Posted in Short Stories

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hell-Heaven


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Last week, I read a Herman Melville story that alluded to heaven and hell in the title.  Interestingly enough, for  Week 16, I drew the Five of Diamonds and read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story titled “Hell-Heaven”.


This story contains a typical clash of cultures and generations.  It’s told from the point of view of Usha, the daughter of Bengali parents who moved to the United States.  The parents are the result of an arranged marriage and they struggle in the 1970’s to maintain their Indian culture with Usha.  The parents befriend a Bengali stranger new to the United States and he becomes like an uncle to their daughter.

The unique aspect of the story is that while the narrator is the young girl growing up between cultures, the focus is on Usha’s mother.  She comes to blows over Usha’s desire to be Americanized; however, this reader couldn’t help but wonder whether the mother’s anger results from her respect for the Indian life she has lived or from jealousy that her daughter gets to live something different than she did – or perhaps a little of both.

Usha’s adopted uncle’s marriage to an American woman intensifies her mother’s confusion and an aside comment at a dinner party gives the story its title:

‘He used to be so different.  I don’t understand how a person can change so suddenly.  It’s just hell-heaven, the difference,’ she would say, always using the English words for her self-concocted, backward metaphor.

This is the first story I have read by Lahiri and it is included in her collection Unaccustomed Earth.  It is also included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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