Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are
designed to enhance your group's discussion of Unaccustomed Earth
dazzling collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prizewinner Jhumpa Lahiri.
About This Book
In eight finely crafted stories, Jhumpa Lahiri explores the expectations,
allegiances, and conflicts that both create and fray the ties between
generations. The Bengali-American families she depicts struggle with doubts and
uncertainties, emotional upheavals in their personal lives, and feelings of
displacement in the face of cultural and social shifts and changes. Many of the
characters cope with unsettling events and unanticipated feelings: a father and
his grown daughter react in surprisingly different ways to the death of the wife
and mother who anchored the family; a woman fulfills her parents' high
expectations but is haunted by her inability to save her younger brother from
self-destruction; and a young couple attending a friend's wedding confronts the
unexpected unspoken tensions in their own marriage. A magnificent trio of linked
stories traces the intersecting lives of Hema and Kaushik from their childhood
meeting in Massachusetts to a chance encounter many years later in Rome. Told
from the points of view of both characters, the three stories capture the
difficulties of reconciling the hold of the past and the freedom and
possibilities that beckon in a world in which family ties and geographical
borders are disappearing.
As she traces these journeys, both external and internal, Jhumpa Lahiri
brilliantly illuminates the emotional landscape tread by parents, children,
spouses, and lovers of every culture and generation.
- Discuss the relevance of the epigraph from Hawthorne's "The Custom House"
not just to the title story but also to the collection as a whole. In which
stories do the children successfully "strike their roots into unaccustomed
earth"? Why do others find themselves unable to establish roots? How do their
feelings of restlessness and insecurity stem from growing up in two cultures?
What other more universal problems do they experience? In what ways does their
lack of attachment to a place or culture reflect a more general trend in
- In "Unaccustomed Earth," what underlies the tension in the relationship
between Ruma and her father as the story opens? What aspects of the family's
history inhibit their ability to communicate with each other? How do their
memories of Ruma's mother and the life she led influence the paths they choose
for the next stages in their lives? Do you feel more sympathy for either
character's point of view?
- In what ways does "Heaven-Hell" echo the themes explored in "Unaccustomed
Earth"? How does the way the story unfolds add to its power and its poignancy?
What parallels are there between the narrator's mother's "crush" on Pranab and
her own infatuation with him and Deborah?
- What is the significance of the title "A Choice of Accommodations"? What
does it imply about Amit and Megan's marriage? Why do you think Lahiri chose to
set the story at Amit's old prep school? Do you think the events of the weekend
bring Amit a better sense of who he is, what he wants and needs from Megan, and
his role as a husband and father? Will the weekend change anything for Amit and
Megan and their relationship?
- "Only Goodness" traces the impact of parental expectations on a sister and
brother. Why did Sudha and Rahul develop in such different ways? Discuss such
factors as the circumstances surrounding their births and earliest years; the
obligations Sudha takes on both as the "perfect daughter" and in response to the
combination of love, envy, and resentment Rahul's attitudes and behavior arouse
in her; and the siblings' awareness of and reactions to the "perplexing fact of
[their] parents' marriage" [p. 137]. Compare and contrast the siblings' choice
of partners. What attracts Sudha to Roger, and Rahul to Elena?
- Why does Paul, the American graduate student in "Nobody's Business," find
his roommate, Sang, the recipient of frequent marriage proposals, so intriguing?
Does Paul really want to help Sang, or does he get involved in her relationship
with Farouk for more selfish reasons? Why do you think Lahiri titled this story
"Nobody's Business"and what does the title mean to you?
- In "Once in a Lifetime," Hema addresses Kaushik directly as she recalls
the time they spent together as teenagers. How does this twist on the
first-person narration change your experience as a reader? Does it establish a
greater intimacy between you and the narrator? Does it have an effect on the
flow of the narrative? On the way Hema presents her memories? Is it comparable,
for example, to reading a private letter or diary? Are the same things true of
Kaushik's narrative in "Year's End"?
- In an interview with Bookforum, Lahiri, whose parents immigrated to
London and then to the United States, said, "My parents befriended people simply
for the fact that they were like them on the surface; they were Bengali, and
that made their circle incredibly vast. There is this de facto assumption that
they're going to get along, and often that cultural glue holds them, but there
were also these vast differences. My own circle of friends is much more
homogenous, because most of my friends went to collegeIvy League or some other
fine institutionand vote a certain way." How is this mirrored by the friendship
between the two sets of parents in "Once in a Lifetime," who are close friends
despite the differences in their backgrounds? Why does this attachment
deteriorate when the Choudhuri family returns from India? Which of their habits
or attitudes do Hema's parents find particularly reprehensible and why? What is
the significance of Kaushik's breaking his family's silence and telling Hema
about his mother's illness?
- How would you describe the tone and style of Kaushik's account of his
father's remarriage in "Year's End"? Does his conversation with his father [pp.
253-255] reveal similarities between them? Why does Kaushik say, "I didn't know
which was worsethe idea of my father remarrying for love, or of his actively
seeking out a stranger for companionship" [p. 255]? Does the time he spends with
his father's new family offer an alternate, more complex, explanation for his
- What role do his stepsisters play in Kaushik's willingness to accept his
father's marriage? Why is he so outraged by their fascination with the pictures
of his mother? He later reflects, "in their silence they continued to both
protect and punish me" [p.293]. In what ways does their silence and the reasons
for it mirror Kaushik's own behavior, both here and in "Once in a Lifetime"?
- How do "Once in a Lifetime" and "Year's End" set the stage for "Going
Ashore," the final story in the trilogy? What traces of their younger selves are
visible in both Hema and Kaushik? In what ways do the paths they've chosen
reflect or oppose the journeys their parents made as immigrants?
- Why does Hema find the idea of an arranged marriage appealing? How has
her affair with Julian affected her ideas about romantic love? What does her
description of her relationship with Navin [pp. 296-298] reveal about what she
thinks she wants and needs in a relationship? What role do her memories of her
parents' marriage play in her vision of married life?
- What motivates Kaushik's decision to become a photojournalist? In what
ways does the peripatetic life of a photojournalist suit his idea of himself? In
addition to the many moves his family made, what other experiences make him grow
up to be an outsider, "away from the private detritus of life" [p. 309]?
- What does the reunion in Rome reveal about the ties that bind Hema and
Kaushik despite their many years of separation? What does it illustrate about
their attempts to escape from the past and their parents' way of life? What do
they come to realize about themselves and the plans they have made as the
intimacy between them escalates? Why does Lahiri introduce Hema's voice as the
narrator of the final pages?
- In what ways does "Going Ashore" bring together the themes threaded
through the earlier stories? What does the ending demonstrate about realities of
trying to find a home in the world?
- The stories in Unaccustomed Earth offer a moving, highly original
perspective on the clash between family and cultural traditions and the search
for individual identity. How does the sense of displacement felt by the older,
immigrant generation affect their American-born children? What accommodations do
the children make to their parents' way of life? In trying to fit in with their
American friends, do they sacrifice their connections to their heritage? In what
ways are the challenges they face more complex than those of their parents?
- Several stories feature marriages between an Indian-American and an
Americanand in once case, English--spouse. What characteristics do these mixed
marriages share? In what ways does becoming parents themselves bring up (or
renew) questions about cultural identity? What emotions arise as they
contemplate the differences between the families they're creating and those in
which they grew up?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arranged Marriage; Andre Dubus,
After Hours; Mavis Gallant, Varieties of Exile; Barbara Kingsolver,
Homeland and Other Stories; Bharati Mukherjee, The Middleman;
Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman; Flannery O'Connor, The
Complete Stories; William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.