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Jhumpa Lahiri: 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 (1999; PEN/Hemingway; Pulitzer).  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 devestated.  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.

interpreter-of-maladies

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?

12 thoughts on “Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies

  1. Nadia says:

    I absolutely love this book of short stories. Lahiri is a brilliant writer! I’ve read her other two books and admit that this book is my favorite. I just love how her words allow me to enter these unique characters’ lives and smell their foods and taste their worries. Wonderful reading!!

  2. Trevor says:

    Do you recommend her other books, Nadia? One reason I never read The Namesake is because I frequently heard people say, “It’s good, but Lahiri is a better short story writer.” I have hesitated to dilute my reading of her with subpar work. But that’s not fair, and I know it! I’m sure I’ll get to her other stuff soon, right after I enjoy this one again.

  3. You raise an interesting question — I’d say Lahiri’s short stories are better than her novel, but then I met her first with Maladies, which means I regard her as a short story writer and maybe she is a better novelist that I think. Having said that, I deo think she is outstanding as a short story writer and this book is one of the best in the genre. I am intrigued at the various ways that authors explore the immigrant experience — Lahiri use this medium very effectively to do that.

  4. Trevor says:

    Did you read her new collection, Kevin? I have held it in hand but not delved into it at all yet.

    I’m sure I’ll eventually get to The Namesake. For those of you who read it first, was it better than her short stories?

  5. I have and I quite liked it. While Maladies was mainly about the first generation experience (and includes as you note some stories set in the homeland), Unaccustomed Earth focuses on the second generation and the challenges they face. When I first read it, I didn’t think it was quite as good as the first volume — however, it is one of those books where memory is pushing stories forward quite significantly. Some readers have found the immigrant themes trying — I like the book specifically because of them, as that is what Lahiri knows best. The first story in particular (sorry, don’t remember the title and the book is not handy) I found especially good.

    The last three stories in the new book are linked and, in my view, are best viewed as a novella. I have suggested elsewhere that people more comfortable with novels consider reading them first — given your interest in The Namesake, you might want to consider that. Frankly, once you are into the rhythm of the short stories, the three linked stories become almost disruptive.

  6. Nadia says:

    Hi Trevor! I would definitely say that Lahiri is a short story writer – she just excels in that medium. Her novel, The Namesake, is a really good book, but the writing is not on the same level as her writing in Interpreter of Maladies. And I agree with Kevin, when I first read Unaccustomed Earth I did not think it was as good as Interpreter of Maladies. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the stories and eventually I did, but in the end there were maybe two stories that I truly enjoyed reading. One of those stories was the first one in the book, titled Unaccustomed Earth, and the second story I liked was the last one in the book, which belongs to the section titled, Hema and Kaushik. I agree with Kevin again that this last section is not really a short story and should be a novella. I wish she had focused more on those two characters and written a series of short stories on them – that could have been interesting. Either way, I do think that The Namesake is worth reading, because there are some wonderful parts in it, but I do feel that Lahiri’s short stories are her strongest works. Enjoy it all Trevor!

  7. Trevor says:

    Thanks, Nadia! I’ll get over my fear of diluting my enjoyment of Lahiri, especially since that is unfair to her (and not rational anyway)!

  8. Trevor says:

    For those in the area, Jhumpa Lahiri is doing a reading tonight at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square, New York City, at 7:00 p.m.

  9. Rajveer says:

    Hi Trevor,
    This is an inactive thread and you might have moved on from Jhumpa Lahiri. But after reading you describe your feeling after reading A Temporary, I could not hold myself back.
    She is definitely my favorite writer, though whether she is a better novelist or a short story writer I leave that to better judges of these forms.
    Her book was released in India somewhere in 1999. My sister had bought the book, ostensibly to ‘improve’ her grasp of English. At that time I was a 9th grader perhaps, too young and inexperienced to understand what that book was about. Like my sister, my English was even more rudimentary than hers and for a long time I thought that ‘Maladies’ was either a country or the language of that country.
    After having seen the book around various corners of the house, on the top shelf of the oakwood book-shelf meant for new and important books in the beginning, then gradually relegated to a place in the attic, I discovered this book in 2004. Like you, I was struck silent by the first story and I didn’t read anything for days. Lahiri’s writing has that quality, like the warm embrace a seed must feel of the loose soil around it. It doesn’t rush you. Day by day, it gently nudges you out of the hard outer shell.
    Namesake had also been out by then, the movie to be based on it already in news. I read that novel immediately after finishing the last story in this collection, and though moved by it, still came back to her stories for comfort.
    The tsunami struck just before the year’s end, a day after Christmas. I remember getting the details from a friend a few days later as I sat in the sleeper coach of the train that was taking me back to my college after the week-long vacation. In the following days, sitting in the college cafeteria, I would see a video clip shot by a tourist with his mobile phone repeated again and again on the TV set.
    I explored other authors for the next three years of my college, often finding myself distracted, often struggling to finish any book that I started.
    A year after I graduated and was working in Gurgaon, I was thoroughly disenchanted with fiction. A few Bookers had left a bad aftertaste. When I picked up the copy of Unaccustomed Earth from a roadside bookstore, I only vaguely remembered my first encounters with her writing, the comforting embrace having been forgotten in a series of bad reading experiences. It was a hard-bound copy and on the jacket there was a black-and-white photograph of a living room with a door-sized window and an overhead lamp that hung from a lavish arc. On later recollections I would associate this picture with ‘Hema and Kaushik’, imagining this to be Kaushik’s house where he returned to his recently re-married father. Even then, due to the rush of work and holiday packing, I did not read this book immediately, tossing it into my luggage bag that I would be taking on my train ride home.
    It now strikes me that both my encounters with the natural tragedy that occurred years ago had been in a train. Though the tsunami formed only a small part of the novella length story, for the first time I felt the loss personally.
    I have returned to this book again and again since then. I have found more authors whose work inspires me like Alice Munro, William Trevor, Yiyun Li but she remains to be the one I have most extensively researched and re-read. Her new book, apparently a novel set in the backdrop of the Naxalbari conflict, is eagerly awaited. A reference here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6sKopFRlEE

  10. Trevor says:

    Rajveer, thanks for sharing that wonderful story of how much Lahiri has affected you. And I’m happy to say that I haven’t moved on from her, though it has been a while since I’ve reread any of her stories (and I still haven’t read her novel). This reminds me that it’s high time to give “A Temporary Matter” another read!

    Cheers!

  11. Susanne Braham says:

    I found her new story in The New Yorker (Brotherly Love) very engaging, especially in light of the recent terrorist bombs at the Boston Marathon. Read it and you’ll see why.

  12. Amit Gupta says:

    Certainly winner of Pulitzer Prize for her work, Lahiri has needled a number of emotions in a single garland of “Interpreter of Maladies”. Each story is unique and original as a personal experience of writer or a thought of creativity. A good work to read to understand Lahiri’s work of fiction.

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