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Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review

We have admired Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed work “The Namesake” and tracking back her previous work led me to the collection of short stories that counts as her first publication in book format – Interpreter of Maladies. The stories were universally admired and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation / PEN award for the author. Since then, these stories have been translated in multiple languages and loved by readers all around the world.

Book Title : Interpreter of Maladies
(Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond)
Author :
Publishers : Rupa Publications India; Published: (20 April 2018) : Paperback
Rupa Publications India; Published: (1 April 2018) : Kindle
# of Pages : 208 (Paperback)
533 KB 209 (Kindle EBook)
Purchase Link(s) :

These stories had been published in various American periodicals before coming together in Interpreter of Maladies. Like her later publications, majority of stories in “Interpreter of Maladies” are derived from what the author had experienced and observed while growing up in an immigrant Bengali family, settled in America.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Cover

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Cover

Published by Harper Collins, UK, in 1999, the collection contains nine stories. Let’s have a look at these one by one:

1. A Temporary Matter

In a developed country like America, power outages are a temporary matter. When Shobha and Shukumar’s house is subjected to power outage every evening for four nights, it proves providential in terms of bringing this estranged couple together in an unforeseen way. Since Shobha had a stillborn baby a few months ago, they have been drifting apart from each other, locked in their own grief. A feeling of incompetence to handle what they could not have changed anyway, has turned into annoyance at the other half of the marriage.

They barely talk. They do not share any meals together. However, during the power outage, they discover they can still have candle light dinners and candid conversations. The darkness somehow encourages them to reveal more of themselves to each other than they ever have.

When the repairs are finished, the temporary respite of the new situation is over. But then, considering the transitory nature of human life, marriage itself is also only a temporary matter, isn’t it?

2. When Mr Pirzada came to Dine

In the 1970s, it was an academic dream for scholars from Indian subcontinent to have an opportunity to visit America as part of their work. One such scholar Mr Pirzada from Dhaka is visiting New England to study its native plant life. He has been away from his wife and seven daughters for quite some time and as visiting professors of Botany don’t make much money, he embraces the warm hospitality of a Bengali family and visits them every day for a substantial meal.

Lilia is the daughter of this family and the narrator of the story. While to her young eyes Mr. Pirzada looks no different from her parents, thanks to the partition in 1947, he is now an East Pakistani while Lilia’s parents are Indians. But this is 1971, and while Americans are celebrating Halloween, the war breaks out between two parts of Pakistan.

Mr. Pirzada has no way to know whether his family is safe, and Lilia’s parents share his grief and concern over the events happening halfway around the world. Clinging to the familiar rituals of dining with friends and enjoying little things in life, they all band together to live through the crisis.

3. Interpreter of Maladies

Can you actually understand and interpret someone’s pain, or can you only interpret symptoms of a malady? We think that’s the question driving this story.

A young American couple Mr And Mrs Das, Bengali by heritage, are visiting India with their children and Mr. Kapasi is taking them to visit the famous Suryamadir in Konark on a day tour. To his Indian eyes, the couple seem hardly fit to be parents to the three children they have – Ronny, Bobby and Tina. In his opinion, they behave just as childishly, selfishly and with immaturity.

On the way, they talk and Mr. Kapasi explains that in addition to being a tour guide on weekends, he acts as an interpreter for a doctor during weekdays. India being the country of multiple languages, and Mr Das having a passion for learning languages has culminated into this job where he can translate the symptoms of visiting patients to a doctor.

Mr. Kapasi’s job as an “interpreter of maladies” gives Mrs. Das food for thought and she takes interest in Mr. Kapasi. From his side, Mr. Kapasi is living in a loveless marriage like majority of middle class Indians and he starts to form thoughts of platonic romance with Mrs. Das. When they are alone, Mrs. Das confesses to Mr. Kapasi that when she was young and a lonely mother, she once committed adultery with her husband’s friend. And that their second son is the result of that afternoon, he is not Mr. Das’s child.

She has been suffering from the guilt and pain of this for a long time and now she thinks she has found a person who can interpret and understand this. But then, like we said above, interpreting and translating symptoms is a far cry from understanding pain that comes from going through the shadowlands of grey.

4. A Real Durwan

This is the story of life lived in an old brick building in Calcutta with multiple apartments on each floor and a 64-year-old, refugee woman called Boori Ma who has lived on their terrace and swept their stairs for a long time. She is a durwan, sweeper, protector, occasional help – all rolled into one. While she tells numerous stories about the affluent life she has had in days before partition of India and how she had to leave it all behind. The lies in this stories are mostly good-nature and harmless.

But nobody can imagine how her threadbare life is going to be destroyed again from the simple event of one of the residents installing a basin on their floor. From the rivalry and jealousy of other residents, the building seems to be perpetually hosting some renovation construction work or other. So much so that Boori Ma loses track of who she can allow to enter the building. To cope with the loss of her routine, she takes to wandering the streets. Inevitably, one day when she is out, some of the workers steal the infernal basin from the building. And off the residents throw Boori Ma on the street so they can have a Real Durwan.

