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Interpreter of Maladies

August 9, 2013

Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. A review by Paul Sanjoy Gonsalves

By Paul Sanjoy Gonsalves
Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies
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Mr Kapasi, whose father was from Gujarat, lives in Puri. His gift for languages hasn’t got him very far in life: he works during the week at a clinic, interpreting for the doctor’s many Gujarati patients. At weekends, he acts as a driver cum tour guide for mainly foreign tourists. Today, his clients are the youthful Mr and Mrs Das, born and raised in America, their two sons, Ronny and Bobby, and daughter Tina. It’s been a long, hot and tiring day visiting the Sun Temple at Konarak, even so the family agrees to Mr Kapasi’s suggestion for a detour via Udaygiri and Khandagiri hills where Jain monks of yore meditated in caves carved out of the rock face.

Mrs Das refuses to join the family, citing aching legs. This is a pleasing development for greying Mr Kapasi, who has been fantasising about her all through and after the visit to the erotic carvings at Konarak. Mrs Das, however, has other plans. She tells him her deepest, darkest secret: a secret that she has carried for eight long years, a secret she has longed to share. Relieve herself of her pain. ‘”I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.”‘

Interpreter of Maladies is the title story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories. Lahiri, born in London to Bengali parents, and raised in Rhode Island, is a remarkable voice in immigrant writing. Controlled, never shrill, she nevertheless fleshes out her characters in vivid detail, a veritable potpourri of smells, sounds, colours, thoughts and emotions. She has a sure eye for nuance, a sharp ear for cadence – whatever the setting, Calcutta, Boston and Beyond, the sub-title of her book.

For Lahiri, being on the outside, both culturally and in terms of open spaces, are keys to understanding the human condition and the inner world. Though hardly a new concept, in Ms Lahiri’s deft hands it acquires an original level, raising it to an art form rarely encountered in contemporary writing. In her stories, complete strangers – including chance sexual encounters – are in reality soul mates, friends who’ve never met – their empathy facilitated by the outdoors. And hardly surprisingly, most of her main characters are women.

Mr Kapasi is an outsider twice removed: a Gujarati in Orissa, and a mere tour guide. But, as Mrs Das says, her interest lies in his other job. ‘”As an interpreter.”‘ Perhaps a one-night stand can only be confessed to a one-day tour guide. For, tourism, like its elevated cousin anthropology, tells us at least as much about Us as it does about Them.

Shukumar is struggling to complete his Ph.D. He met Shoba at an Indian music recital in Cambridge four years ago. They’ve just been notified that an anticipated power cut is A Temporary Matter: for an hour starting at 8 pm, for the next five days. Six months ago, just at the time their first baby was due, Shukumar was at a conference in Baltimore, a conference he just had to attend for career reasons. Although torn between the two facts, he went, with Shoba’s encouragement. ‘When he returned to Boston, it was over. The baby had been born dead. … The doctor explained that these things happen.’

Shukumar admires Shoba for her foresight, her ability to plan ahead, in everyday practical matters. ‘She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad.’ The past few days he’s been unable to think clearly, work on his dissertation; go out of the house — lying in bed all day long, until it was time to prepare the evening meal. “It was the one thing that made him feel productive.” This evening, he sets a table for two, complete with wine and candles, and she is pleasantly surprised. “‘It’s like India. … Sometimes the current disappears for hours at a stretch. I once had to attend an entire rice ceremony in the dark. The baby just cried and cried. It must have been so hot.”‘

Shoba recalls how at her grandmother’s home, they’d play ‘story-telling’ during power cuts. He envies her knowledge of India. ‘He wished now he had his own childhood stories of India.’ As an infant, he’d nearly died of amoebic dysentery on a visit, after which his father never took him back. ‘”Let’s do that,” she said suddenly. “Say something in the dark.”‘ Over the next five evenings, they do just that. Shukumar looks forward to these sessions, sitting on the doorstep, swapping stories they’d never told each other. She seems to share his enthusiasm, coming home earlier than usual. Somehow it turns into an exchange of confessions…

Back to Ms Lahiri. The lady is a foodie, undoubtedly! Almost all the stories set in America have Indian – nay, Bengali – food as a second helping to the main course. Meats, fish, vegetables, condiments, confection, wines, recipes, preparation, mealtimes – these are detailed so finely as to make one’s mouth water. The aromas – redolent with spice and flavouring – linger long after the stories are over. Strangely, none of the three stories set in India are treated in quite this manner. It is as if for the immigrant food is the key to her patrimony, whilst in one’s native land, it is just an everyday unremarked reality.

‘But Mrs. Sen did not know how to drive’. Thus it is that Eliot, age 11, who’s just lost his after-school sitter to higher education, comes to Mrs. Sen’s home instead. It is fish that she is after – fresh from the seaside, always whole. ‘”It is very frustrating,” Mrs. Sen apologised, with an emphasis on the second syllable of the word. “To live so close to the ocean and not to have so much fish.”‘

When she finally finds the ideal fishmonger, she asks her husband, who teaches at the University, to pick up the fish on his way home. He would like her to learn driving so that she can do her own shopping, and let him start holding office hours. She is upset when he cannot buy the fish one evening, busy with a meeting. ‘”Tell me, Eliot, is it too much to ask?”‘ But drive she will not. “I hate driving. No more.”

