The Pulitzer Prize winning volume of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (First published in India by Harper Collins, 1999) by Jhumpa Lahiri, despite the clear insignia of Indianness is universally relevant. The loneliness, a deep sense of remorse and emotional isolation that some of her fictional characters go through, are common enough the world over. The individuals of different countries and cultures who for various reasons are forced to live away from their own country go through trying phases. Whether she suggested a cure or not, Miss Lahiri’s endeavour to interpret the maladies of the mind that people suffer from and the unique manner in which she makes them realize their own flaws, certainly merit the Prize and the prestige she won with her maiden volume of short fiction. With a remarkable insight she delves deep into the psychological depths of her characters and reveals their inner world by a fascinating yet deceptively simple style. We come across more reality than fancy in her fiction. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that her interpretation of the maladies itself acts like a potent medicine. Yet they are interesting and often make humorous studys of life.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s modern approach is evident in her themes as well as narrative style. The first story A Temporary Matter shows that for the young married couple Shukumar and Shoba, marriage appears to have fallen apart. It reached a stage where it became a temporary matter. Trouble started when Shoba delivered a stillborn baby, and blew over casting a long shadow on a normally happy marriage. When they finally lost touch with one another despite sharing a single roof, the temporary cut in power supply seems to have salvaged their failing relationship. Lahiri excels as a storyteller when she combines her Indian reminiscences and the larger problem of marital discord and the apparently catastrophic end of the couple’s marriage in a single frame. When the reader anticipates a happy reunion after the closeness that Shukumar and Shoba shared by exchanging untold experiences, it feels like a douse of freezing cold water, when Shoba announces her decision to move into a new apartment. Shoba’s problem is her inability to deal with her anger and frustration of losing the baby for whose arrival she plans elaborately. In her state of disappointment and self pity, she did not care if her marriage fell apart. She hardly realizes that she is punishing herself unduly. It is only when Shukumar confesses his knowledge of the baby’s sex that she finally relents the hold she kept on her emotions and sees the truth that the loss of the baby has affected Shukumar as deeply as her. Each one has to bear his or her share of pain in life. But he was able to bear with it perhaps because he did what the doctor said:
“ holding the baby might help you with the process
of grieving.” (22) He held his son before he was cremated.
Letting out the pent up feelings certainly acts like a catalyst in some ways. The marital discord is thus skillfully shown to be a temporary matter just as the interruption in electric power supply has been.
Some of her stories like The Third and the Final Continent contain moving pictures of life. They mirror the milieu in which her characters move. The Calcutta boy, who made it as a jobholder in a library at MIT Boston, reminds us of many Indians who by trial and tribulation settle abroad for a better life.
The bond between the landlady Mrs. Croft and the Bengali youth is beyond explanation. It is something to be felt and understood. The old lady is well aware of people and can read them as one would a book, despite being hundred and three. Miss Lahiri’s story brings out differences in behaviour, life style and expression as observed in different continents i.e. India, Britain and the U.S.A. The ancient lady, who lived beyond a century, never spoke more than a few words at a time, most of which she repeats daily to the young tenant like,
“ There is an American flag on the moon boy.”
But he knows her loneliness and develops fondness for her and her nature of acceptance of the inevitable. It grows after being told by her only daughter that she made a living for herself and for her daughter by teaching the piano for forty years which resulted in ‘swollen knuckles’. He is also reminded of his own mother who refused to participate in life after the death of her husband. Even after he leaves Mrs. Croft’s rooms after his marriage, he thinks about her. He takes his new wife to meet Mrs. Croft. But her impressions are unfathomable on her introduction to his young wife. We are told on one occasion that if she sees a scantily dressed woman on the street, Mrs Croft would get her ‘arrested’. She would naturally appreciate this young Indian lady who doesn’t exhibit herself. She spontaneously calls her a ‘perfect lady’. The fact of her judgement comes as a surprise and at once ends the strangeness that existed between the newly married couple (a kind of malady in the arranged marriages of India?). It also comes home to us that basically humanity is bound by certain common standards of behaviour and modes of perception. A critic rightly observed that Jhumpa Lahiri’s story is about a
“ richly detailed portrayal of a young marriage…an Indian
emigrant’s oddly fulfilling relationship with his landlady..”
(R.K. Shankar on the Redif Net)
When he reads of Mrs. Croft’s obituary, he says,
“ I was stricken…Mrs. Croft’s was the first death I mourned
in America, for hers was the first life I admired; she had
left this world at last, ancient and alone, never to return.”(196)
What is more important is the fact that however deep and wide ranging the experience of meeting different people and living in different places may be, Miss Lahiri in her own inimitable style convinces us through her characters that there is always something new, something unexpected in life. How true the narrator is when he says,
“ …there are times 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.” (198)
Well, life is like that! It indeed is a strange amalgam.
