of marriage in China and numerous Chinese customs that have affected her at
one point or another. An example of a custom would be how when a person dies, people
come to bring gifts, and in one of the stories titled No name Woman, the main
woman in the story commits suicide along with her illegitimate baby by jumping into a

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Chinese well. This is seen as completely disgraceful and no one brings gifts at her
burial. Lahiri and Kingston share this search for identity as they express their own
views with the help of their writings.
Given these points, identity is more or less a form of being, an individual state
of mind, where someone can identify themselves regardless of where they live. Whether
they live on American or Bengali land it shouldnt change the way that person is.
Traditions are valuable, and should be passed on to newer generations. Attempting to
live in a certain way however, is very hard to do. There must be a sort of compromise,
people should try to adapt to their new surroundings otherwise they become immersed
in solitude making it difficult to rise from it, as in Kinstons story with the character Fa
Mu Lan. She overcomes stereotypical Chinese woman duties and becomes a warrior
and a mother and a wife all at the same time. There should be no restrictions in what
people are capable of doing.

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Works Cited
Buell, Frederick. National Culture and the New Global System. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.
Heveiov, Simona. "Enjoyin Literature." : Unaccustomed Earth: Generation
at the Crossroads. N.p., 1 May 2010. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.
Ravy, Tawnya. "Geographies of Intimacy in Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed
Earth." Geographies of Intimacy in Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth.
Academia.edu, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.