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Making Room: Place and Placelessness in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hema and Kaushik” in Unaccustomed Earth

Marie Mianowski


“Hema and Kaushik,” the second part of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2008 collection Unaccustomed Earth, foregrounds a complex tension between embodiment of place and resistance to traditional forms of belonging. It exposes non-representational placelessness, both from the point of view of praxis and ethics. In this trilogy of stories, death is central, placing the destinies of the characters in a dynamics of becoming.

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1Published in 2008, almost a decade after The Interpreter of Maladies, her first internationally acclaimed collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth is Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book and her second collection of short stories. Born in London and educated in Boston, Massachusetts, Lahiri spent many months with her grandmothers in Calcutta during her childhood. Currently living in Italy, she recently started writing in Italian (Lahiri 2016). As Pankaj Sharma explains in a paper entitled “Neither Here Nor There: An Assessment of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth as Migration Literature,” Jhumpa Lahiri is now known as “an American Writer of Bengali descent who writes about the diaspora and their modes of existence and identity” (2013, 33). She therefore not only writes across places, but also across languages. Like her previous work, Unaccustomed Earth deals with second-generation immigrants born on non-Indian soil in the 1960s or 1970s and their difficulties in navigating issues of belonging, nostalgia and marginality in a context of speed, modernity and globalization. Unaccustomed Earth is divided into two parts and this paper focuses on the second part, a novella entitled “Hema and Kaushik.”

2“Hema and Kaushik” is in fact a trilogy in which each story might be read as a meaningful unit. But the three stories echo one another in a complex way, and should therefore be read as a whole. The deep meaning of “Hema and Kaushik” emerges from those echoes, as well as from the missing links – mishaps, mistakes and misrepresentations. While being strongly referenced in non-fictional space and time, the three parts of “Hema and Kaushik” foreground a tension between a yearning for some form of emplacing and embodiment of place, and a resistance to traditional forms of belonging. As Barbara Bender writes in A Handbook of Material Culture:

Whilst there has been much work on the politics and economics of diasporic movement, there has been less attempt to “place” these movements. The trope of nomadology (Deleuze and Guattari 1988), whilst it hammers the privileged Western emphasis on roots and belonging, also threatens to flatten the huge diversity of experiences […]. We have to recognize that though people may be dis-placed or dis-located they are never no-where. They are always – somehow, and however desperately – in place. (2006, 309)

3In recent years place has been a trans-disciplinary object of study, emphasizing its embodied nature and the role played by movement in the way it is experienced and perceived. The following analysis is based on such a conceptualization of place, as foregrounded by geographers such as Tim Cresswell, Doreen Massey or Christopher Tilley, anthropologist Tim Ingold (2008) and philosopher Jeff Malpas. In Lines: a Brief History, Ingold wrote that place can be understood as “wayfaring,” “neither placeless nor place-bound but place-making, (2008, 101). In his following book Being Alive he developed the idea of place as “not place-bound” but “place-binding,” “delineated by movement, not by the outer limits to movement” (2011, 148). Both Ingold and Massey define place as a “meshwork” (Ingold 2011, 149) and an “entanglement” (Massey 2005, 139).

4As Edward Relph had argued back in 1976 in his book Place and Placelessness, placelessness is a “self-reflexive and conscious non-involvement, an alienation from people and places, a homelessness, a sense of unreality of the world and of not belonging” (1976, 51). And yet, in Lahiri’s trilogy “placelessness” is not the negation of place or the absence of place. The concept is disturbing because it starts with the word “place,” to which have been added two suffixes: “-less” depriving “place” of its essential characteristics, “-ness” elevating “place” to a higher level of conceptual abstraction. But for all its appearance of abstraction, aspects of “placelessness” belong to the world of affects and emotions, and “placelessness” is always also embodied and placed, in some way at least. Indeed, in Lahiri’s trilogy, “placelessness” could be analyzed as “non-representational” (Thrift 2008) or as the expression of the impossibility of representing place or/and of the ethical choice of not representing it (Black 2010). Jhumpa Lahiri’s three stories show how place and placelessness are entangled. Hema and Kaushik embody the difficulty experienced by second-generation immigrants in negotiating a form of loyalty to their families’ histories and traditions, while embracing the modalities of modernity, globalization and cyber-communication. Indeed, the conjunction “and” between their two names in the title is misleading, just as it is between place “and” placelessness in the title of Relph’s book, as it links them while also differentiating them.