5. Sexy

The thrill of being a mistress to an older, married man, whom you barely know can hardly be explained. When young Miranda thinks that she is falling in love with debonair and worldly Dev, she doesn’t know much about him or his heritage. She learns the bits and pieces about his life and the country of his origin located halfway across the world from a few minutes of conversation during his visits.

She tries to learn the unfamiliar script that means something in his language, she tries to imagine the exotic land and beautiful women of India by visiting Indian shops. She tries to imagine his home-life through her experiences with a few Indians she has known, including her co-worker Laxmi. It is through Laxmi that she ends up babysitting Rohin, a seven-year-old child, whose parents are separating because of an “another woman”.

Will Miranda learn to live with a weekly visit from a married man and his claim of loving her, or will she grow out of it?

6. Mrs Sen’s

When Eliot’s single mother is looking for a caregiver after school, she hardly has a Bengali Professor’s newly immigrated wife Mrs Sen in mind. But she doesn’t have many options and so Eliot arrives on Mrs. Sen’s doorstep after school every day.

He watches her daily rituals to prepare exotic Bengali food and listens to her stories about her life in Calcutta. He observes her joy when a letter from India arrives, her sorrow at the fact that her new-born niece will only know her through letters and photographs, that she’ll hardly ever spend a whole night in company of women chopping vegetables for a feast next day.

He also recognises her struggle to adapt to America, to learn driving so she can visit the local seafood market and buy a fish that reminds her of home. But the homesickness also means a resistance to learn the American way, driving being one of these, and she ends up putting her life in danger along with Eliot’s when they have an accident. Suddenly, Eliot has to grow up and learn to spend his afternoons watching the grey waves of the sea and not much else.

7. This Blessed House

Falling in love and dreaming of a life together forever is very different from getting married and actually living together. A newly married couple Sanjeev and Twinkle are about to discover this and the catalyst is their lovely, new house in Hartford, Connecticut, which seems to be blessed with Christian figurines that are present in the interior decoration everywhere.

While Twinkle accepts all this with enthusiasm, Sanjeev thinks this gives a wrong impression to guests, considering Sanjeev and Twinkle are not Christians. On one side, there is naivety, spontaneity and energy of Twinkle and on the other side there is the reserve, gravity and practicality of Sanjeev. When they invite their friends and Sanjeev’s co-workers for a party, they both realise the stark contrast between their expectations from each other in terms of housekeeping. The party turns into a treasure hunt with them finding another bust of Jesus Christ in the attic.

What will they do?

8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar

Bibi Haldar is a young woman suffering from unidentified disease that results into convulsing fits occasionally. Her education was stopped halfway and she is considered unfit for marriage. Since the death of her father, she lives with an elder cousin and his wife who seem to find her very useful in the family shop, but mysteriously not for much else.

Her story is no different than those of many such women. If you grew up in India, you have met her in every village. When her selfish cousins finally abandon her, some man does find her and she gets pregnant. Thanks to the other women in the neighbourhood, she gives birth to a son, learns to care for him and runs a small business that is enough to provide for them.

Although she never reveals the name of the father, the baby seems to have cured her.

9. The Third and Final Continent

Born in India, moved to London and finally settled in America, this is the third continent for our hero. He is a young man like any other, mostly focused on his own problems and preferences. While he seems to have left India after the illness and death of her mother, and gone through a carefree bachelor existence in London, it is here in this strange land called America that he learns to care about other people – first the 103-year-old landlady Mrs. Croft who has given him a space to put his two feet in America. For six weeks, he lives in a small room in her lovely, old-fashioned house.
Then he brings a wife over from India – a stranger for all intents and purposes. They go through the same motions as every couple do, starting with moving to a rental place suitable for a couple. But then the old lady dies. And as he comes to terms with grief over the death, he also learns to love his wife and this new life they share.

Views and Reviews:

As we noted in the beginning, the stories did receive a lot of critical acclaim. While their appeal to Indians and immigrants with Indian origins are understandable, in some ways they are universal as they also highlight how the way of life in countries like America is influenced by immigrants. After all, the whole continent is mostly made of immigrant who moved over from somewhere else in the world and brought their own traditions with them. Over time, these have shaped the lives and values cherished by Americans. Although majority of Americans find the Indian ways exotic and unfathomable, there is a shared Americanness that provides them basis to form relationships.

We have also noted that the narrators in Jhumpa Lahiri‘s stories are very often children, or second generation immigrants, may be because she herself is a second generation American – Indian. The brilliance of this is that children see and feel the conflicts very clearly around them and their narratives leave a lot to the reader’s understanding and imagination as they feel the gaps in the stories to their own interpretations.

Amongst the recurring themes of connecting to family members and friends on a personal level to form a strong relationship, there is also a focus on food in these stories. All around the world, people identify their heritage very strongly with food.

