Interpreter of Maladies
Racism and Ethnicity in Interpreter of Maladies and Ceremony
One’s ethnicity or their cultural beliefs and traditions are what make people different in addition to their physical appearance, and in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, these are the two key aspects of life that are focused on as characters determine how they wish to interact with one another. Lahiri’s short story exemplifies the struggles that make themselves visible when people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds interact, similar to the way Silko’s Native American fictional novel does, specifically when having white people interact with Native Americans like Tayo. Racism and ethnicity are two concepts that drive the actions of characters, such as Lilia and Mr. Pirzada as well as Tayo and the white people that surround him, because it provides something for the characters to focus in on as differences between one another. Regardless of the efforts by characters in both texts to get rid of these preconceived notions based on physical appearance, there remains people who refuse to see past it, which is evident in the case of whites versus Native Americans in Ceremony, along with those who focus in on minutia in order to differentiate themselves from others, as shown in Interpreter of Maladies.
Initially, Lilia determines that Mr. Pirzada is different than she is for what she presumes is a racial or ethnic reason, and it is that idea that drives all of her actions in building a relationship with him. She observed that something about Mr. Pirzada was not the same as what she was used to in a person, which drove her curiosity to find out what exactly it was that caused this feeling. She stated, “Now that I had learned Mr. Pirzada was not an Indian, I began to study him with extra care, to try to figure out what made him different. I decided that the pocket watch was one of those things. When I saw it that night, as he wound it and arranged it on the coffee table, an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first” (Lahiri 30). The fixation that Lilia admits she has over his pocket watch reflects on the idea that no matter what, she is already determined to find something that makes Mr. Pirzada different from herself and her family. Over time, Lilia does take a strong liking to Mr. Pirzada once she is able to allow herself to dismiss any preconceived notion she had, and then formulate a relationship with him that was greater than any racial or ethnic difference.
However, the progression that Lilia goes through does not mirror that of the white people in Ceremony because they do not undergo the same transformation of bias that Lilia does when it comes to Native Americans. Tayo along with the other Native Americans in Ceremony are aware of the way white people view them as different simply because of their race, yet they do not even consider their ethnicity, which drives Tayo’s ideology towards white people throughout the text. For example, “The first day in Oakland he and Rocky walked down the street together and a big Chrysler stopped in the street and an old white woman rolled down the window and said, ‘God bless you, God bless you,’ but it was the uniform, not them, she blessed” (Silko 38). The author allows Tayo to show how deeply he wishes to be looked at as an American in the same way a white man is looked at as an American because ethnically speaking, he feels as if he is one. Her intent may not have been malicious towards Tayo specifically by any means, but her attitude towards solely blessing the uniform he was wearing, as opposed to Tayo himself, is a clear example of racism impacting the actions of a particular character in Silko’s novel. Tayo believes that regardless of the way white people want to believe Native Americans are different because of the color of their skin, they ought to understand that from the perspective of ethnicity, they are Americans just like they are underneath their skin color. Racism in Ceremony is a conflict that white people force Tayo and the other Native Americans to face throughout the entire course of the text; however, it is this battle that fuels the development of Tayo’s own ideology towards the issue of one’s race. Tayo focuses on the idea of racism by fixating on its literal definition when he says, “The skin. He saw the skin of the corpses again and again, in ditches on either side of the long muddy road — skin that was stretched shiny and dark over bloated hands; even white men were darker after death. There was no difference when they were swollen and covered with flies” (Silko 6). Silko demonstrates the conflict that race cultivates in Tayo’s thought process by having him highlight the idea that all people, regardless of their respective race, look the same after death. No matter what race somebody is when they are alive, Tayo states how everyone as the same after death, which shows his desire to have all people viewed upon as the same with no racial prejudice while they are alive as well. The way in which racism is used as a way to create divides between groups of characters resembles the way in which Lilia attempted to differ herself from Mr. Pirzada in Interpreter of Maladies.
Race at its surface is a simple term, which is in reference to one’s physical appearance and skin color, however, characters in both Interpreter of Maladies and Ceremony used this as a means of differentiating themselves from one another, regardless of ethnicity. Jhumpa Lahiri’s character Lilia attempts to use race to separate herself from Mr. Pirzada initially, but eventually allows herself to form a bond with him by accepting what is under his skin. The same ability to progress was not shown on behalf of the whites in regards to the Native Americans in Silko’s Ceremony because unlike Lilia, they refuse to attempt to see under the skin of those who physically appear different than them, even though they have the same ethnicities.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter Of Maladies: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.
- Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Books, 2006. Print.
Different Stories in Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies Essay
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a collection of short studies whose characters’ experiences translate to those of several immigrants across the globe. The details of the stories vary greatly; the reader learns of an Indian immigrant babysitting American children, a woman living in absolute poverty on the streets of Calcutta, and a Hindu couple stumbling across Christian trinkets in their new home. Despite the different settings and contexts, the stories are unified by imperfect characters struggling with problems that any reader can identify with, such as Lilia’s struggle with cultural collisions in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”. Through these characters’ problems, Lahiri explores many of the problems in her own life, specifically the dissatisfaction with the American Dream and American life that so many immigrants experience.The struggles of the characters in The Interpreter of Maladies caused me to question aspects of my own life, like what constitutes a healthy or normal relationship, and the correct manner of falling in love.
In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, the protagonist Lilia feels a disconnect between the cultural values she is taught at school and those that she is taught at home. While at school, Lilia is taught American History, and spends large portions of time exploring the American Revolution. To Lilia, this learning feels impersonal and repetitive. On the other hand, at home Lilia and her family keep up with the civil war in India. This war has special importance to her because her family is Indian, and because a Bengali man named Mr. Pirzada comes over each evening to watch the news and discuss the conflict. Mr. Pirzada’s family is in the war zone, which gives the war a sense of meaning and severity that is not present in the lessons about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Lilia develops an interest in the Indian civil war at home, but is told at school that this interest is illegitimate. This cultural disconnect is highlighted by Lahiri when Lilia is working on a school book report about the Mayflower, and is caught reading about Bengali culture by her teacher:
“‘Is this book a part of your report, Lilia?’
‘No, Mrs. Kenyon’
‘Then I see no reason to consult it… Do you?’” (33)
Lilia’s response to this question should have been that she did see a reason to consult the book. The conflict in India is relevant to her life, and she feels that it is important to be informed about life there. However, her American education is telling her that American history should take priority over all else. Distinctly different cultures pull Lilia in different directions, and unfortunately, this conflict does not reach a neat resolution by the end of the short story.
Through the Interpreter of Maladies, the reader is able to observe Lahiri’s struggle with the great expectations that so many have for life in America, and the problem of disappointment with the American Dream. The United States is often glorified as the land of opportunity, when anyone one can become rich through hard work. However, as almost anyone working several jobs and just scraping by knows, this is hardly the case. Many immigrants are disappointed by the harsh realities of life in the US, as opposed to the image of a perfect life that is so often propagated by Hollywood. This theme of disappointment arises in many of Lahiri’s short stories, such as “Interpreter of Maladies”, “Sexy”, “Mrs. Sen’s”, and “This Blessed House.” However, Lahiri most clearly displays this disappointment with the American Dream in “A Temporary Matter”.
