art of resistance, India

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hell-Heaven (Unaccustomed Earth).

Jhumpa Lahiri has a great talent of writing genuinely, writing about everyday, writing about common, but still making it deeply revealing, interesting, and – finding wonders in it. The following is an excerpt from her short story Hell-Heaven (the story can be found in Lahiri’s collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth). Here, once again, Lahiri deals with the experience of Indian immigrants in the USA, cutting through the delicate tissue of place and time, memory and identity.

ja/Jhumpa Lahiri, photo via media.npr.org/

He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at MIT. Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of the week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute. He was living on Trowbridge Street in the home of a divorced woman with two young children who were always screaming and crying. He rented a room in the attic and was permitted to use the kitchen only at specified times of the day and instructed  always to wipe down the stove with Windex and a sponge. My parents agreed that it was a terrible situation, and if they’d had a bedroom to spare they would have offered it to him. Instead, they welcomed him to our meals and opened up our apartment to him at any time, and soon it was there he went between classes and on his days off, always leaving some vestige of himself: a nearly finished pack of cigarettes, a newspaper, a piece of mail he had not bothered to open, a sweater he had taken off and forgotten in the course of his stay.

I remember vividly the sound of his exuberant laughter and the sight of his lanky body slouched or sprawled on the dull, mismatched furniture that had come with our apartment. He had a striking face, with a high forehead and a thick mustache, and overgrown, untamed hair that my mother said made him look like American hippies who were everywhere in those days. His long legs jiggled rapidly up and down wherever he sat, and his elegant hands trembled when he held a cigarette between his fingers, tapping the ashes into a teacup that my mother began to set aside for this exclusive purpose. Though he was a scientist by training, there was nothing rigid or predictable or orderly about him. He always seemed to be starving, walking through the door and announcing that he hadn’t had lunch, and then he would eat ravenously, reaching behind my mother  to steal cutlets as she was frying them . before she had a chance to set them properly on a plate with red onion salad.

In private, my parents remarked that he was a brilliant student, a star at Jadavpur who had come to MIT with an impressive assistanship, but Pranab Kaku was cavallier about his classes, skipping them with frequency. ‘These Americans are learning equations I knew at Usha’s age’, he would complain. He was stunned that my second-grade teacher didn’t assign any homework and that at the age of seven I hadn’t yet been taught square roots or the concept of pi.

He appeared without warning, never phoning beforehand but simply knocking on the door the way people did in Calcutta and calling out ‘Boudi!’ as he waited for my mother to let him in. Before we met him, I would return from school and find my mother with her purse in her lap and her trench coat on, desperate to escape the apartment where she had spent the day alone. But now I would find her in the kitchen, rolling out dough for lunchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me, or putting up new curtains she’d bought at Woolworth’s. I didn’t know, back then, that Pranab Kaku’s visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance. That she lived for the moment she heard him call out ‘Boudi!’ from the porch and that she was in a foul humor on the day he didn’t materialize.”

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