A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian-American writer whose uniqueness lies in her expression of the struggles and perspectives of Indians while away from their homeland. Along with this, she also highlights the pangs of loneliness, the rootlessness characteristic of non-residing Indians, and the need of the migrants to either cling on to their Indian roots in a foreign land or relinquish them in order to blend in with the norm. This is the primary subject in her three most celebrated novels – The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland. The anxiety of not belonging is very starkly brought out in the manner in which the homeland is described through the eyes of a migrant, who is unable to call the land their own while cherishing memories of a past spent there. The sights of Bengal thus seem to be recollected by one who is familiar with the terrain but acutely conscious of the fact that they are not an organic part of it. While living abroad, this feeling is not that strong among the first generation migrants who are still close to their Indian heritage and do not seek for a foreign identity. The attempt to consolidate a native identity in a foreign land introduces a strong local flavour to the narrative, as Lahiri writes from a similar position of cultural isolation.
Having spent her childhood in England before finally moving to Rhode Island, her parents were the only remnants of Bengal that Lahiri was exposed to. A perpetual crisis ensued wherein she felt like an American ambassador within an Indian household, and being a foreigner in American circles is frequently referred to in her works. She colloquially refers to those like her as ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis). In the mentioned novels, the characters belong to different backgrounds and cities but they are united in their identity as Bengalis. However this cannot be considered as an adequate identity, because the characters do not share a uniform relationship with their roots. The second generation NRIs are not as attached to their country as their parents are, and even among them there is a disparity in their attitudes towards the new land. In The Namesake, Ashok and Ashima shared similar middle-class upbringings; however Ashok perceived America as the land of possibilities. On the other hand, America was an exile for Ashima- a compromise she made for the sake of her marriage. Bitterly nostalgic of the life she had left behind, she subconsciously held her husband responsible for uprooting her from it.
Lahiri creates Chitra and Hema’s and Usha’s parents in Unaccustomed Earth – all of whom take great care to nurture their native roots in America. The women in these stories are all Bengali home-makers who desperately try to replicate the environment they grew up in. In Lahiri’s works, Bengalis who are born in a foreign country attend American schools, have American friends, and live American lives outside their homes. The parents, for whom native culture is comforting and familiar, bring up children who see that very culture as strange. The cultural practices of the masses of Americans are what seem normal to them. Lahiri’s focus is not on the difference between the American and Indian way of life but the growing distance between the Bengali parent and the American child due to the differences in the way in which they identify themselves. This distance becomes evident in the differences in food habits, clothing, language, and other elements constituting culture in a community. A lot of Lahiri’s women characters, especially those who are aggressively protective of their Bengali identity, use clothing as an armour against western culture. Although they run the risk of being isolated, they would rather stand out in a sari than be a part of the American crowd.
In The Lowland, Subhash and Udayan are twins who grow up in Kolkata leading very ordinary childhoods, but once Subhash returns home after several years in Rhode Island he notices more clearly the orthodox practices still followed by his parents. Despite having left his homeland several years ago he brings up his late brother’s daughter as his own, giving her a quintessentially Bengali name and instills in her Indian habits. Hence Bela grows up knowing the Bengali culture closely, due to the clarity of Subhash’s vision of himself as an Indian living in the USA. Ultimately, Lahiri seems to argue that the cultural dislocation and the feeling of not belonging is largely psychologically created, for some migrants are proud of their rich Indian background while others are uncomfortable due to the same reason. Aside from racial and spatial considerations, she highlights the migrant’s desire to belong to both cultures and not entirely to any, which creates a conflict of identity of not knowing if they are truly Indian in spirit.