In “A Temporary Matter”, the unraveling of the relationship between Shoba and Shukumar exposes their disappointment in American life. Initially, Shoba and Shukumar are happily married and are optimistic about their life together. However, this image of a perfect future begins to deteriorate when Shoba goes into labor while Shukumar is out of town, and the child does not survive. Each of the main characters react to this tragedy in different ways. Shukumar loses all motivation to get out of bed in the morning, and feels increasingly self-conscious about being in his sixth year of graduate school. Additionally, Shoba’s mother holds a grudge against Shukumar because he was not present when Shoba went into labor: “[Shoba’s mother] never talked to him about Shoba; once, when he mentioned the baby’s death, she looked up from her knitting, and said, ‘But you weren’t even there.’” (9). Shukumar’s self respect is gone, and he is presented to the reader as a man without a purpose. Inversely, Shoba becomes increasingly active, and distracts herself with her workload outside of the home. The relationship between Shoba and Shukumar suffers as a result of these differing coping methods. They stop eating meals together, have insignificant surface level conversations when forced to interact, and begin to act as if they are roommates rather than a married couple. Ultimately, the story concludes with Shoba saying that she has found a new apartment and is moving out. Clearly, Shukumar’s life in America is far from perfect. His expectation was to become successful, raise a family, and live happily ever after with his wife. Instead, he is struggling to make it through graduate school, has a wife that is leaving him, and he has tragically lost a child. Through this story, Lahiri acknowledges the imperfections that exist in an American society like they do in any other, and refutes the perfect American life that so many claim is achievable.
As a reader of Interpreter of Maladies, I was forced by Lahiri to reevaluate many assumptions that I have regarding relationships and love. Jhumpa Lahiri crafts all different types of relationships in her short stories, and these relationships often drive the plot. “A Temporary Matter”, “Interpreter of Maladies”, “Sexy”, “Mrs. Sen’s”, “This Blessed House”, and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” all feature unhealthy or failing relationships. The only story in the entire collection that features a happy and successful marriage is in “The Third and Final Continent”, between Mala and the narrator (who remains unnamed). This marriage was arranged by the narrator’s brother, which goes against the majority of what I have learned from American culture regarding relationships. As the reader, my problem was accepting that love can be something that is cultivated after marriage, rather than before it. In western culture, the accepted practice is for two people to get to know one another first, then fall in love, and to finally propose as a demonstration of absolute love and commitment. Of course, I had known that arranged marriages existed, but I had considered them to be foolish and impractical. In the final two pages of the book, when the narrator speaks of all of the happiness in his life with Mala, I am convinced otherwise. The problem for the reader is to accept the merits of an arranged marriage, despite the unfamiliarity of this type of relationship in American popular culture.
The problems of The Interpreter of Maladies, such as Lilia’s problem of cultural collision, Lahiri’s problem of disappointment with American life, and my problem, as a reader, with arranged marriages all stem from short stories that are unlike my day to day life. They involve people with drastically different backgrounds than my own, generally included themes of Indian culture that are not present in my life. Yet because of the problems used to bring these characters to life, their stories felt more familiar than foreign. The problems, such as troubled relationships, adjusting to a new place, and cultural disconnect felt like they could have been my own. The Interpreter of Maladies invokes empathy from the reader rather than just compassion because the problems that Lahiri illustrates strike the reader close to home, despite a setting that may be thousands of miles away.
Main Character in Interpreter of Maladies
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s intricately beautiful The Interpreter of Maladies, Mrs. Das serves as both a catalyst for plot development and vehicle for social commentary. Through her indirect characterization, Mrs. Das serves as a direct cultural contrast to Mr. Kapasi, thereby moving the plot forward and creating poignant social commentary.
The short story begins with the Das family meeting Mr. Kapasi as they prepare for their trip through a certain part of India. Almost immediately it’s clear that there is a cultural gap between Kapasi and the Das family when it’s mentioned that “Mr. Kapasi found it strange that Mr. Das should refer to his wife by her first name when speaking to the little girl” (page 14). The cultural gap is later clear when it’s mentioned that “Mr. and Mrs. Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents” (page 16). Such drastic differences often leads to curiosity, as is the case of Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi. Mrs. Das represents a land far away, a land that Mr. Kapasi can’t understand. As the story progresses, Mr. Kapasi’s infatuation with Mrs. Das grows: he finds himself staring at her, admiring her legs, wishing to be with her. What makes this infatuation different and more interesting than other infatuations is the cultural clash between Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi (thereby carrying the story forward). On one hand is Mr. Kapasi, a poor, down-on-his-luck Indian who translates and does tours for a living. On the other, Mrs. Das seemingly has a life of luxury. In reality, she doesn’t: she’s miserable because she lives a life of irresponsibility, shallowness, superficiality, and extremely unhealthy serenity.
Mrs. Das moreover represents stereotypical American flaws: self-centeredness, ethnocentrism, carelessness, and a lack of regard for the world around it. It’s her characterization that reveals this. Our initial impression of Mrs. Das comes when it’s mentioned that “[Mrs. Das] did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the restroom,” suggesting that she is both a bad parent and a careless, miserable person who focuses on herself rather than her kids (pg. 12). This elicits a response from their tour guide Mr. Kapasi. He’s fascinated. Fascinated by the drastically different culture than his own and fascinated by Mrs. Das herself. He’s also intrigued with her because she and her family are ethnically Indian; in terms of their identity, though, she and her family are American. This is because people are often attracted to things that they don’t understand fully; Mr. Kapasi is no exception. They find that they are share many things in common with each other and have an odd moment together in which Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi of her adultery and how her son Bobby was born out of said adultery. In other words, like Mr. Kapasi, she has a loveless, miserable marriage. However, after these words are exchanged, it’s clear that the two are nothing alike. In fact, they are complete opposites. This is illuminated when Mr. Kapasi asks Mrs. Das if “It [is] really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or guilt?” (pg. 28), angering her and severing the connection that they had once held despite their differences. All of this is social commentary and a scatching indictment of America and the family unit its culture promulgates. The Interpreter of Maladies argues that America and its people are too privileged and too ethnocentric, leading to poor marriages, bad parenting, and an unnecessary superiority complex, all of which are bad through the eyes of the author and presumably most Indians.
In effect, Mrs. Das is characterized in a way that moves the story forward and in a way that creates social commentary. Mrs. Das is a self-centered, ethnocentric, careless woman who happens to be ethnically Indian like her tour guide, Mr. Kapasi. They became attracted to each other, creating the main conflict in the story (thereby moving it forward), providing a stark and ironic contrast between their lifestyles. Their differences also creates social commentary. That is, American culture is propped up on cruelness and shallowness, bad marriages that often lead to infidelity, unwarranted privilege and an unjust sense of arrogance, as well as a glaring superiority complex. In other words, Americans have an incredible amount and don’t know how lucky they are, so they should, in the words of one of the more famous idioms, either shape up or ship out.
Interpreter of Maladies And The Lake of the Woods: What Do They Have in Common?
Literature Comparison Essay
Often in pieces of literature, similar themes are identified in which connections are made between the characters experience from both novels. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, some characters from each text share similar experiences which correspond to identical themes. For example, both novels share the themes of the lack of communication as well as the burden of secrecy, in which obstacles are encountered in these characters’ lives as they learn to face and overcome them.