5Hema and Kaushik were both born in Boston of Bengali parents, growing up as Indian-Americans. And yet, their experiences of life and death, and therefore of time, place and belonging do not match. It is therefore on the specific place of disjunction between Hema and Kaushik as characters, but also on the places of disjunction between the three stories of “Hema and Kaushik” in the narrative that I wish to focus. Lahiri’s fiction exposes a place in language where lies, secrets and silences make room for some irreducible placelessness in individual destinies: placelessness as non-representational both from the point of view of praxis and ethics. Beyond illustrating the traditionally complex relationship to place that most immigrants experience, Lahiri’s stories evoke the part of mystery each individual trajectory secretly embodies. In between the neatly built triptych of “Hema and Kaushik,” there is room for a form of indeterminacy open to interpretation. Place and placelessness are entangled, as movement, time and affects transform place and the perception characters have of places. But the trilogy of stories works like a triptych with death, and especially grief as the central panel, placing the destinies of the characters in an open dynamics of becoming.

I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon. It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine. (“Once in a Lifetime,” 223)

6Thus begins “Once in a Lifetime,” the first story of the trilogy, with a first-person narration by Hema in the present tense, locating precisely in place and time the moment when her memory of Kaushik begins. She does not only locate where they live – the neighbourhood of Inman Square in the Cambridge area, near Harvard and MIT – but in two, rather long introductory sentences, she also places their families in the pattern of Indian immigration in the Boston region in the 1970s. More precisely, not only do readers learn that the characters are Bengalis “struggling” to settle in America, but from the onset, they know that something is atypical in the pattern of immigration and place making, since they have decided “to move all the way back to India.”

7The short stories follow one another in chronological order: “Once in a Lifetime” taking place in 1981 with numerous flashbacks to 1974, “Year’s End” in 1986 and “Going Ashore” in 2004. All three stories take place at threshold moments in the lives of Hema and Kaushik: “Once in a Lifetime” as they leave childhood and become teenagers; “Year’s End” during their college years on the verge of adulthood; and “Going Ashore” as they reach forty years of age. The titles of the three stories bear reassuring connotations, hinting at a unique event for the first one, at a liminal moment in the calendar year in the second one, and a displacement towards a haven and a spatial border for the third one. Just as place is strongly referenced and geographically mapped throughout the three stories, the mirroring patterns in the narrating voices from one story to the next create a reassuring framework for the reader and a pleasant set of stories to read. Place is also anchored in the relationship to home embodied by Hema’s parents and Kaushik’s father and his new wife, a relationship linked to Indian customs, food and traditions. Hema’s parents eventually return to Calcutta once they have reached retirement age, with seemingly no great difficulty, as their lives never stopped following a set of traditions during their decades in the US. Kaushik’s father remarries and moves to a neighbourhood with Indian groceries and families like his in the Boston area (“Year’s End,” 292). The stories are therefore placed in a chronological and geographical setting, but place is also entangled with placelessness in ways that may appear paradoxical. Place is represented as a form of resistance to the feeling of placelessness experienced by first-generation immigrants. But placelessness is also an emotion experienced by first-generation immigrants due to the loss of familiar landmarks, and a yearning for second-generation immigrants who strive to resist stifling forms of rituals and traditions.

8In fact, in “Hema and Kaushik” the marked geographical setting and the powerful weight of traditions counterbalance feelings of placelessness. In turn, placelessness takes the form of a series of affects that are agential to a metamorphosis of place. In “Once in a Lifetime” Hema imagines the neutral social place created by her mother and Kaushik’s mother when they met in 1968 as young women who had just immigrated from Calcutta to Boston. The two young mothers would spend their days together, sharing their experiences of life in some kind of common ground away from India, cooking the same Indian food and splitting the dishes in two for each of their families, although that would have been impossible to do, or even imagine, in India where they came from different social backgrounds. Conjuring up the two young women’s former lives in Calcutta, Hema represents their newly formed friendship as a shared place where the rooftop blooming “with hibiscus and rosebushes” of Kaushik’s mother’s house in the posh area of Jodhpur Park in Calcutta, and her own mother’s own “modest flat in Maniktala, above a grimy Punjabi restaurant, where seven people existed in three small rooms” (“Once in a Lifetime,” 225), have become meaningless references as social places of belonging – at least temporarily. Shared emotions and sensations prime over any social consideration, as the aim is to counterbalance their shared feeling of homesickness and placelessness.

