Interpreter of Maladies (1999)



One of the reasons I read is to break the threat of ego- and ethnocentrism. As Nabokov advises, we should not select our reading material based on what most closely reflects ourselves[1]; or, as Yale professor Amy Hungerford puts it, we should read to find out about who we are not[2]. Upon these twin coils of mature reading, I welcome the works of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, for what better way, as a reader, to gain sympathy for others than to glean from first-hand experience? As Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston do for the Chinese-American experience, so does Lahiri for the Indian-American experience in her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies.

A glance at Lahiri’s scholarly accolades (an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies, all from Boston University) combined with the prestigious awards for her debut set high expectations for the newcomer to her writing. But the work has captured something universal that withstands the possibilities of eye-rolling, indifference, or unreasonable expectations. In particular, the main theme is displaced Indians living in America. Through the nine variations on this theme, we are forced to think about the tight coupling of identity with place; the diminishment of tradition from generation to generation; and the tenuous barrier separating ignorance from prejudice.

Lahiri’s prose is balanced and strong, lacking many of the purple flourishes and empty ornamentation we’ve grown accustomed to in the realm of literary fiction. But that is not to say that the writing lacks elegance. Quite the contrary. It is simply that her knack for choosing the perfect detail drives the mots justes instead of the other way around. The stories are steeped in everyday life; nothing is elevated above what can be seen. This serves to enhance the emotional intensity of her characters’ maladies, of which there is a familiar roll call: divorce, infidelity, mental instability, squalor, the loss of a child, and so on. Often, with such sadly quotidian subjects, the addition of cloying, overly sentimental language can make the stories seem unreal, too artificial. Instead of causing me to spurn yet another story about marriage problems, Lahiri, herself an interpreter of maladies, guides me into another way of looking at things.

Often while reading these stories I had an initial sense that I’d heard this story before, but by the end I encountered something new. The opening story, “A Temporary Matter,” concerns a marriage on the rocks following the loss of a child. Everything seems to lead to infidelity on part of one of the two parties, but Lahiri spares us so cliché a story. Instead the emphasis is on the trope of temporary darkness. The title of the story refers both to the temporary power outage that occurs each night for a succession of days and to the matters underpinning the tremors in  their relationship. In the dark, each night, they are forced to talk to one another and begin digging into the bedrock of their thoughts. Finally, after unearthing highly caustic detritus, the couple is able to move from darkness to light.

The second story, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” is the ceremony-of-innocence tale of a young girl who gets a glimpse at a world that isn’t like the one she knows. With a poignant juxtaposition of American children trick-or-treating and war on the other side of the world, and the weary Mr. Pirzada caught somewhere in between, the young girl becomes sensitive to differences and prejudices all around her, and she seeks something (through a ritual of her own) that will give her a sense of greater purpose and meaning. The fourth story, “A Real Durwan,” highlights the unyielding dignity in face of squalor and circumstance[3], the human quickness to judge and complain, and the ugliness of entitlement and thanklessness. The story “Sexy” is a semi-conventional infidelity story whose main force comes from the words of a young boy: “It means loving someone you don’t know.” These single lines and moments are a highlight of the collection.

“Mrs. Sen’s,” for me, was the salient story of the collection. It is a decidedly American view of Indians, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since Lahiri was born in London and moved to the United States when she was two years old. I currently live in an apartment where there are Indian tenants across the hall and below. From the smells and sounds, they begin cooking before dawn and continue throughout the day. Often there are a half-dozen or more shoes neatly lined up outside the doors. From my window I see what I interpret as very calculated and reluctant driving in the parking lot. And yet, I also smell the cigarettes and Bud Lite and pizza and BBQ and wings of the American tenants who treat the parking lot like a sort of demolition derby in their trucks with mud-caked tires larger than my car. (I am familiar with Matthew 7:3.) Likewise, this story captures so eloquently the perceptions of Indians toward Americans and Americans toward Indians. Mrs. Sen cooks, cooks, cooks, all day long (in fact, all the stories have a preoccupation with food). She wonders why there is such a chasm in the relationship between parents and children. And she most certainly does not feel comfortable driving. In an alternating wave of shattering one’s preconceptions and building empathy, this is one of the most important stories for humans to read.

“This Blessed House” meditates on the breaking of cultural traditions, especially those of women and religion. And the final story, “The Third and Final Continent” follows an Indian man as he moved from India to England to the Unites States (much like Lahiri’s own family) and his arranged-marriage wife who follows some time after. The two standout stories, however, along with “Mrs. Sen’s,” are the title story, “The Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.” The first is an account of a very much Americanized “Indian” family through the eyes of their Indian tour guide. The sheer force of emotional intensity in so compressed a form (the short story) is at once a class in creative writing and an answer to the reader’s high expectations. The other story, told in the first-person plural, concerns a mentally unstable girl named Bibi whose unfortunate life is yet a platform of hope. It is a universal story where “Bibi’s life was an encounter with one fruitless antidote after another,” where logic does not heal, but justice can prevail through the “we” of the narrators (i.e. us). Again, Lahiri ends the story with a beautiful tableau of hope.

Apparently the stories upset many Indian readers with what was perceived as its unflattering depictions of India and her people. Of course it is always a path of tremendous trepidation to step out and write of cultures, especially in a frank way through a certain perspective. There are implicit rules to such endeavors. For example, in many ways, Lahiri can get away with this since she does, after all, have Bengali parents. On the other hand, she can paint the equally unflattering images of American culture—after all, she grew up in America and was a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under Obama. I think the real rub of the work’s negative reception is in the way in which she lays bare the thoughts and feelings we all wish we didn’t have. What most be borne in mind is that the stories buck tendentious readings. Lahiri offers as much hope as she does criticism.

[1] From his Cornell lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers.”
[2] From her course in American Literature after 1945:
[3] Like the main character in Hamsun’s Hunger.