Demonstrated in both novels, there is a difficulty of communication between the characters and their loved ones. For instance, the short story of “Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” from Interpreter of Maladies describes a man who moves to America for his job while his family remains in Dacca, India, during the Pakistini army invasion. Mr. Pirzada is clearly unable to communicate with his wife and daughters because of the war. He therefore experiences a lack of contact with his family, with his only way of transmission being through the news channel of the television. Each week, Mr. Pirzada would join a friendly Indian family who invited him over, and he would watch the news to keep himself updated on the events taking place in Dacca, to make sure his family was safe. By the end of the short story, although Mr. Pirzada does end up going back to India to reunite with his family after several months, the disconnection between him and his wife and children most likely affected the strength of his marriage and tested his love for his wife, which in this case seemed to happily continue by the end of the short story.
Similarly, John and Kathy Wade in In the Lake of the Woods also experience a severe lack of communication. Before John and Kathy were married, John spent some time as a soldier in the Vietnamese war. Because John was away for such a long period of time, there was a disconnection between Kathy and John, which potentially weakened their relationship. Even when John wrote letters to Kathy during the war, she slowly stopped responding to them. In one letter, however, Kathy wrote to John about how she was “seeing some guys” and that it was “nothing serious” (p.186). Despite the fact that it was nothing serious, the fact that Kathy is seeing other men while she is in a relationship with John proves their growing disconnection as John spent his time in the war. The relationship between John and Kathy enfeebled, and although they got married after the war, they did not seem like a true loving and married couple. This disconnection could perhaps explain why Kathy decided to vanish from the lake-house the night of her disappearance. However, the readers may never know since O’Brien only leaves Hypotheses about Kathy’s disappearance for the audience to read. As portrayed, based on these two texts, the characters have faced similar experiences involving the theme of the lack of communication. However, the only difference is that Mr. Pirzada seemed to completely reunite with his family without such a long-term effect of the disconnection between his family, while John and Kathy did not lovingly come together as a true husband and wife, illustrating that the war caused serious communication problems which in effect impacted their marriage negatively.
Another theme that can be related to both novels is the burden of secrecy, in which the characters keep secrets away from others in avoidance of the truth. The short story “Interpreter of Maladies” in Interpreter of Maladies portrays of perfect example of a character who hides the truth. Mr. and Mrs. Das visit India with their children, and are driven and guided by an interpreter, Mr. Kapasi. When Mrs. Das confides in Mr. Kapasi, she tells him about what she has been hiding for eight years from everyone, and that he is the first person she has finally told. “And no one knows, of course. No one at all. I’ve kept it a secret for eight whole years. But now I’ve told you” (p.62). One of Mrs. Das’ three children, Bobby, is not Mr. Das’ son. Mrs. Das had an affair with Mr. Das’ business partner that came into town for a job interview, in which she became pregnant and conceived Bobby. Realizing that she cannot hide from the truth, she asks Mr. Kapasi to interpret her malady. However, Mr. Kapasi sees only guilt from her secret and cannot offer a remedy to her malady.
Comparably, John and Kathy Wade from In the Lake of the Woods both have some hidden secrets that were never shared. Secrecy was a convenient way for John and Kathy to avoid facing the facts. However, the burden of concealing the truth eventually proved to be too much when Kathy mysteriously disappeared. Before the war, John had continuously spied on Kathy whenever he gained the chance to. Although Kathy knew about this secret, it was still something that was always kept to himself. As for Kathy, it is evident that she had an affair with another man while she was with John, which he does not know about. “Kathy was no angel. That dentist… I shouldn’t say his name… I guess it hurt him pretty bad— John, I mean” (p. 261). Spoken by Kathy’s sister, Patricia, it is portrayed that Kathy was having an affair with a dentist while she was with John. This secret was never figured out from John, and when Kathy disappeared, there would really be no way for him to find out the truth. From both texts, one can apprehend that running away from the truth will not solve anything, and that no matter what, the truth will always come out.
The characters from both novels of Interpreter of Maladies and In the Lake of the Woods experience intense and emotional stages in their lives in which they learn to accept and face the truth. The two themes of lack of communication and the burden of secrecy reflect on the characters’ actions in the novels and how they learn to face the large or little obstacles that come along in their lives, such as the difficulty to communicate or the avoidance of the truth.
Perception, Truth and Misconception in Interpreter of Maladies
Time and time again, humans make a habit of imagining their lives as more glorious than they are. Author Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories about misconception. She exploits the universal yearning for something greater and, through her characters, creates a clear deviation between a desired abstract and reality in each piece. For every storyline, the gap between perception and truth does not last for long and ultimately ends in a subtle personal tragedy.
The strongest example of constructing one’s own reality lies in “Interpreter of Maladies,” the namesake of the novel, which further supports the idea that misperception is Lahiri’s focus. The Das family, American tourists, take Mr. Kapasi’s taxi to Indian attractions. The cabbie quickly becomes obsessed with Mrs. Das, even imaging an entire life with her, all the while ignoring her coldness towards her family. Despite admitting her faults, even revealing that one of her children is the product of an affair, he still fantasizes of her. “In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to believe that all was right with the world…” (Lahiri 56); Lahiri purposes uses the word “believe”—not knows, not understands, but believes. Having just faith means constructing a reality that is not actually there. There’s zero chance they have any future together, but it is nice for him to imagine so. He is disappointed but does nothing when she doesn’t even notice that the paper containing his contact information floats away in the wind, obliterating the potential for a future together. Then there is Mr. Das, who is infatuated with the country of India— but only the good parts. He’s elated to explore his motherland for the first time. On a road, he tells Mr. Kapasi to pull over because he wants “to get a shot of this guy” (Lahiri 49), an emaciated vagrant—but does nothing to aid the man in any way. By treating the situation so casually, he capitalizes on the poor man’s struggle in the name of what he imagines a developing, foreign country should look like for the sake of his memories. Later on, he is still too distracted by his camera to notice his son being attacked by monkeys. It is only once Mrs. Das shrieks during the attack that Mr. Das is brought back to the brutal reality of the situation and thus agrees to return to the hotel immediately, too shocked to really speak or act; he did not see the problems of India until they personally affected him. The obliteration of these men’s false realities, meant to comfort, unsettles them, as Lahiri leaves no resolution.
In the story “Sexy,” a young woman deludes herself in what it means to be a mistress. Miranda, lonely and new to Boston, is thrilled when a handsome, cultured, married man pays attention to her. She wholly embraces the role of mistress, going so far as to “buy herself things she thought a mistress should have” (Lahiri 92). She considers their relationship romantic, whereas it is truthfully lustful, largely consisting of a regularly scheduled sexcapades. The illusion is fully shattered when a child calls her “sexy”— a word she once treasured when Dev called her it— when she models her prime, never-worn “mistress” outfit. Miranda is appalled and further bothered by the young boy defining “sexy” as “loving someone you don’t know,” illuminating the illegitimacy of Dev and Miranda’s relationship. From that point onward, she stops seeing him, ignoring his calls, because the semblance of a relationship is no longer comforting.