9Another fundamental placeless experience is the one shared by Hema and Kaushik described at the beginning of the first story, “Once in a Lifetime,” in the guise of an intimate displacement: Kaushik’s family returns from Bombay to Boston and lives for several weeks in Hema’s family home while they search for a house; and on that occasion Hema lends her room to Kaushik. This episode is a recurring event in the memory of both protagonists throughout the stories. But if the room swapping is the official and public event in which the whole 1981 episode is anchored, that specific shared experience of intimate displacement enables Kaushik to disclose to Hema the secret of his mother’s illness and her probable death.

10In “Year’s End,” the central story, Kaushik is the narrator and his experience of placelessness is linked to his grief when he returns to his former family home as a student, a few years after his mother has died, in the same house that his mother had chosen and where his father now lives with his new family. He is no longer accustomed to Indian food (“Year’s End,” 229) and is made to sleep in the “guest room” which was only ever occupied by a nurse looking after his mother while she was dying. So not only does Kaushik feel alienated because another woman, his father’s new wife, reigns over the house in place of his own mother, but also because the house in which the family once lived, while his mother was terminally ill, is reminiscent of that period in between life and death. It has been emptied out of what made it a place and a home for him and become unhomely. In order to resist placeless affects of grief, loss and dejection, and the associated affects which have transformed his experience of place, Kaushik tries to “adopt” his two young step-sisters, trying to “make family” until he finds them fumbling through his mother’s pictures and he leaves for an aimless roadtrip along the coast of Maine in the last days of 1986.

11Much of Hema’s energy over the years is focused on marriage, whether non-traditional or traditional. She yearns for routine schedules, as foregrounded by the extremely controlled life she makes for herself in Rome. On the other hand, as an academic at Wellesley College, Hema is doing research which focuses on the links between the Etruscan civilization, a civilization prior to Rome, and Asia Minor. In other words, her work consists in focusing on the links between Rome and the country of her own ancestors, India, through the study of tombs and “the things they put in them” since “their literature was nonexistent, their language obscure” (“Going Ashore,” 300). She literally tries to assign a meaning to her place in the world through the study of tombs and a dead civilization in an indecipherable language, by lending meaning to something dead.

12But placelessness is also a form of resistance to rituals and traditions. Kaushik’s mother disturbs the traditional set pattern of representation of first-generation immigrants as preserving traditions. As she returns from Bombay in 1981 she embodies a more modern type of woman, open to global trends and modern art, drinking Johnny Walker and hiding in the bathroom to smoke. This is visible also in her pick of clothes, choice of paintings to decorate her house, as well as in the lay-out of her open-plan house with a sky window, a modern open space where borders between outside and inside are blurred. She embodies placelessness to various degrees; first as she disrupts the notion that the place of a woman is at home, comfortably settled in the domestic sphere; second as she embodies a form of disruptive modernity and atypical displacement, going back to Calcutta from Boston, then on to Bombay, and back to Boston. At the beginning of “Year’s End” Kaushik’s mother is compared to Persephone, cyclically returning to her parents in Calcutta before leaving them again. More deeply, on the level of the narrative, she embodies a state of in-betweeness between life and death which pervades the whole story of “Hema and Kaushik.” Her function in the narrative is replicated metaphorically by her suitcase, lost during the lay-over in Rome in “Once in a Lifetime” and then put on a plane to Johannesburg, suggesting the empty modern spaces of airports and department stores described by Marc Augé and Edward Relph as non-places. These spaces, or non-places, can be seen as metaphors of her own placelessness, away from tradition, deep into a globalized version of place, and at the same time also in-between life and death.

