Themes in Hell-Heaven by Jhumpa Lahiri
Literature is given shape and impetus by the immediate society it represents. It is this society which mostly creates the setting of most literary materials and the themes. Many artists have argued that a work of art cannot be divorced from the society as the two have a mutual relationship with the society also relying on the work of art to pass on its aspects customs and believes to generations.
Asian-American literature is derived from the issues affecting Asian immigrants living in America. The immigrants had to deal with the issue of clashing cultures and how these two clashing cultures affected their day to day lives. They had to get assimilated in the already existing American culture as well as maintain the culture of their origin Calcutta which was quite different from that of America.The challenges they face in their assimilation, the stigmatization they go through by being looked down upon by the white Americans as the unavoidable challenge of protecting their Indian culture in a foreign country.
Many Indian writers living in America wrote about these issues especially those emerging from the 1970’s the period that postmodernism began (Adams, 2008). Jhumpa Lahiri is one such writer, in her collection of short stories ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ brings readers through a clear picture of what transpired in the Asian American societies specifically in the Bengali families living in America from the 1970’s all through to the present time. This paper focuses on a critique of the story Heaven and Hell by analyzing the themes of the violence of assimilation and tradition versus modernity with the aim of finding out how the two themes have been brought up in the story.
Tradition Versus modernity
The story Hell-Heaven is narrated by a young Bengallian girl who lives in America with her parents. From the story it is revealed to us that Indian families have moved to America for pursuit of a better paying job or education. These families however still hold on to their cultural roots especially those people that were born in Calcutta India and moved to America only for the purposes of financial gain. Usha the narrator explains to us how her mother Boudi strongly holds on to Indian beliefs and practices. The way she dresses, how she prepares her meals and also how she interacts with people.
She identifies herself as a Bengali and conducts herself as any other Bengali married woman would do. Pranab Kaku reveals that it was easy to note that she is from Bengali when they met from the way she wore red and white bangles which are reserved for only the married women in Bengali as well as the Tangali Sari dress and vermillion powder applied in the center parting of her hair typical for Indian women. This clearly depicts how she has stuck to her roots and traditions despite living in a totally different society.
The theme of tradition is further depicted by how she prepares a local meal for Pranab when he visits her and how he also invites a for a bachelor dinner before his wedding to Deborah an American Girls which is described as an Indian practice. When Invited to parties by Pranab’s in-laws, Boudi and her husband also conduct themselves in accordance to the Bengali culture and do not engage in practices considered taboo in their culture.
Modernity on the other part is represented by the young and growing Indians who have been brought up in America and have experienced the American culture more than the Indian culture. Pranab is a representative of this modernity from the way he conducts himself. Even though he was raised in Calcutta and only came to America for his graduate studies he slowly accepts the modern way of living rather than that of the Bengalis. He slowly breaks off from the Indian culture by cutting contact with his roots and parents and stops going back to Calcutta during the summer holidays. When the Shamal Da family accepts him like a son he associates himself with them because they do not detest his modern views on life like his parents do.
He further goes on to marry an American girl of his choice abandoning the forced marriage arranged by his parents back home in Calcutta. He views his foster parents as liberalists because they accept Deborah despite of her being American.
Usha is also a representative of modernity by the way she detests the Bengali traditions. She does not understand why her parents want her to grow as a Bengali even though she is of a different culture. She associates herself more with the Americans than the Bengalis growing up to date only American men and engaging in social activities reserved for the Americans. For instance she attends parties and takes beer and cigarettes like the American people of her age do. She views Deborah the American wife of Pranab kaku as her elder sister and does not understand why the Bengalis do not like her.
Violence of Assimilation
ModernuAll are richly detailed, painting portraits of the complexity of these families’ lives; all deal with making and remaking lives, loves, and identities in the wake of radical disruptions