Lahiri uses “This Blessed House” to draw attention towards the discomfort of making choices solely for comfort. Sanjeev misleads himself by trying to plan out the perfect life. He, like Lahiri’s other characters, focuses on the good while acting almost purposefully oblivious to the bad. This is most evident in his choice of home and wife. He is hasty and stubborn—before even buying the house that he and his wife live in, he “had already made up his mind, was determined that he and Twinkle should live there together, forever, and so he had not bothered to notice the switch plates covered with biblical stickers…” (Lahiri 137). It ends up being the religion iconography that drives him crazy about his home, which he could have avoided if he had only payed attention. But “when, after moving in, he tried to scrape it off, he scratched the glass” (Lahiri 137); not only is his ignorance a discomfort to him, it is literally damaging. The house is a metaphor for his marriage with Twinkle, a quasi-arranged marriage that he rushes into in desperate need for a companion that is a safe option. It is only later that aspects of her personality that he disregarded begin to aggravate him. Lahiri uses Sanjeev as an example of what happens when people make serious but ordinary life decisions on a basis of blatant misconceptions.
The reason the personal tragedies are “subtle” is because the characters cannot do anything about the unraveling of their delusions. Lahiri’s writing is not dramatic and rather insinuates a calm acceptance of the truth. Furthermore, the object of each character’s deceptions are not actually deceptive. All fault lies on those with the overly-active imagination, seeking to escape harsh realities. In life, the malady of delusion is unavoidable but never stands permanent. It is impossible for people to make their lives wholly comfortable.
Masking Reality with Illusion: Unhappy Relationships in Lahiri’s Short Stories
Appearances and Unhappy Couples In Jhumba Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, there is a common theme of glossing over the truth. Many characters preoccupy themselves with appearances in hopes of escaping the reality of their unhappy relationships. In the short stories “This Blessed House,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” and “A Temporary Matter,” symbols are used to demonstrate the need to put on a façade not only for others around them, but more importantly for the characters themselves. Ultimately, this inability to accept the truth is what causes each character’s perpetual unhappiness.
In “This Blessed House,” the character Twinkle is the total package—beautiful, funny, intelligent, and good-humored. Yet all her husband sees is a childish woman with a short attention span. Unlike most people seeking a relationship, Sanjeev does not want a partner who loves him or who brings meaning to his life. Rather, he wants someone who is just like him—sensible, organized, mature. He wants someone who will give him the appropriate life for a man of his age—a life that all of his friends have. This mistake costs him happiness as he marries simply to fulfill a step in his life plan rather than for love. His obsession with appearances can be seen in the way he gets angry at Twinkle for wearing heels because they make her taller than him. Sanjeev cannot stand the height difference because it deviates from his traditional image of a couple in which the man is taller than the woman. Similarly, his focus on appearances is seen through the symbol of the Christian paraphernalia. To Twinkle, it is simply a game—an unsolved mystery and an exciting treasure hunt. Yet to Sanjeev, it is inappropriate, strange, almost blasphemous. He is worried that others will see the paraphernalia and judge them. When Twinkle wants to put a statue of Virgin Mary on the front lawn, he adamantly objects and says: “All the neighbors will see. They’ll think we’re insane…We’re not Christian” (Lahiri “Blessed” 146). The Christian paraphernalia therefore becomes a symbol of the difference between Sanjeev and Twinkle. Ironically, Twinkle—a woman who could care less what anyone thinks of her—ends up being the most beautiful and likeable character. Because of Sanjeev’s need to appear a certain way, he fails to appreciate the eccentric and untraditional nature of Twinkle. Only at the end when he discards his preconceptions of what a couple should look like does he reveal any hope for the couple’s future.
Similarly, in “Interpreter of Maladies” both Mr. and Mrs. Das are too preoccupied with looking like a perfect family to realize how dysfunctional their family truly is. For Mr. Das, he cares so much about capturing idealized moments on his camera that he fails to notice that nothing about his family is ideal. In this way, the camera becomes a symbol of his desire to avoid the truth and to instead surround himself with pictures depicting a happy family—one that in reality is the farthest thing from his own. And just like Mr. Das, Mrs. Das cares more about the appearances of herself and those of her family than their actual happiness. She dreads having to take her daughter to the bathroom and remains completely inattentive to any of her children’s wishes like when Tina asks to have her nails painted. Yet, her fixation with appearances is clearly demonstrated when Bobby is attacked by the monkeys—something that never would have happened if she had not been so careless with her food. After the incident, she brushes it off as if Bobby’s being attacked by a swarm of monkeys is no big deal and says, “He’s fine. Just a little scared, right, Bobby?” (“Interpreter” 68). Instead of checking to see if he is alright, she is quick to tape over the cut on his knee and fix his hair—caring more about how he looks than how he is doing after such a traumatic event. Because of both Mr. and Mrs. Das’s need to appear perfect, they become oblivious to each other and their wishes—so much so that Mr. Kopasi thinks they look more like siblings than husband and wife.
The desire to cover up the truth is also present in “A Temporary Matter.” Both Shoba and Shukumar have let themselves go, seen in the way that Shoba is “looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble” (“Temporary” 1). They care nothing about how they look and Shukumar does not even bother to brush his teeth. So when the power goes out and darkness surrounds them, the couple is able to escape reality at least for a little while. The light, therefore, becomes a symbol of the harsh truth and the darkness represents their desire to avoid that truth. Though they are not preoccupied with keeping up appearances the way the other two couples are, they are still keenly aware of those appearances. By not being able to clearly see each other when the power goes out, Shoba and Shukumar can hide from the unpleasantness of what they see when the lights are on. Yet for this couple, it is not a concentration on appearances, but a lack thereof that defines their relationship. Ultimately, however, both lead to the same end result—an unhappy partnership.
Perhaps the malady is not that the characters are incapable of love or of sustaining their relationships, but rather that their desire to escape reality is what is ultimately holding them back. In showing the two extremes of the spectrum—couples that care only about appearances and couples that don’t care at all—Lahiri demonstrates that a healthy relationship must be composed of both. That is why the story “This Blessed House,” in which Sanjeev faces the truth, is the most hopeful of the three. Through Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri demonstrates that ultimately, it is a balance of caring enough to keep up appearances and being honest enough to see things for what they really are that leads to a successful relationship.
Culture, Identity and Memory in Lahiri’s Short Fiction
In her collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri illustrates the difficulties that immigrants face when displaced and distanced from their culture. Each story serves as a different viewpoint on cultural experience, which allows Lahiri to bring together a detailed image of cultural displacement and the challenges it poses when forging one’s identity. The importance of cultural ties is emphasized in the stories, as is the natural longing to achieve such connections. However, Lahiri shows the difficulties in doing so, especially with a younger generation that has only family ties to their culture because they have already been assimilated into American society. She also illustrates that distance is not always a disadvantage as she begins to show the reader the first steps to establishing one’s identity and home. The stories in the collection Interpreter of Maladies illustrate the need and natural inclination people have to connect with their heritage and culture while conveying how to safely make those connections and forge one’s identity.