Blessed House is a delightful story, which puts across the point that it is not religious identity that satisfies man but the sense of affinity and involuntary affection that exist between people, even among strangers. The previous tenants left a treasure trough behind apparently wishing the best for their successors. Each finding of the treasure that she stumbles upon fills Sanjeev’s wife Twinkle, with great joy and excitement. It started with an effigy of Christ and continued with a wooden cross with a key chain, a painting of the three wise men, a 3-D post card of St. Francis, a tile trivet of sermon-delivering Jesus, a miniature Nativity scene and a number of others. She is hardly affected by the fact that all of them are Christian symbols and is happy enough to arrange them on the mantelshelf. Sanjeev on the other hand, is full of antipathy for these Christian symbols. His mind is bogged down by inhibition and injured self-sense. Once again Lahiri touches a chord in all thinking human beings that religion doesn’t have to interfere with day-to-day life of people going about their business. But then the bone of contention is not about the religious divide but it is the finer feelings that make up human relationships. So to his surprise Sanjeev realizes that despite the ‘dignity, solemnity and beauty’ of the silver bust of Christ, he hated it all the more ‘ because Twinkle loved it’. After he discovered his ‘malady’ of possessive love Sanjeev
“ pressed the massive silver face to his ribs, careful not to let
the feather hat slip, and followed her.”(157)
In this one gesture we may be assured that Sanjeev would from now onwards would cope with his own passions better than before. It is truly a ‘Blessed House”
The title story The Interpreter of Maladies is the kind of story that doesn’t raise ‘irresponsible curiosity’ in the reader despite the shocking confession made by Mrs. Das to Mr. Kapasi, the tourist guide cum a professional interpreter of maladies. When she tells Mr. Kapasi that she feels relieved of the pain that she was subjected to for seven long years by disclosing the secret that shrouded the birth of her second son, he says: “ Is it really pain you feel Mrs. Das or is it guilt?” the character of Mrs. Das illustrates how tough it is to face facts, more so if they happen to be bitter. It is understandable therefore that Mr. Kapasi’s question makes her furious and she walks away in a huff. But its effect is more far-reaching than expected. She is no longer the brooding and disinterested woman we first met. Obviously she is relieved of her burden of guilt for the first time in seven years. She is whipped into action and gets her son ‘Bobby’ out of the clutches of monkeys. Mr. Kapasi is happy to see and remember the picture of the family, as they help the child get over the shock, the trauma he just suffered. He is more than willing to forgo the pictures that Mrs. Das promised to send and doesn’t bother when the random piece of paper on which she writes his address is swept away by the wind.
When Mr. Pirzada came to dine is not only a story about a man living away from his family in a foreign country but it is also about a child’s understanding of what it means to miss someone dear. Like most of her stories it is based on real life experience and the autobiographical element dominates it. Talking about When Mr.Pirzada comes to dine, in an exclusive interview with Elizabeth Fransworth of Pulitzer Fiction Jhumpa Lahiri says,
“ This story is based on a gentleman from Bangladesh
who used to come to my parents’ house in 1971….I heard
from my parents what his predicament was. And when I
learned about his situation, which was that he was in the
was back in Dacca…, I was so overwhelmed by this
information that I wrote this story …”
Mr. Pirzada belongs to Dacca in East Pakistan, was given financial grant to study foliage in America for a book he planned to write. He became a regular dinner guest at Lilia’s house after her parents invited him over the phone having been fed up with the monotonous American style of living. Lilia learns that Mr. Pirzada has seven daughters and a big house back in Dacca. She is also very keenly aware of the fact that Mr. Pirzada missed his children and home. Soon he becomes a close friend of the family despite the fact that he is a Muslim. Lilia was aware of the history of Partition when Hindus and Muslims set fire to each other’s houses. Therefore it fills her with surprise that Mr. Pirzada and her parents
“spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes and
looked more or less the same.”(25)
When Lilia thanks him for the variety of confectionary Mr. Pirzada gives her, he scorns at her implying that such niceties have no place between friends. He makes quite an impression on Lilia with his ‘rotund elegance’, ‘faint theatricality’ and ‘superb ease’. Another interesting thing about him, that Lilia notices is his silver watch set to local time in Dacca.