13This form of placelessness is echoed in her son Kaushik’s roadtrip at the end of “Year’s End,” where the “empty stretches” of road on which he drives in Maine, after he has left his father’s house, lead him to a kind of placeless landscape for which he “didn’t bother getting a map” (“Year’s End,” 289), stopping at empty motels along the way. But just as his mother wanted a specific sort of home to live her last years in, his improvised trip along the coast of Maine is like a pilgrimage, a form of acknowledgement of his mother’s death, where he eventually buries the box containing her photographs in the sand near the border with Canada. The place looks “like no other place” (“Year’s End,” 289) and the text at this stage is replete with negations such as “nothing,” “neither… nor,” “no one had the ability to reach me”: “it was like being dead, my escape allowing me to taste that tremendous power my mother possessed forever” (“Year’s End,” 290). This yearning for a place to bury what material remains he has of his mother opens a decade of restless nomadism on his part. As he meets Hema again in “Going Ashore” in Rome at the end of 2004, he tells her about all the places to which he has travelled across the planet working as a photographer, with no real home to settle in; even his flat in Rome is described as a “place from which to get to where he needed to go” (“Going Ashore,” 303). Kaushik’s obsessive transnational and relentless crisscrossing of the planet for more than seventeen years as a war photographer can be read as the mirror-image of Hema’s decade-long unsatisfying love affair with a married man, Julien. This is what Sigurd Bergmann and Tore Sager describe as “the ideal of mobility […] accompanied by the seductive appeal of speed and immateriality […] lost in a simultaneous and placeless world of endless mobility” (2008, 145–46). Just as Hema meets her lover Julien for a whole decade in anonymous motels, hoping he will eventually divorce his wife and marry her, Kaushik travels from one war theatre to another, photographing death. In criss-crossing the planet photographing dead faces and bodies, Kaushik attempts to frame death in a set time and place. Then by having his pictures printed in magazines or publishing them on his blogs, he diffracts spatially and time-wise this single moment of death, literally re-presenting what was meant to disappear and belong to the past for all eternity, exposing the paradoxical tension between place and placelessness.

14The two characters Hema and Kaushik might indeed be read as two sides of the same coin. As they both meet again in the third short story “Going Ashore,” they both desire some kind of emplacing and sense of belonging. Hema wants to get married, settle and have children, accepting at last her parents’ offer of an arranged marriage in Calcutta. As for Kaushik, he has just accepted a job as a photographer in a news agency in Hong Kong. And yet, those desires are entangled with opposed desires for modernity and freedom, and the narrative plays with the ambiguous relation between the two sets of desires. While the chronological reading of the stories makes for a pleasant reading session, the deep meaning of the trilogy lies in Kaushik’s unending grief for his mother. As in a triptych, the central short story offers a key to reading the series of three stories. In “Going Ashore,” Hema is the only character who remembers Kaushik’s mother, and as such she embodies stability, place and belonging to him. To Hema, Kaushik’s restlessness embodies placelessness, haunted as he is by the grief for his mother and by his obsession with photographing death. While forcibly emphasizing the need for places, rituals and a sense of belonging, Lahiri also makes room for placelessness as loss and what cannot be represented or even ought not be represented.

15As Shameem Black writes in her book Fiction Across Borders: Imagining the Lives of Others in Late Twentieth-century Novels, “the very desire to know another is frequently marked as a suspect and contaminated longing, one that leads to new forms of self-deceit in the guise of seeking the truthful and real” (2010, 2). This issue of ethically representing experiences of migration and the process of making places is crucial in twenty-first-century fiction. In such a context, ethics do not connote “behavioral codes, dogma or a singular idea of the good, but instead how literary works grapple with problems that pervade a world of competing values” (3). Ethical representation therefore means developing an “ethics of responsibility to one’s object of inquiry, a responsibility opposed to hegemonic domination and representational violence” (3).