In Lahiri’s stories, there is a longing among the people of the younger generations to connect with their culture, a longing that seems impossible for those assimilated into American culture. In “Mr. Pirzada Comes to Dine,” Lilia’s mother declares proudly that her daughter was born in America as Lilia remarks, “She seemed genuinely proud of the fact, as if it were a reflection of my character” (Lahiri 26). However, Lilia desires to understand Mr. Pirzada and treasures the candies that he gives to her, as if eating one made a connection with her culture. As she observes him and her parents in the living room watching the news from overseas, she observes, “…I remember the three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear” (Lahiri 41). Lilia is an outsider among them because she is the first generation to be separated from her heritage by distance and she realizes in the end a connection with her heritage is impossible as she throws away the candy from Mr. Pirzada. In the short story “Interpreter of Maladies,” Mrs. Das attempts to make a connection with Mr. Kapasi, which in turn would serve as a connection to her heritage from which she is far removed. Mr. Kapasi imagines corresponding with Mrs. Das after her return to America saying it would fulfill his dream of “serving as an interpreter between nations” (Lahiri 59). However, as his address floats away, Lahiri shows, as she did with Lilia, that a cultural connection cannot be forged when one has already become enveloped into American culture, which creates both a physical and cultural distance too great to overcome.
After her negative depiction of distance, Lahiri illustrates how distance can be used as an advantage. In “This Blessed House,” Sanjeev becomes angry at Twinkle as she collects and displays the Christian paraphernalia all over the house to the point that he questions whether or not he loves her. However, when she takes the partygoers to the attic, Sanjeev feels completely alone and distanced from her in the same way that he felt at the beginning of their relationship, when they were in a long-distance relationship. Distance allowed Sanjeev to imagine their life together and retain a romantic view of her fashioned through their phone conversations. He sees her shoes on the floor and “instead of feeling irritated, as he had ever since they’d moved into the house together, he felt a pang of anticipation at the thought of her rushing unsteadily down the winding staircase…” (Lahiri 155). Distance forges a want to make a connection with Twinkle within Sanjeev. In “The Third and Final Continent,” there is a similar occurrence. The narrator observes the world of Mrs. Croft, where she retains the pieces of America from her time that she is comfortable with and securely locks the rest of the world outside. She allots him physical distance, which allows him to create his own “country” where he can feel at home. In both cases, distance facilitates one to retreat away from reality and create a romanticized view of their world, an illusion that encourages and aids connections with others.
Alongside the positive view of distance and its usefulness, Lahiri also illustrates the dangers of forging this type of connection. In “A Real Durwan,” Boori Ma creates her own identity by painting elaborate pictures of her past. In the same way that a romanticized version of reality can aid connections in the real world, Boori Ma’s tales help her accept the harsh reality of her life. Those around her suspect that “she probably constructs tales as a way of mourning the loss of her family” (Lahiri 72). She grounds her identity in her savings and the keys she keeps in her sari. After these are stolen, her forged identity is shattered. She has failed as the guard to her identity and calls out for the people to believe her and her claims. However, when she shakes her sari to emphasize her point and nothing jingles, she can no longer believe herself. Similarly, Mrs. Sen attempts to keep India with her by placing rugs around the house and cooking traditional Indian food. She also continues to identify her home as India and states, “Everything is there” (Lahiri 113). However, the letters that she allows to come through shatter the illusion of being in India within her apartment because it reminds her that home is thousands of miles away, where life is continuing without her. Boori Ma grounds her identity in concrete and insignificant things, namely the savings and keys, while Mrs. Sen continues to identify her true home as India, making both illusory coping mechanisms faulty and impossible to maintain.
In her short story collection, Jhumpa Lahiri establishes the need for a connection with one’s culture and illustrates both the right and wrong way to forge such a connection. The strong longing to connect with one’s culture is illustrated in Lilia and Mrs. Das as they both attempt to make unsuccessful connections with those that embody their heritage. Next, Lahiri illustrates that distance itself is not the problem by showing that it can be used to one’s advantage. Distance can encourage a romantic view of the world, which aids one in making connections with others. At the end of “The Third and Final Continent,” Lahiri finalizes her discussion about forging one’s identity by illustrating the best way to do so. In the final lines, the narrator identifies his great accomplishment by stating, “While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years” (Lahiri 198). He avoids the faults of Boori Ma and Mrs. Sen because he finds his cultural ties in nothing material and identifies his home as where he resides. He has forged an identity within this “third continent,” which symbolizes the world he has created for himself that cannot be tainted or taken away from him. He claims, “…I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept” (Lahiri 198). He does not feel the displacement of being thousands of miles away from the country of his birth and yet he carries all the miles he has traveled with him, making his identity a collection of where he has been and what he has accomplished that is grounded in himself.
Reflective Food in Lahiri’s Short Stories
Humankind has a tendency to inject their values and cultural beliefs into whatever they create or come into contact with; this explains partially why America left the flag on the moon and why there is such a conflict between western democracies and Arab nations. The desire to spread culture is a common trait within societies. However, what most do not realize is that often times, the creation is a mere reflection of the individual who created it, not the whole culture. For example, instead of a hamburger being reflective of European culture, it is instead reflective of the fact that there was someone lazy enough to use bread as an edible napkin. In “Interpreter of Maladies,” “This Blessed House,” and “A Temporary Matter,” the food that the characters create or consume are reflective of who they are as people, and in turn uncover what humanity holds as valuable.
Mrs. Das in “Interpreter of Maladies” is not very likable. Although she is pretty and looks fulfilling on the outside, she is a bland, empty shell on the inside; this is evidenced by the fact that she is disinterested in having any real quality time with her family even though they are on a trip together. It is no coincidence, therefore, that she is associated with puffed rice. This bland, nearly nutritionless food is indicative of how she is on the inside: bland and lacking any real substance. Not only does it describe her as a person, but it also illustrates her interactions with others. She carelessly tosses the rice around, which symbolizes her careless interactions with those around her. During a family trip, she is too preoccupied with doing her nails to interact with those who want to form a connection with her. For Mrs. Das, forming a real bond with her children would be inconsistent with her association with the puffed rice, as it would be the same thing as adding a spice to it. Thus, an emotional bond would break through her static relationship with her kids and create more depth. Any connection that she forms would indicate a three dimensionality with her family which she lacks; she remains a reflection of the unspiced rice. Just as rice can be flavored in a variety of ways, a variety of emotions can be felt by a person; however, there can also be an absence of emotion, also known as indifference. This also uncovers a human truth about the spectrum of human emotions. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference. This is precisely what Mrs. Das demonstrates: her indifference to her family shows the reader that not caring can be worse than simply hating, as if she hated them, she would not have come on the trip, which would have been better; the problems that she caused would not have happened then.
Mrs. Das’s carelessness with the rice also causes another problem; the monkeys have swarmed the hotel area due to the food lying around. Although they are usually tame, the food whips up a frenzy, and as a result poses hazards to the people. This further demonstrates how food is truly reflective of one’s nature. The monkeys’ normal demeanor is usually calm as Mr. Kapasi explains that “no need to worry…they are quite tame” (“Interpreter” 45). However, once they see food, their true nature explodes out, turning them from calm creatures to true wild animals. Thus, the food acts as a mirror to the true personality of those who have access to it, which is another way the reader can know Mrs. Das’s indifference is genuine, rather than a facade.
