Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)
Mariner Books (1999)
198 pp

interpreter-of-maladies

I still remember the first time I read “A Temporary Matter,” Lahiri’s opening story in her phenomenal short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. I was in a creative writing class (don’t expect anything from me, though) and the professor gave it to us as a treat. When I finished I was devastated. It tapped into so many emotions hidden even from me. I paid no attention to technical merit of the piece. I just read and then kept silent for the rest of the day. It remains one of my favorite stories; more than that, it remains one of my favorite experiences with a work of literature. I remembered the story for years and finally got a hold of the whole collection. I haven’t read Lahiri’s newest collection of short stories, but from what I’ve heard and from my own experience with Lahiri, it is surely a contender for this year’s Pulitzer.

The book is composed of nine short stories:

  • A Temporary Matter
  • When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
  • Interpreter of Maladies
  • A Real Durwan
  • Sexy
  • Mrs. Sen’s
  • This Blessed House
  • The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
  • The Third and Final Continent

Several deal with first- or second-generation Indian immigrants to the United States. Not having any first-hand experience of the kind, I’ve found the experience of a couple of my friends insightful. One of my friends is a third-generation Indian-American, and, while he is not ashamed of his heritage by any means, he would not like that I just referred to him as an Indian-American. “When can I be just American?” he would ask. “You are not British-American or Scottish-American.” His hyphenated identity troubles him. I have another friend, however, who would be ashamed to drop the hyphen and refer to himself as “merely” American. The first feels his identity is reduced when he is hyphenated; the second feels his identity is reduced when he is not. I am baffled by the wealth of experience outside of my grasp.

Lahiri’s stories, however, let me feel some of these experiences. She creates compelling dramas between characters we come to know (it seems) intimately. We come to pity poor Mr. Pirzada who, during the war between Pakistan and India in the early 1970s, left his family in Daka, under Pakistani rule. Lilia, the narrator, remembers the time when she was young and he would come over to her house to dine and watch the news about the wars going on in his homeland. To Lilia, Mr. Pirzada was wonderful; she loved his treats and prayed every night for his family. However, she remembers his strangeness. He was not of the same religion. She did not know Asia. To him, however, the visits were “a piece of home.” Lilia recognizes a cultural barrier but is more baffled by an even larger gap:

No one at school talked about the war followed so faithfully in my living room. We continued to study the American Revolution, and learn about the injustices of taxation without representation, and memorized passages from the Declaration of Independence.

The gaps notwithstanding, in this story Lahiri invites us (and gives herself license) to continue.

Not all of the stories are about immigration per se. Some take place on the Indian subcontinent, but still manage to show the plight of a people torn from theirs. In “A Real Durwan,” a sweeper of a stairwell laments her losses:

In fact, the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition. At that time, she maintained, the turmoil had separated her from a husband, four daughters, a two-story brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffer boxes whose skeleton keys she still wore, along with her life savings, tied to the free end of her sari.

Lahiri also raises interesting insights about women in particular: mapping (or partitioning) in “Sexy,” for example, ties into her theme of the Indian-American but shows ties to a woman’s experience with the body.

All of this brings me to an important point: I hope by pointing out some of the great insights in this book that I’m not making it seem simple, like it can be reduced to a few talking points. On the contrary, the stories are rich and deep, personal even when explaining things that I could never experience. All stories have elements that touch on personal emotions. Bringing me to the first: “A Temporary Matter.”

This is a story where it seems the Indian origin of the main characters is incidental. They could be any young couple working through a very difficult time in their marriage. Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice of a temporary matter: “for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight p.m.” Lately the couple have been going their separate ways, working late into the night in separate rooms, the husband in the unborn and not-to-be-born child’s room, knowing she will not disturb him there. The nightly power outage forces the couple to confront each other again. Though third-person, the narrative focuses on the husband’s perceptions as he navigates his way back into the intimacies of this failing relationship.

Just writing about it brings a lot of it back to me. And that’s the power of this book: it sticks with you, becomes a part of you and the way you see the world. What more can one want?

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