16“Going Ashore” ends on an entanglement of life and death, with the news of Hema’s pregnancy and Kaushik’s death brought to the reader almost simultaneously. But things are more complex and should be reassessed on different scales, for many zones remain purposely blurry. At the very local scale, the omniscient narrator describes Kaushik taking a holiday on a beach in Thailand at Christmas 2004. It is all about sunbathing and friendly encounters, Kaushik eventually diving to see a coral reef and the last thought the narrator reports is of his mother who loved to swim. On an even more intimate scale, the narrative then shifts to a first-person narration as, on the same day, Hema recalls preparing her wedding with Navin in Calcutta, surrounded by her mother and her aunts: “All day I was oblivious” (“Going Ashore,” 331). And then as she comes home, all the time thinking of Kaushik, she learns the news: “On the crowded street, walking back to my parents’ flat off Triangular Park, I searched foolishly for your face. ‘A terrible thing has happened,’ the gatekeeper told us when we arrived” (332).

17The “thing” that has happened is never named, although it is geographically placed: “the Indian and Sri Lankan coastline,” “Thailand.” Very brilliantly, although the event that has taken place is neither named nor described, the 2004 tsunami hits the reader emotionally as it hits Hema, the narration relying on the hypothesis that readers will remember an event which marked people all over the world. The narrative manages to conflate the emotional, intimate scale of the event with the global scale of its resonance. The description readers are given reflects the superficial facts reported in the news coverage Hema sees on television, “in a pink sitting room with stark fluorescent light”: “images of the Indian and Sri Lankan coastline,” “glimpses from vacationers’ video cameras never intended to capture such a thing” (“Going Ashore,” 332; emphasis added). The tsunami that hit the coastlines of South India, Sri Lanka and Thailand in December 2004, propagating its huge waves in concentric circles, is only perceived through the double mediation of vacationers’ video cameras, then a television screen, but is never named in the credits: “such a thing,” “a massive surge of water.” Just as the event of the tsunami is not described as taking place, Kaushik’s death is only hinted at through his absence. Both correspond to what Paul Virilio (2007) calls an “accident,” which includes both the catastrophic event and its instant global spreading as news. Here again the news comes through mediated canals, such as the papers that Hema buys, scrutinizing the photographs in the hope of finding Kaushik’s name. Eventually she goes to an Internet centre to search his Web site:

I saw the last images you had posted. A faint sliver of the shoreline we had seen from Volterra. Three blackened faces, supposed to be Etruscan divinities, that loomed over our heads. And then, scenes of another coast. Two children playing, a gentle turquoise sea.

At the end of that week, Navin arrived to marry me. (“Going Ashore,” 334; emphasis added)

Kaushik’s death is not mentioned but only hinted at, as he has not sold any photographs or posted any on his Web site since the tsunami happened. The narrative describes outdated images of peaceful moments before skipping with no more ado to Hema’s wedding, as Navin comes to marry her, and she is reduced to an objectified pronoun at the end of a paragraph, the grief secretly hidden from all those around her.

18The natural catastrophe of the tsunami is an event that is not described as taking place, not even as an agent of chaos and absence. To the chaos and the overwhelming placelessness of Kaushik’s absence, Hema opposes the ritualized order of her marriage. The narrative focuses on what can indeed be represented and circumvents what escapes representation – death and grief, practising what Shameem Black calls “an ethics of representation” (2010, 3).

19“Going Ashore” opens with the following assertion from the omniscient narrator focusing on Hema: “Again she’d lied about what had brought her to Rome” (294). In fact the following paragraphs all point at the cobweb of lies that Hema has woven around herself. She has lied to her parents, to her college and later she lies to Navin, her husband-to-be:

But Hema was not in Italy in any official capacity, only to take advantage of a colleague’s empty apartment in the Ghetto. She had invented something that sounded impressive, a visiting lectureship at an institute of classical studies, and neither Navin nor her parents had questioned her. Her scholarly life was a mystery to them, something at once impressive and irrelevant. (294; emphasis added)

20Later in the novel readers learn that she actually “lied” to her parents (296) and that they “assumed” (297) that she was working. For years her life has been led under “false pretences” and kept hidden from those nearest to her (295). In much the same way, secrets are kept throughout the three stories. Readers learn towards the end of “Year’s End” that Kaushik’s step-sisters had never “revealed anything” (293) of the reason why Kaushik had left and how he had treated them after finding them commenting on his mother’s pictures. All this secrecy is a way of creating freedom for the characters and a way for Lahiri to avoid representing intimacy. Placelessness here is a secret place that is left open as a place of becoming, away from the narrator’s voice and the reader’s gaze. In the last paragraph of “Going Ashore” and therefore of the trilogy, Kaushik’s death is mentioned literally, just as Hema refers to her own existence: “I returned to my existence, the existence I had chosen instead of you” (333). She refers to his “absence” as something “felt,” and addresses him with the pronoun “you” as in the first story “Once in a Lifetime”:

I needed no proof of your absence from the world; I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering and shaping themselves in my body. Those cold, dark days I spent in bed, unable to speak, burning with new life but mourning your death, went unquestioned by Navin, who had already begun to take pride in my condition. My mother, who called often from India to check on me, had heard, too. ‘Remember the Chaudhuris, the family that once stayed with us?’ she began. It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind. (333)

21The narrative is enclosed within a cyclical pattern of first-person narration by Hema, addressing Kaushik as “you” again in the third story, echoing the first. This in turn creates a well-ordered existence for Hema as a newly-wed wife. But Lahiri’s writing of placelessness is inscribed in the very construction of the trilogy. “Hema and Kaushik” can be read as a three-panel triptych, each panel bearing an independent narrative and each adding meaning to the other, while also not coinciding exactly. This non-coincidence, which takes the form of mismatches, mistakes or irony is also a form of structural placelessness. On a first reading, the titles of the stories bear reassuring explicit meanings. But on a second reading all three seem to bear some kind of foreboding and hint at tragic events. “Once in a Lifetime” ironically refers to Kaushik’s mother’s first visit to Rome on a first-class flight from Bombay, which is also her last, because she knows she is dying. “Year’s End” is not an allusion to the traditional end-of-year festivities, but to the last days of 1986 which are a turning point in Kaushik’s life as he leaves his father’s house after an argument with his step-sisters and wanders for days on the coast of New England, before burying the photographs of his mother in a shoebox in the sand. Finally, “Going Ashore” is utterly deceitful as it ends with the news of Kaushik’s death in a tsunami, which is far from being a safe haven. This ironical disjunction finds its mirror image in the disjunctive pattern of narrators creating an unstable narration with shifting focalizations and unreliable narrators. However, the very unreliability is meaningful: these disjunctions are a form of symbolic placelessness within Lahiri’s writing, and within language itself, where room can be made for an ethical representation of second-generation immigrants. More deeply, the placeless, disjunctive space thus created is a place of becoming.

22In the first story of the trilogy, Hema gives her room to Kaushik for a few weeks, when he and his family stay at her house while they look for a home of their own; in the second story Kaushik gives his room to his step-sisters in the house he once lived in with his now deceased mother; in the third story Lahiri makes room, in the first, etymological sense of the word, meaning openness, for what Jeff Malpas calls the dynamics of bounded place (2017, 6) and which is always morphing and becoming. In Being Alive, Tim Ingold recalls that the word “‘room’ of ‘lebensraum’ is not an enclosure but an opening, one that affords scope for growth and movement” (2011, 147). In her conclusion of the chapter “Place and Landscape,” Barbara Bender writes that “our theories of landscape should embrace ambiguity and contradiction, eschew closure, recognize that people, things, places are always in process, and that the boundaries between them are permeable and imbricated” (2006, 310). In entangling place and placelessness as she does in “Hema and Kaushik,” Lahiri creates places that are ambiguous, avoid closure, and are “permeable and imbricated,” affording scope for change and movement, and open interpretation.

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Electronic reference

Marie Mianowski, “Making Room: Place and Placelessness in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hema and Kaushik” in Unaccustomed EarthCommonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 42.2 | 2020, Online since 30 September 2020, connection on 25 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marie Mianowski

Université Grenoble Alpes (ILCEA4)

Marie Mianowski is Professor of Anglophone Literature and Irish Studies at Grenoble Alpes University. In 2012, she edited Irish Contemporary Landscapes in Literature and the Arts (Palgrave Macmillan). She is the author of Post Celtic Tiger Landscapes in Irish Fiction (Routledge, 2017). Her research focuses on the representations of place and landscape, displacement, hospitality and homelessness in contemporary literature.

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