Although food describes the individual linked to it, it can also illustrate the relationship between two individuals as well. For instance, the first scene in “This Blessed House” is a discussion of vinegar between the married couple. Vinegar is symbolic of the status of their relationship; every time it is mentioned, Sanjeev is being dismissive of Twinkle or is rebuking her in some manner: “‘Throw it away…You’ve never cooked anything with vinegar…Check the expiration” (“Blessed” 136). Even when he is complimenting her on her cooking, he rebukes her by telling her she ought to write recipes down as she goes. These interactions make sense in reference to vinegar as it is an undesirably pungent liquid. Just as the cooking ingredient is sour, so is the relationship between the couple. The only time vinegar is truly valuable is when it is combined with a host of other foods, as it enhances and tenderizes whatever it is being cooked with. Similarly, Sanjeev makes the decision to stay with the enigmatic Twinkle when they are hosting the party; they are “combined” with a host of different people. Instead of separating, he instead grudgingly accepts Twinkle and her strange obsession with Christian paraphernalia. Furthermore, the boring party is spiced up by Twinkle, who leads everyone up into her attic to discover new items for her stash. Instead of the standard “eat and talk” most people host, Twinkle changes it into an adventure in which everyone is eager to participate in. Just as vinegar’s value is realized when combined with other ingredients, Twinkle and Sanjeev’s relationship’s value is realized in the midst of more people, and just as vinegar enhances the flavor of the dish, Twinkle enhances the mood of the party.
Although the food itself explains a lot about different characters, the way in which they are consumed also plays a role in demonstrating a character’s personality. When the men (look for the name in book) and Sanjeev briefly talk during the party, they are described as “plowing” through the food, creating an image of brutishness. Their discussion about Twinkle centers around her looks, as on of the men says (insert quote). Although it seems like light talk, in reality, this language almost commodifies Twinkle as a trophy wife; it seems to suggest that Sanjeev should be lucky to have such a pretty wife to flaunt. The way in which they consume their food symbolizes that the conversation they are having is an almost primitive one. Just like the way they eat is not a polite way to eat, the content of their conversation is also not politically correct. This message undermines the still common conception of gender relations; the woman is the commodity, and the man is the owner. This patriarchal mindset is thus quietly repudiated by a subtle detail in the way the men eat; they may feel as though what they are saying is acceptable, but the description of how they eat says otherwise.
In “A Temporary Matter,” food is used differently to illustrate the characters. Rather than the food itself or the way in which it is consumed, the way in which it is prepared defines Shoba and Shukumar. Before they lose their child, Shoba is always prepared to cook; everything she makes is kept in the freezer so she can create a full meal within a small time frame: “When she used to do the shopping, the pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil…There were endless boxes of pasta in all shapes…”(“Temporary” 7). This symbolizes that she is always prepared, as she creates food beforehand in order to meet any need later on. This is why losing the baby is especially hard on her. The death of her child is something she could not have been prepared off, and therefore catches her completely off guard. Ergo, she does not know how to deal with the grief, and so finds a scapegoat in Shukumar, which culminates in her leaving him. Furthermore, she is always methodological in her cooking; she is very neat and organized. This further supports the idea that Shoba is the “prepared” one of the two, as she is focused and equipped to deal with what may come in life. Ironically, it is the more disorganized of the two who manages to cope better.
After the death of the child, Shukumar does more of the cooking, even stating that he is beginning to enjoy it. However, his culinary style is different than Shoba’s. He cooks in a disorganized fashion, creating everything on the spot. Although he has been cooking more often, he still does not take the preparation steps Shoba used to; in fact, it never seems to strike him that preparing beforehand could be a good idea The fact that he is cooking more and more symbolizes that Shoba has given up on her “preparation” lifestyle. It also symbolizes that Shukumar still has hope while Shoba does not. He still believes that the fire in the relationship can be reignited; if he did not, he would not bother playing chef. The irony is that although cooking is a way in which he attempts to stabilize his relationship with Shoba, she wants to separate with him regardless. The differences in their culinary styles foreshadow this: they are polar opposites in personality, and so a tragic event forces them to cope in different ways, pushing them to crossroads. This also unearths another human assumption: hope is what makes humans human. Shukumar is hopeful for a future with Shoba, while Shoba no longer cares enough to stay in the relationship. Her loss of hope takes away her personality, fundamentally changing her as a person. Without hope, Shoba is not the same woman Shukumar married.
Everything about food, from the cooking to the consumption, is used to describe or explain why a character acts the way they do. Food is crucial to everyone; there is not one person alive who does not need sustenance. Without it, one will wither away and eventually die. Lahiri may be trying to tell the readers that these relationships and personality traits reflected by the food may be just as important to the actual food itself. Food is a necessity, but it is also essential to recognize that relationships and personality traits are just as important to the value of life. Food keeps one alive; the emotional connections make that life valuable.
The Detrimental Effects of Diaspora in The Interpreter of Maladies
Do geographical demarcations define one’s identity? This question is especially poignant for people from post-colonial nations exiled from their homelands. A recent article on diaspora asserts that “Diaspora brought about profound changes in the demographics, cultures, epistemologies and politics of the post-colonial world” (Silva 72). The effects of diaspora and exile are exhibited in Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Many of the stories in Lahiri’s collection are set against the backdrop of the India-Pakistan War and the Partition of India in 1947 during which India and Pakistan were geographically divided into two separate nations (Keen). In particular, the stories “A Real Durwan” and “When Pirzada Came to Dine” display the significant impact that the war and division had on the identities, culture, and relations of Indian and Pakistani people at the time. While both of the stories dramatize the experience of diaspora, Lahiri also shows how each character’s experience is unique to their specific context. For example, in “A Real Durwan,” the main character, a poor woman named Boori Ma, remains in India, and displays the “uneasy relationship between native Calcuttans and the border crossers” (Mitra 242). Unlike Boori Ma, Mr. Pirzada is an upper-middle class, well-educated Muslim in the United States conducting research about the foliage of New England. In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” Lahiri demonstrates how Indians and Pakistanis stuck in the United States are able to find “acceptance and solace beyond the barriers of nations, cultures, religions and generations” (Rath 73). However, despite their different situations, both Boori Ma and Mr. Pirzada endure dislocation from their homelands. As such, both characters experience a similar sense of alienation, loss, and nostalgia for their home country that is central to the experience of diaspora and exile.
After July of 1947, India would never be the same. In August, India broke free from Britain and their apathetic treatment whose colonial rule had lasted almost three hundred and fifty years (Keen). As Bates asserts, despite India’s attainment of freedom, a religious division existed between the Muslims and the Hindus, resulting in continuous conflict due to supposed irreconcilable differences. In 1943, the Muslim League resolved to extricate itself from India; this resulted in a detached Muslim state, eventually to become known as Pakistan (Keen). Their desire for separation can be attributed to the British system of classification based on religious beliefs as well as the ideological differences that existed between the Muslims and Hindus of India. While some still hoped to keep India united under a three-tiered government, Congress’ dismissal of this plan caused the Muslim League to believe partition was the only option. The successful division of India into separate entities, India and Pakistan, was achieved at a great cost (Bates). Riots led to the deaths of one million people along with countless rapes and lootings. With new borders designated based on religious beliefs, fifteen million people found themselves displaced from their homes and sought refuge in areas completely new to them in the largest mass migration to ever occur. In 1971, a civil war in Pakistan resulted in further division and the emergence of Bangladesh. According to Keen, “many years after the Partition, the two nations are still trying to heal the wounds left behind by this incision to once-whole body of India. Many are still in search of an identity and a history left behind beyond an impenetrable boundary.” While the Muslims achieved their desired separation from the Hindus, this war detrimentally affected millions of people, including both Boori Ma and Mr. Pirzada.
