Book Spotlight: Unaccustomed Earth

Book Spotlight: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri


I finished the book beneath a hot Michigan sun with a baseball cap protecting my scalp. In a reclining Adirondack chair, I sat on top of a floral beach towel; my feet rested on a plastic table, crossed at the ankle and absorbing the heat. I noticed a heat rash developing on my thighs. My arms appeared tanner than usual as if my skin had retained color from last summer. Besides a pot of lavender, I was alone. No finches or bluejays. No bees. Even the ants gave me privacy. A tear fell, following my cheek’s curve and dripping into cotton shorts. I let the water rest on my skin, resisting the urge to wipe away its path. I let it exist. It felt wrong to abolish the evidence of good literature, the evidence my body had produced.

I closed the book and stood up. Instead of a head rush, my brain flipped through pages of short stories, reminding me of names–Hema, Kaushik, Ruma–that now sounded personal as if I’d known them. Seeing that I had not yet digested this literary journey, I sat back down. Scenes began to resurface. Bengali phrases knocked against each other in my skull. I could smell the lamb curry and pullao as if my own mother were cooking nearby. And for a moment I was convinced that I’d lived through each of the stories, tasted all of the dishes, made the long journey from Bombay to America. For a moment, I believed that all the love I would ever need could be found in this soft cover fuchsia book.

With the back of my hand, I erased the tear’s salty path and went inside. A spontaneous urge filled me like the need for chocolate or poetry.  I craved something tangible and binding. Something to pull me inside the text. Something to prove that the margins now contained my fingertips. I remembered a small compartment in my mother’s jewelry box, one that contained bracelets and thin, paper notes that I have written to her throughout the years. Opening the drawer, I saw a gold bangle and picked it up. I looped my thumb and first finger through its shape, sliding it over my fingertips and knuckles. It travelled up and down my wrist. Then, finding the thickest spot, the bangle locked itself in place, embracing me just as I had pictured it would, just as Jhumpa Lahiri described it.

Later that week, the Salvation Army had a green tag sale. A long line formed outside the fitting rooms. People waited with sweaters and pants and dresses slung over their forearm, listening to the Gospel music that played on the speaker. With my arms stretching for the ceiling, Ally tried to tug electric blue fabric over my head. With each  maneuver, silver and gold beading made the sound of a waterfall. We realized that this one wouldn’t fit. We giggled like schoolgirls at the sight of me trapped inside the fabric, my arms locked straight above, my head almost emerging like a second birth. The next one was fuchsia. I pulled the jaw-string tight, securing the pants around my waist. Numerous gold strands dangled from the ankle. This fabric went over my head with ease. Ally and I were certain that a seamstress intended it for me, in this moment. She must have expected my curiosity. I removed the scarf from its hanger and draped it over my shoulder. Ally helped the material float down my back, making adjustments when needed. In the dented, slim mirror, we both observed my new reflection. Those names–Hema, Kaushik, Ruma–now felt familial. I was convinced, in this fitting rooming, that I could find their phone numbers in my contact list, dial, and ask about their day. Ally helped me remove the fuchsia sari. We placed the three-piece set back on its hanger, clipping the pants onto the prongs. We left the fitting room. I returned the saris to their home among other dresses and long jackets. I observed them one last time, imaging the person who donated them. I wondered what short story their life could tell. My mind produced one more Bengali phrase. I touched the gold bangle on my wrist and then walked toward the jean aisle, leaving the saris for the next curious person.

Unaccustomed Earth on GoodReads

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