Interpreter of Maladies
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.
Relationships and Failure in Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri’s labyrinthine anthology, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ is an exposé of the plight of Indians and Indian-Americans and their interactions with each other, society and their milieu. The complexity of her tales is attributed to Lahiri’s efforts in forming meticulous character profiles, enhanced by the distinguished approaches her protagonists employ to deal with their afflicted “maladies”. In hindsight, it appears that failure to overcome these adversities correlate with an absence of strong relations, but Lahiri also highlights that this is not always the case; even the strongest of relationships can fail to overcome some obstacles in life. In addition, she depicts that resilient connections do assist, but are not essential for attaining success. Boori Ma’s despondent fate can be attributed to her lack of strong relationships in “Calcutta”. Ever since she was ‘separated from her husband and four daughters’, she participates in few, loose associations with the ‘residents’ of the dilapidated apartment building she serviced as ‘a real durwan’, standing ‘guard between them and the outside world.’ Her detachment from fellow residents is accentuated by the fact that on the ‘certain’ occasions when she was invited into their homes, she knew ‘not to sit on furniture’ and instead, she crouched ‘in doorways and hallways’, disregarded even as a guest. This meagre exhibition of hospitality and appreciation is not unconditional like it would be in genuine affiliations, as they ‘toss […her] out’ the first time she fails to execute her supposedly voluntary duty and instantaneously ‘begin their search’ to replace her. Despite being a relatively closely acquainted beneficiary of sympathy and kindness from the Dalals who promise her ‘a new bed, quilts, a pillow [and] a blanket’, they ultimately fail to defend her at a time when she needs them most, and consequently she is left alone. Similarly, ‘twenty-two’ year old Miranda and temporary lover Dev’s ephemeral, fruitless relationship and their failure to attain an ‘everlasting…love’ is associated with the unstable factors it was constructed on from its inception: lust, lies and superficiality. The latter is delineated in their initial meeting location at ‘Filene’s’, a cosmetic’s department whose ultimate purpose is to beautify, and is trailed by Dev’s description of Miranda as ‘sexy’, which means ‘loving someone you don’t know’. Miranda then understands that she is nothing but a “mistress” as Dev only loves her on the surface, thus consolidating Lahiri’s proposition that failure is a result of weak affairs. Mala and her husband’s successful assimilation into America can be attributed to the strength of their marriage. They seek ‘solace in each other’s arms’ and have one another to confide in. ‘It was Mala who consoled’ her husband when he discovered ‘Mrs’ Croft’s obituary’ in ‘the Globe one evening, demonstrating their ardent display of support to overcome the “maladies” that befall them in life. Similarly, the strength of the bond between formerly gratified couple, Shoba and Shukumar enables them to eventually conquer the overwhelming grief that distanced them ever since their ‘baby was born dead’. Shukumar recalls that his wife “kept [his] long fingers linked with hers […] at the party” she had surprised him with, symbolising their former unity. Lahiri suggests that they can rediscover this love through joint activities, evident by her inclusion of imagery of ‘melting snow’ outside that reflects the detachment between Shoba and Shukumar thawing as a result of sharing meals, communicating and confessing ‘secrets’. Shukumar’s final admission – that ‘he’d arrived early enough to see their baby [boy] and to hold him’—defies Shoba’s assumption of his absence and conceivable source of resentment towards him and they thus they weep “together for the things they now” know, which represents their reunion empowered by the stability of their marriage. Although this is a much more emotionally satisfying ending, it is ambiguous and Lahiri does not guarantee that they do reunite, conversely insinuating that Shoba will still leave and their marriage is in fact ‘a temporary matter’. They have ‘both been through enough’ and have transgressed a time where Shukumar ‘still loved’ his wife. The fact that he is ‘relieved’ by her decision proves that their prospective separation would be a mutual favour for them both, indicating that even sturdy relationships can fail to overcome some hurdles in life. Shoba’s desire to be “alone” infers that being stuck in her marriage is just pulling her back in life. After the tragic birth of a stillborn baby, ‘thirty-three [year old Shoba…] was strong, on her feet again’, as opposed to Shukumar who would ‘pull himself out of bed’ when ‘it was nearly lunchtime’, implying that Shukumar’s inability to move on is encumbering Shoba’s endeavour to fully heal and live a happy life. Moreover, Bibi Haldar is the epitome of relinquishment; both of her parents die, her cousin and his wife abandon her, other “relations” return the letter explaining her predicament ‘unopened, address unknown’ and she suffices on loosely bound ties with her community, who ultimately ‘left her alone’ a majority of the time. Like Shoba, Bibi does not allow her losses discourage her and all of her “privations” make her accomplishments even more astounding: ‘she raised a boy and ran a business in the storage room’. The source of her plight, her baffling “ailment” is ultimately “cured” by the end. Thus, at pinnacle moments, Lahiri conveys a message of hope to those experiencing loneliness and isolation by reinforcing that strong relationships are not required for success and it does in fact lie in the strength of an individual. Lahiri’s intricate composition of short stories collectively addresses a wide audience by analysing myriad relationships amid her characters, as well as the “maladies” that they encounter. Miscarriage to surmount these afflictions is explicitly linked to a lack of strong relations, but sometimes even resilient affiliations are inadequate. Lahiri counteracts this bleak tenor by speaking with positivity to anyone thrust into physical or emotional exile through presenting the strength of an individual in their pursuit and achievement of success.