In Calcutta as a refugee following the Partition of 1947, Boori Ma experiences “the rigors of reconciling as well as easing into the disquiet labyrinth of a new life” after losing everything, including her husband and four daughters (Rath 73). Transitioning from riches to rags after being expelled from her homeland, like many others, Boori Ma involuntarily assumes the position of a “splintered immigrant woman” living in a stairwell (Rath 73). With “her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut,…she details her plight and losses suffered since her deportation” while she sweeps the stairwell daily, fulfilling her duties as durwan—notwithstanding that “under normal circumstanced this was no job for a woman” (Lahiri 70, 73). Often reflecting about her past in which she lived a life of luxury and extravagance, she nostalgically shares with the residents, “A man came to pick our dates and guavas. Another clipped hibiscus. Yes, there I tasted life. Here I eat dinner from a rice pot,” “Have I mentioned that I crossed the border with just two bracelets on my wrist? Yet There was a day when my feet touched nothing but marble. Believe me, don’t believe me, such comforts you cannot even dream them,” and “Our linens were muslin. Believe me, don’t believe me, our mosquito nets were as soft as silk. Such comforts you cannot even dream them,” (Lahiri 71, 74).
The affluence she experiences prior to the diaspora strongly contrasts with her current life style. Sleeping minimally, owning very few possessions, and lacking friendships, Boori Ma is a complete outsider living an impoverished life. Mitra’s comment that “a person uprooted by history, displaced by the lines drawn on a map by an imperious colonial bureaucrat, Boori Ma is perceived as different,” captures the magnitude of the aftermath of the Partition in the lives of individuals (243). Because of the alterations made to India and Pakistan’s borders, numerous civilians found themselves marginalized, including Boori Ma, as illustrated when the narrator remarks, “Knowing not to sit on the furniture, [Boori Ma] crouched, instead, in doorways and hallways, and observed gestures and manners in the same way a person tends to watch traffic in a foreign city” (Lahiri 76). This perfectly depicts the sense of alienation Boori Ma faces. Rather than feeling comfortable in the residents’ homes, Boori Ma develops timidity and apprehensiveness similar to when “a person…[watches] traffic in a foreign city,” largely owing to the residents’ treatment of her (Lahiri 76).
Regressing back to a significantly lower socioeconomic status, Boori Ma is not treated as an equal, affirming the “sharp portrait of the postpartition isolation and helplessness endured by migrants” (Mitra 245). With no support in the absence of both family and friends, Boori Ma’s life in Calcutta starkly contrasts to her life before the diaspora. Ultimately, residents in the building become so enamored with funding building renovations that their already limited hospitableness becomes almost nonexistent as revealed when Boori Ma mentions, ““Her mornings were long, her afternoons longer. She could not remember her last glass of tea” (Lahiri 80). Everyone was too caught up worrying about others’ perceptions of themselves as well as contributing to the materialistic nature of society to acknowledge their durwan. The residents’ lack of appreciation for Boori Ma reaches a new level when she is wrongfully blamed for the disappearance of the building’s basin and kicked out of the stairwell. The residents’ brusque accusations, “’This is all her doing,’ one of them hollered, pointing at Boori Ma” and “We shared our coal, gave her a place to sleep. How could she betray us this way?” vividly expose their hostilities towards the border crossers (Lahiri 81). Sadly, because “her otherness renders the community indifferent to her historical plight,” she finds herself homeless (Mitra 242). Because of border adjustments and the resulting religious intolerance, Boori Ma is not only stripped of her family and homeland, but also loses herself.
The depiction of Mr. Pirzada’s postpartition experience in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” differs in several ways to that of Boori Ma’s. The narrator, Lilia, shares that “In the autumn of 1971 a man used to come to our house bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family” (Lahiri 23). Although he also suffers from the separation from his wife and seven daughters who remain in Dacca, where “teachers were dragged onto streets and shot, women dragged into barracks and raped,” Mr. Pirzada’s status as a Muslim does not provoke the hostility that so often arose following the diaspora (Lahiri 23). Lilia’s Hindu family defies the typical antipathy expressed towards Muslims but rather offers companionship to Mr. Pirzada as he helplessly watches the destruction of his homeland and brutal killings of people on the nightly news from their family room. After Lilia, who is only ten years old, refers to Mr. Pirzada as “the Indian man,” she fails to comprehend her father’s response that “Mr. Pirzada is no longer considered Indian. Not since Partition. Our country was divided. 1947. Hindus here, Muslims there” (Lahiri 25). Struggling to accept the alleged disparities between her family and Mr. Pirzada, she says,
It made no sense to me. Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands…Nevertheless my father insisted that I understand the difference (Lahiri 25).
Silva’s comment, “when Lilia tries to understand the difference between her father and Mr. Pirzada, she shows that the organization of the work—or the division of people in homogeneous and distinct groups—is not solid and fixed like the structure of a map” confirms the sentiment that geographical demarcations do not define identity (Silva 61). While recognizing their religious differences, Lilia’s parents, unlike many others, do not employ this as grounds for unjust treatment. Despite the thousands of miles standing between him and his home, Mr. Pirzada gains some consolation through the kind reception Lilia’s family affords him. Lilia reminisces that while war was being waged in Dacca, “the three of them [operated] during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear” (Lahiri 41). This proves the absurdity of the dissociation between Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan. United in concern for the safety of Mr. Pirzada’s family, Lilia’s family and Mr. Pirzada’s status as Hindu or Muslim holds no significance. With each of them holding on to hope for the safety of Mr. Pirzada’s wife and daughters, Lilia assumes the position of Mr. Pirzada’s temporary daughter while he remains in the States. He evidences his paternal tendencies when asking Lilia, “Will you be warm enough?” and “Is there any danger [for Lilia]?” (Lahiri 37, 38). Lilia cherishes Mr. Pirzada’s routine gift of candy, a symbol for his daughters, as manifested when she says, “I coveted each evening’s treasure as I would a jewel, or a coin from a buried kingdom” (Lahiri 29). Ultimately, Silva’s assertion that “As [Mr. Pirzada] shows, dealing with the clash of two or more worlds means the possibility of a life in transit, or in-between. There is no home to go back to, no identity to claim, no maps to establish as true,” captures the limbo engulfing Mr. Pirzada (Silva 65). Eventually, Mr. Pirzada returns to Dacca, blessed by the survival of his wife and daughters. Lilia exposes the giant hole left in her heart when she shares, “Though I had not seen him for months, it was only then that I felt Mr. Pirzada’s absence. It was only then, raising my water glass in his name, that I knew what it meant to miss someone” (Lahiri 42). While Mr. Pirzada’s life would never be the same after 1947, his identity is not completely forsaken.
