Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

‘Interpreter of Maladies’ by Jhumpa Lahiri is a collection of nine short stories published in 1999. In 2000, Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Award and Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Her next book was ‘The Namesake’ its immense popularity led to a movie adaptation as well.

Interpreter of Maladies’ is a collection of nine short stories. The freshness in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories was the essence of capturing the lives and emotions of the first generation Indian migrants to America.

The majority of the stories describe the first-generation Indian immigrants who had difficulties settling in America, adjusting to the western lifestyles. Jhumpa Lahiri beautifully captures the Bengali women, their physical attributes and the changes that living in America bring about in them, also the juxtaposed picture of American women with the Indian Bengali women. The stories leave you thinking about the Indian way of living and its nuances: the drawstring pajamas, discomfort at wearing shoes at home, and the grocery hunt for perfect fish, bay leaves, and cinnamon sticks.

The first story, ‘A Temporary Matter’ is about a Bengali couple – Shobha and Shukumar coping with the loss of their newborn baby. The Temporary Matter is a reference to an hour long power cut for a few days in Shobha and Shukumar’s neighbourhood. This hour of compelled togetherness becomes instrumental in mitigating the troubled relationship of the protagonists. Just as the power cut, the title seems to be the metaphorical reference to the bad phase in the relationship.

This is followed by ‘When Mr.Pirzada came to dine’. It’s a story that gives you a sniff of Tagore’s Cabulliwala, being narrated by a girl who sees Mr.Pirzada visit her home each evening and keenly follow the news about East Pakistan with her family. The young girl is introduced to the difference between India and Pakistan, and how Mr.Pirzada may share the same language and culture but belong to a different religion and country. The story has an old-world charm to it. An emotional narrative of a man far away from his home hoping for the safety of his family and an eventual reunion.

‘Interpreter of Maladies’, the titular story in the book is the most engaging one. It is set in India, where the Das family, the couple with their three children have come from America to Odisha to visit Konark Temple. The taxi ride this family takes with a local driver fills it with interesting anecdotes.

The Interpreter is the driver called Mr.Kapasi, who also works as an interpreter for a Doctor who has to deal with a number of Gujarati patients and lacks linguistic skills. The interpreter of maladies from the literal sense transcends to a more sophisticated level. The grandeur of the story lies in the exploration of the two characters and their expectations – Mrs. Das and Mr.Kapasi.

The description on Konark Temple by Lahiri is the most beautiful one I have ever read.

The temple, made of sandstone, was a massive pyramid-like structure in the shape of a chariot. It was dedicated to the great master of life, the sun, which struck three sides of the edifice as it made its journey each day across the sky. Twenty-four giant wheels were carved on the north and south sides of the plinth. The whole thing was drawn by a team of seven horses, speeding as if through the heavens.”

A Real Durwan (Durwan translates to watchman)is a poignant story of the 64-year-old old destituteaddressed as Boori Maa. Again no American connection in the story. It is set in a dilapidated housing society in Kolkata, where the old lady has found shelter against her services of cleaning the staircase and watching over the gate. She keeps reminiscing her days in richness and prosperity before she crossed the Bangladesh-India border to reach Kolkata. Again, the author weaves magic with the prose and the swirls up the emotion.

To me, the story ‘Sexy’ is one of the weak links in an otherwise brilliant collection. It is about an American girl called Miranda who is dating a married Bengali man. And, Miranda has a co-worker Laxmi who talks about her cousin’s husband having an extramarital affair. The story falls flat, though it goes at length with one meeting the other and spurge of things.

Mrs. Sen’s is a story, set within the author’s familiar comfort zone of Bengali woman in America, living on the university campus with her husband. She tries to be a babysitter of an 11-year-old American boy. Again, it is the Bengali woman’s attire and cooking that gets the maximum description.

The Blessed House begins on a commendable promise but denudes at the climax. The newlywed Twinkle and Dev shift to a new house and begin to find hidden ‘Christian’ artifacts. The reader may think of an element of spookiness or an untoward situation. Perhaps an epiphany, something on the lines of ‘A Rose for Emily’ by Faulkner. However, it falls flat restricted within the ambit of the housewarming party and the cold vibes shared between the couple. There is continuous irritation that the Dev feels seeing Twinkle treasuring and displaying each find, “…magazine was lying around, with whatever song was on the radio – content yet curious. And now all of her curiosity centered around discovering the next treasure.

The treatment of Bibi Haldar is one of the most intriguing story in the book. Jhumpa Lahiri beautifully sets the story of a 29-year-old woman who suffers from fits. She is left at the mercy of her elder cousin brother and his wife. The charm of the story is in the prose that expresses the aspirations of Bibi, “Is it wrong to envy you, all brides and mothers, busy with lives and cares?” The women around Bibi show their concern for her and try to provide suggestions and advice. However, there is no prospect for her unless a marriage is arranged.

The last story in the compendium by the author is ‘The Third and Final Continent’, based on the life of her father. The narrator tells the story as he who moves from Kolkata to London and finally to America to settle down with his wife. It is set in 1966, and the narrator works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During his search for a house on rent, he meets the owner, a lady who is 103-years-old. As the American astronauts set foot on the moon, a ‘splendid’ feat, it was also the time when Indians were migrating to America for better economic prospects. Though the author clearly steers clear of the larger picture and only places the narrator as the tenant at Mrs. Croft’s house at this juncture. The narrator is waiting for his wife to arrive from India, a marriage accomplished as a family responsibility and hence, the story explores the couple’s life in a strange land to find love.

Jhumpa Lahiri concludes with this story symbolising her acceptance of living in a foreign country. She was born in London and then her family moved to America. Therefore, all her stories reflect the amalgamation of Bengali-American culture and the first-generation immigrants’ disillusionment between the preservation of their culture and acceptance of an unfamiliar lifestyle.

2 thoughts on “Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

  1. Pingback: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Letter to the Book Cover #A2Z Challenge – Bookishloom

  2. Pingback: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – Bookishloom

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