Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Unaccustomed Earth

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Unaccustomed Earth

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2008, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2009, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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The Origins of Sindoor

With supreme and economical skill, Jhumpa Lahiri uses only a few cultural signifiers to situate her characters in space and time. Almost all of the mothers in her stories, the women from the older generation who emigrate from India to the United States with their husbands, wear vermilion powder in their hair. Called sindoor, this powder is applied to the part of a Hindu bride's hair by her husband during their wedding ceremony, and is thereafter worn to signify her married status. Widows typically do not wear sindoor.

In this way, the meaning of sindoor is much simpler than that of the bindi, the bright red dot that many Indian women wear on their foreheads. The bindi can be worn by women regardless of age and marital status, and thus functions more like a decoration, albeit one with spiritual meaning as the bindi is placed over the sixth chakra, or energy point - between and just above the eyes, often referred to as the 'third eye'.

Pick which explanation for sindoor's source that you prefer: the Bollywood tale that it originated from the common practice of bride kidnapping, in which a groom would fight off the would-be abductor and, if successful, smear his blood in the bride's hair; the mythological explanation that red is the color of power and vermilion is the symbol of female energy, as manifested by the goddesses Parvati and Sati; or the physiological explanation that the mercury in the powder stimulates a woman's sexual energy.


Modern-Day Arranged Marriages

In Unaccustomed Earth, the women who wear sindoor do so in honor of their arranged marriages, in which parents choose the spouse and negotiate the terms of the union. Arranged marriages are very much alive and well in India and expatriate Indian communities around the world.

The modern variation tends to be more open and flexible than a traditional arrangement, where the future couple would meet just once or twice in the company of their parents. A modern arranged marriage might start on the internet, where parents post and respond to ads about their children, then progress over a series of unchaperoned dates, and culminate in the agreement of an auspicious wedding date (these days, a dowry is optional but not uncommon). In this article, a sophisticated American-Indian woman in New York explains why dating the men her father has found for her on the internet beats participating in the brutal New York singles scene.

This article was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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