With Boori Ma experiencing the loss of her economic status and Mr. Pirzada facing the separation from his loved ones, the Partition evokes a sense of nostalgia for their lives prior to the diaspora when fleeing for their personal safety was not necessary. Like Rath claims, “Lahiri delves headlong into the souls of remarkably identifiable characters grappling with displacement, guilt, and fear as they try to strike a semblance of balance between the solace of the present and the lingering suffocation of the past” (76-77). The division of India clearly impacts both of their lives, although fortunately for Mr. Pirzada, he undergoes only temporary detachment from his family.
Bates, Crispin. “The Hidden Story of Partition and its Legacies.” History. BBC, 3 Mar. 2003. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.
Keen, Shirin. “The Partition of India.” Postcolonial Studies at Emory. Emory, Spring 1998. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin , 1999. Print.
Mitra, Madhuparna. “Border Crossings in Lahiri’s ‘A Real Durwan.’” The Explicator 65.4 (2007): 242-245. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.
Rath, Sujit Kumar. “Loneliness and Nostalgia Among Women Characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.” Cyber Literature 4.2 (2011): 72-77. Google Scholar. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.
Silva, Daniela Coredeiro Soares. “Reinventing Cartography: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.” Em Tese 10 (2006): 60-66. Google Scholar. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.
Universal Isolation in Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri herself is the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ in her poignant short-story collection, laying bare universal features of loneliness and isolation. Enlightening experiences in Calcutta empowered the Indian-American author to write from the perspectives of ostensibly dissimilar characters, most of whom are afflicted with the emotional confusion of an outsider, stemming from geographic displacement, migration, familial neglect or lack of communication. These range from a displaced stair sweeper and grief-stricken couple to an eleven-year-old boy in the care of a home-sick Indian wife. Imbued with explicit details of both Indian and American cultures, the tales speak with universal articulateness and empathy to everyone who has ever felt alienated.The ‘migrant experience’ responsible for evoking feelings of isolation worldwide, personally or indirectly affects all of Lahiri’s characters. Holistically, the anthology voices grave repercussions of India’s diaspora. By focusing in on Boori Ma, a seemingly insignificant stairwell sweeper, Lahiri contends that feelings of seclusion are universal, irrespective of social status, ethnicity or age. Her “deportation to Calcutta after Partition” shapes Boori Ma’s forlorn destiny. She is consequently “separated from a husband, 4 daughters, a 2-story brick house” and a community of people that make her feel home. Despite her initial reception of appreciation from residents in the lower class building that she unofficially guards and voluntarily sweeps, she is still treated like an outsider. “Knowing not to sit on the furniture, she crouche[s], instead in doorways and hallways, and observe[s] gestures and manners is the same way a person tends to watch traffic in a foreign city.” This despondent state exacerbates when Boori Ma is censured for the theft of the building’s new water basin and “tossed” out, homeless and alone on the streets. Although Calcutta becomes Boori Ma’s new home politically, she is yet again banished, this time for allegedly neglecting her duties as ‘A Real Durwan’. By proving that geographical displacement is not the only condition for an exile, Lahiri ultimately enunciates the universal nature of isolation. ‘Mrs. Sen’s’ addresses isolated immigrants worldwide through the distressing depiction of a woman expected to assimilate to a new culture. Mrs. Sen is unable to part with her Indian customs and accept that although “everything is there,” India is no longer her geographical “home”. Mrs. Sen’s lonesome life in America intensifies her craving for face-to-face communication with her family, which is deduced from the solace she seeks in “aerograms” from them and a tape of their voices. The imminent danger of Mrs. Sen’s stubborn attachment to India is symbolised by the knife that she possessively withholds from everyone. This danger emerges when Mrs. Sen’s frustration at being unable to assimilate – symbolised by her inability to drive—culminates into her losing “control of the wheel” and crashing the car. Lahiri, however, contends that Mrs. Sen chooses a secluded life and that there is a possibility of her assimilation to America. The violent “wind, so strong that [she has] to walk back,” signifies the hardship that comes with adapting into America, but Mrs. Sen eventually “shout[s]” in joy, “laughing”, indicating that a different attitude would allow her to enjoy her new surroundings. This hopeful message offered by Lahiri indicates that she acknowledges a wider audience of people who are also struggling to assimilate into a ‘new world’ like Mrs. Sen, emphasising her worldwide implication of ‘isolation’. Despite stark distinctions between Eliot and Mrs. Sen, neither is devoid of feelings of isolation. Mrs. Sen is perceived through the eyes of the white American 11-year-old boy she babysits, who is fascinated by the striking differences between the domestic life of these Indians and his own. Eliot notices that “neither Mr or Mrs Sen [wear] shoes” indoors, while he and his mother “wore flip-flops”. Further, the modesty of the Indians is emphasised to the extent that even their furniture is “so carefully covered” to clearly juxtapose with Eliot’s mother who appears “too exposed”. Save for cultural differences, Eliot and and Mrs. Sen have mirror images in the story; Mrs. Sen’s solitude and failure to entangle with her surroundings spurs Eliot to reflect on his own lonely life. He is utterly bereft of parental affection with a mother who segregates herself “with a glass of wine” or retreats to “the deck to smoke a cigarette” and a father who lives “two thousand miles west”. Eliot’s longing for companionship is confirmed when he stares out at the empty sea, which represents his inner loneliness. His parting from Mrs. Sen is represented by the “grey waves receding from the shore”. This can be likened to Mrs. Sen’s quest for “fresh fish” from the sea, perceived as a search for the company she misses from India. In addition, Eliot and his mother are “not invited” to parties held by their neighbours and likewise, Mrs. Sen feels alienated from the American society, with nowhere to wear her countless number of “saris of every imaginable texture and shade, brocaded with gold and silver threads”. By comparing the unlikely pair, Lahiri contends that isolation does not betide one based on ethnicity, race, gender or age, but that anyone can be a foreigner in their own home.Lahiri establishes that the universal matter of isolation as a ramification of miscommunication in relationships. The birth of a still-born baby dramatically impacts a once contented married couple, Shoba and Shukumar. The latter recalls that Shoba “kept [his] long fingers linked with hers […] at the party” she had surprised him with, symbolising their former unity. The couple grieves the loss of their baby in silence and consequently grow apart and adopt different personas. Shoba becomes “the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble”. They become “experts at avoiding each other”, and both retreat to their work, Shoba sitting “for hours on the sofa with her coloured pencils and her files” and for months Shukumar detaches himself from the advancing world, occasionally “not even leaving to get the mail”. Failure to confide in each other has detrimental effects on their marriage until they merely sleep under the same roof, but spend “as much time on separate floors as possible”, highlighting their physical and emotional separation. The tragedy that triggers their remoteness is not common to second generation Indian-migrants like Shoba and Shukumar, but Lahiri confirms that “these things [can] happen” to anyone, strengthening her depiction of the universal subject of isolation.All of Lahiri’s characters suffer from ‘maladies’, either of circumstance or of the heart. Her characters are largely Indian or Indian-American and grapple with predicaments associated with the migrant experience relating to India’s diaspora since the 1947 Partition. While Lahiri correlates a deep sense of isolation and alienation with geographical displacement, she is able to extend these elements to a universal audience through narrating her stories her from diverse angles.