And so, when Jhumpa Lahiri writes from the perspective of immigrant Indian Bengali women, food becomes a character in the story. The ingredients, the ritual of preparing, spending time over creating treats for loved ones and the difficulties in re-creating something you have taken for granted all your life, because now you are in a strange land and you can’t even find basic elements of your food – these aspects are highlighted in this stories. The pleasure and the pain of finding a piece of home and the surge of homesickness that it needs finding, becomes a symbol for everything lost during the process of uprooting and migration.

Also, very importantly, for traditional Indian women of that generation, the kitchen was their solitary kingdom. It was the place where they ruled and it was also the place where they escaped to deal with all the little injustices of life. They found joy and friendship while sharing cooking with other women and expressed their love for their husbands and children through preparing food for them. And hence, it is quite fitting that food also becomes a character in stories like A Temporary Matter and Mrs. Sen’s.

The stories like The Real Durwan and Bibi Haldars Treatment are entirely Indian though and could have been written with the same flourish by only someone who has observed the Indian way of life very closely. These are the stories happening all the time around us, especially if you grew up through the not-so-shiny by substantial decades of 70’s and 80’s.

We also like how Lahiri portrays the struggle to convert the idea of love into love as it happens in real life through Interpreter of Maladies, A Blessed House, Sexy and to some extent A Temporary Matter. Any relationship can mature only through difficulties survived together. It is easy to fall in love with stars in your eyes, but you choose to grow old with someone only after sharing your griefs with them.

And what makes the treat complete, is the beauty and poise of her language. The sentences flow into one another smoothly and you never seem to miss a beat in following the lives of her characters.

Here are a few passages from the book that we would like to share with you:

It made no sense to me that Mr Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr. Pirzada took of his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea. Nevertheless my father insisted that I understand the difference. He was concerned that Mr. Pirzada may take offense if I accidentally referred to him as an Indian – Mr Pirzada is Bengali, but he is a Muslim, therefore he lives in East Pakistan, not in India.

In his youth he’d been a devoted scholar of foreign languages, the owner of an impressive collection of dictionaries. He had dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides.

Unlike the boys she dated in college, Dev was the first to always pay for things, and hold doors open, and reach across the table in a restaurant to kiss her hand. He was the first to bring her a bouquet of flowers so immense that she’d had to split it up into all six of her drinking glasses.

Many of the countries, like Siam and Italian Somaliland, no longer existed in the same way; the names had changed by now. The ocean, as blue as a peacock’s breast, appeared in two shades, depending upon the depth of the water. He showed her the deepest spot on earth, seven miles deep, above the Mariana islands.”
“At age of eighteen, he had been sent to a college in upstate New York during something called the Emergency, and about how it took him years to be able to follow American accent shown in movies in spite of the fact that he’d had an English-medium education.

Being sexy means loving someone you don’t know.

If I started to scream right now, will someone come? At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements.

When I was your age, I was without knowing that one day I would be so far. You are wiser than that, you already taste the way things must be. When you are a grown man your life will be in places you cannot know now.

She was like that, excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavour of ice cream, or dropping a letter in a mailbox. It was a quality he did not understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate or see.

He did not know what love was, only what he thought it was not. It was not, he had decided, returning to an empty carpeted condominium each night, and using only the top fork in his cutlery drawer, and turning away politely at those weekend dinner parties when the other men eventually put their arms around the waists of their wives and girlfriends, leaning over every now and again to kiss their shoulders or necks. It was not sending away for classical music CD by mail, working his way methodically through major composers that the catalogue recommended.

Bibi has never been taught how to be a woman; the illness had left her naïve in most practical matters. She was kept away from fire and flame. She had not been taught to wear a sari without pinning it in four different places, nor could she embroider slipcovers or crochet shawls with any exceptional talent. She was kept ignorant of the events of the world and its entertainment. Her formal studies had ended after ninth standard.

Most likely the groom will arrive with one parent, a grandparent, and either an uncle or aunt. They will stare, ask several questions. They will examine the bottoms of your feet, the thickness of your braid. They will ask you to name the prime minister, recite poetry, feed a dozen hungry people on half a dozen eggs.”
“To pass the time in the evenings I read the Boston Globe downstairs, in a spacious room with stained glass windows. I read every article and advertisement, so that I would grow familiar with things, and when my eyes grew tired I slept.

My wife’s name was Mala. The marriage had been arranged by my brother and his wife. I regarded the proposition with neither objection nor enthusiasm. It was a duty expected of me, as it was expected of every man. I was told that she could cook, knit, embroider, sketch landscapes, and recite poems by Tagore, but these talents could not make up for the fact that she did not possess a fair complexion, and so a string of men had rejected her to her face. She was twenty-seven, at an age when her parents had begun to fear that she would never marry, and so they were willing to ship their only child halfway across the world in order to save her from spinsterhood.

She had travelled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no other reason than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me and stranger still, that mine would affect her.

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

Summary:

We enjoyed these stories very much and can recommend them for reading.

ThinkerViews Rating:

8.5 out of 10.

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