At the fishmonger’s, she asks the heads to be kept on. ‘”You got cats at home?” “No cats. Only a husband.”‘ On the one occasion that she and Eliot take the bus to the fishmonger’s, passengers complain about the smell.

“Sexy means loving someone you don’t know.”‘ Out of the mouths of babes verily. Rohin, seven, proclaims his definition of Sexy to Miranda, the first time he meets her. She’s into a clandestine relationship with Dev, whose wife is away in India for a while. Miranda’s colleague, Laxmi, has invited her cousin, Rohin’s mother, who lives in Montreal, to layover in Boston on her way to California. The cousin is trying to recuperate from a wayward husband who has decided to take up with a woman he met in London.

Rohin has been left with Miranda for a few hours, and they play country-capital. He’s something of an expert, into a competition with a classmate. It reminds her of hours spent with Dev at the Mapparium, looking at a world she’s never known, Dev only too happy to help improve her knowledge of faraway parts. One day, she picks up a Bengali alphabet book, and writes the Indian part of her name – Mira – in Bengali. ‘It was a scribble to her, but somewhere in the world, she realised with a shock, it meant something.’

When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine is surely autobiographical, from the viewpoint of Lilia, a 10-year old girl, in 1971, her father a professor at a small university north of Vermont. Mr. Pirzada is from Dacca, in the US on a grant to study the foliage of New England. He’s left his wife and seven daughters behind, and comes each evening to dine with her family, and watch the evening news. With no news from Dacca, the TV is Mr Pirzada’s only connection with home, at a time when civil war is rending Pakistan asunder.

Kindly Mr Pirzada, never forgets to bring Lilia some confectionery or the other, taking a gentle interest in her well being, with an affection that he cannot give to his children. Her concerns are more mundane, such as preparing for Halloween. Nevertheless, she worries about Mr Pirzada’s family. One night she prays for their safekeeping. “That night when I went to bed, I only pretended to brush my teeth, for I feared that I would somehow rinse the prayer out as well.”

Lahiri’s Calcutta stories continue with the theme of the outsider – literally as well – in that Boori Ma (in A Real Durwan) lives underneath the staircase, whilst Bibi (in The Treatment of Bibi Haldar) is banished by her family to the storage room on the roof of the building. In both stories, situations, which occur when the women step out of their worlds, lead to inescapable and drastic consequences. However, neither story rings entirely true. Lahiri portrays Calcutta faithfully enough, but her characters appear farcical, the circumstances forced. They are too like stories a child might hear on her grandparent’s knees – stories from ‘the Old Home Town’, stereotypes of a lost, imagined, Past. Bengali colloquialisms (“believe me, don’t believe me”; “her mouth is full of ashes”) do not transliterate well into English, and end up sounding comical.

That and her occasional misspelling of Indian / Bengali names (Assansol, Rashbihari Avenue, Sanjeev should surely be Sanjib or Sanjeeb) are the only jarring notes of an otherwise masterfully crafted collection. Although her prose quality is starkly restrained, it nevertheless has the ability the grab you by the short ones, and hang in there till you scream – “Enough already! I know it, I’ve been there, done that!” And that is what it is all about really – her ability to take the mundane and infuse it with so much meaning that we are forced to confront our Self and acknowledge how much we are like the Other. Lahiri is a storyteller of the highest order, totally lacking the need to construct artificial worlds to bring home the truth.

In the penultimate story, This Blessed House, Sanjeev is aghast at the thought of Twinkle centre staging a host of Catholic artefacts she discovers in their new home. For Twinkle, the ‘treasure hunt’, as she calls it, is “too good. God only knows what else we’ll find, no pun intended.” Much as Sanjeev tries reasoning with her – “What will people think?” (and, one might add, in a wickedly delicious Indian vein, “So soon after marriage!”) – Twinkle will have nothing of his objections to display them somewhere other than their living room.

Which brings us to the final, resounding narrative, Across Three Continents. It tells of the relationship that develops between a newly arrived young man from India and his octogenarian (or so he thinks!) Boston landlady. She’s finicky, old-fashioned and ordered in her ways; he’s nervous, doesn’t quite know the right thing to do, the right thing to say. And so she instructs him, and when finally put to the test, he does not fail her. The relationship between the lodger and Mrs Croft turns unusually warm and comfortable, more so after the arrival of Mala, his new bride, from Calcutta. Mrs Croft is their guide to a New World, teaching them to admire their new country, both for its past traditions and its present achievements.

“Still,” our young friend tells us after 30 moons in America, “there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, every person I have known, every room I have slept in.”

And so it is with Lahiri – no ordinary storyteller she – who takes us intimately into the lives of ordinary people everywhere, with so much candour and compassion. By doing so, she acts, as does Mr Kapasi, as the interpreter of our maladies.

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