Soon the war broke out between India and Pakistan on account of East Pakistan’s demand for sovereignty. Lilia senses the tension it created in her parents as well as Mr. Pirzada due to the insecurity that his family is faced with. The only way by which Lilia felt like consoling him was
“eating a piece of candy for the sake of his family and praying
for their safety.”(34)
Eventually Mr.Pirzada leaves for Dacca and much to the joy of Lilia and her parents he was reunited with his family. The all important postscript of the story appears to be the fact that Lilia is made keenly aware of what it means to miss someone you love which precludes regional and religious disparities. She clearly remembers the three of them operating
“ as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal,
a singly body, a single silence and a single fear.”(41)
“ It was only then raising my water glass in his name,
that I knew what it means to miss someone who was
so many miles and hours away, just as he had missed
his wife and daughters for so many months.’(42)
Mrs Sen is a story that defines what ‘emotional exile’ is. As in the other stories the immigrant experience is at the core of this stirring story too. In addition we also witness this wonderful companionship between two entirely different persons. Mrs. Sen was forced to learn car driving for the sake of a job, the job of looking after a small boy Eliot who has a working mother. Mrs. Sen has to fetch him from his house to hers and back. It is heartening to see Mrs. Sen communicating with Eliot on equal footing despite the age difference. She expresses her joy and loneliness and shares her Indian memories with him with great verve. The boy listens to her, as do the readers, as she describes the variety and the uniqueness of her life in Calcutta, India. Her religion, food and the living pattern come alive in her words. Even after Eliot has stopped coming to Mrs. Sen’s place because as his mother tells him he is now ‘a big boy’, he seems to be missing their togetherness and as a result goes through a kind of void as he watches ‘the gray waves receding from the shore…’ once again we see this common human factor well voiced by the writer. It is the ‘emotional dependence’ that binds Eliot and Mrs. Sen whose only other family member leaves them on their own.
The sexual relationship between Dev and Miranda and the hopelessness of extra-marital affair make up the story Sexy. The relationship between the English girl Miranda and the Indian Dev dies a quiet death for more than one reason. It happens not only because Miranda realizes that she cannot expect more than physical fulfillment from Dev but also because of the definition that Rohin, her Indian friend’s cousin’s child gives to the term ‘sexy’. To him it means ‘ loving someone you don’t know’. Miranda realizes that is precisely what she did. He tells her further that
“ that’s what my father did….He sat next to someone he
doesn’t know, someone sexy, and now he loves her
instead of my mother.”(108)
She also perceives the parallel between her desperate situation and the pathetic condition of a deserted wife. Both long for impossible relationship based on love. Miranda
‘cried harder unable stop.’(109)
From then on Miranda fends off Dev’s visits. After all as Jhumpa Lahiri herself has said “ relationships do not preclude issues of morality.”
The two stories set entirely in India are equally interpretative of human maladies of the mind.
The treatment of Bibi Haldar as told by Lahiri in an interview, is
“ about a misfit, a young woman living in a rundown building
in Calcutta, and she is in the care of her cousin and his wife
….She is an epileptic.”
It is also about “the town’s involvement ….over her marriage and in the idea of finding a husband.” In this story Lahiri has chiseled out a character so delicately that the final revelation hardly jolts the reader. Rather it fills him with a greater understanding of the workings of human psyche. Deprivation of fulfillment of certain desires makes misfits of some people. The birth of a son cures Bibi Haldar of a mysterious disease in spite of being deprived of marriage.
The other story situated in India is The Real Durwan. It is the sorry tale of Buri ma, a refugee in Calcutta after Partition. In her past an affluent woman has now fallen to misfortune and self appoints herself as the Durwan or the gatekeeper of an apartment building. It is story that appeals to the pathetic in us. Her incessant ramblings about her rich past and her comparisons between the past and the present life get on the nerves of the apartment residents. In a bid to give the building a face lift they throw Boor ma out along with her boxes and baskets. The irony is that even the ‘kind’ people like Mrs. Dalal get lost in the quagmire of vanity and selfishness. The eternal disparity existing between the
‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is sharply emphasized in this story.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s set of vignettes makes memorable reading. The collection as in the opinion of Addison, gives the readers ‘profitable pleasure’. They combine learning experience with delight. ‘The yearnings of exile’ and the ‘emotional confusion’ are the two significant strands of these stories of power and impact. Her language, consisting of short sentences and spare exchanges, demands a deep understanding and a deeper sense of affinity with others of our planet.
According to Joseph Warren Beach the object of fiction is to make us
“ feel and appreciate and what counts is not the number
of facts but the degree to which we have been made to
live with them.”
The Interpreter of Maladies more than meets the above requirement. It exposes facts and at the same time makes us deeply involved and reflective.
1. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
2. Interview on the Redif Net with R. Shankar
3. Twentieth century Novel by Joseph Warren Beach
Sender’s brief bio-data
Dr. (mrs) Jaya Lakshmi Rao V.
Reader in English, Mrs. A.V.N. College, Visakhapatnam.
47 North Extension, Seethammadhara, Visakhapatnam, 530013, India.
e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org