A Temporary Matter of The Permanent End
In A Temporary Matter, Jhumpa Lahiri illustrates a temporary blackout that enables Shukumar and Shoba to reconnect only to find that they have long been disconnected from each other. Shukumar and Shoba face four states of light, which metaphorically represent four stages of their relationship. Before the blackout, they are ambiguously distant as they avoid confronting each other about their feelings. During the blackout, the couple takes the chance of reconciliation. However, when the electricity has been repaired, they realize that they can only talk in a temporary darkness. They finally wake up from ignorance when Shoba turns on the light and reveals the purpose of their secret ‘game’. Through these stages, Shukumar and Shoba come to admit that they are not happy to be together. Thus, the temporary blackout ironically leads to the permanent end of their marriage life.Shukumar and Shoba’s relationship is in an ambiguous stage before the blackout. They are uncertain about their feelings towards each other but they also avoid confronting this uncertainty. As a result of seeking their own ways of resolving the stillbirth trauma, their lifestyles change as if there is a reverse in gender roles. Shukumar becomes passive in the house as Shoba interacts with the outside world. Shukumar does not find the motivation to finish his paper or even to brush his teeth regularly. “He would lie in their bed until he grew bored, gazing at his side of the closet”(4), while Shoba would be “sipping her third cup of coffee already, in her office downtown, where she searched for typographical errors in textbooks and marked them”(4). The contrast in their lifestyles highlights the distance that has grown between them. For months, Shukumar and Shoba pretend to live their normal lives while becoming “experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible”(4). Shoba’s busy schedule allows her to be gone to work before Shukumar wakes up. Likewise, Shukumar pretends to write his paper in the room prepared for their child because “it was a place Shoba avoided” (8). Before the blackout, the couple is in an unresolved stage in their relationship, living an unhappy life together yet trying to ignore the fact that they are disconnected.During the blackout, Shukumar and Shoba seem to be able to reconcile their love. Because there is no electricity, Shukumar and Shoba have no excuse to take their plates to each of their workrooms and so they have to dine together under the candlelight. When Shoba initiates the secret game, the two begin to share secrets and memories of their passionate love: “something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again” (19). They start to revert each of their life patterns; Shoba “came home earlier than usual” (14) and Shukumar finally has the motivation to go out “through the melting snow” (14) to buy candles in preparation of their dinner. However, this reconciliation under the darkness is sudden and unsual. Despite not knowing Shoba’s intention of playing the secret game, Shukumar responds unquestioningly to the chance of reconciliation. He does not even know whether he still loves Shoba, and yet he is excited by the idea of reconnecting with Shoba: “All day Shukumar had looked forward to the lights going out. He thought about what Shoba had said” (15). As they “walked carefully upstairs…making love with a desperation they had forgotten…in the dark” (19-20), Shukumar and Shoba seems to be able to blindly reconnect their love.However, when the electricity has been repaired, the house remains dark; Shukumar and Shoba could have turned on the lights but they choose not to. At this point, they realize that they can only talk in the temporary darkness. With the lights back on, they would have to return to their separate lives. “It wasn’t the same…knowing that the lights wouldn’t go out” (20), Shukumar thought upon being informed that the electricity has been repaired. That night, the couple refuses to turn on the light and eat in a darkened room, in attempt to retain this temporary reconciliation. This reveals how Shukumar and Shoba have been taking refuge from reality as they share secrets and make love in the dark for the past four nights. Even Shukumar who remains hopeful of reconnecting with Shoba knows that what they have been doing in the darkness is only a ‘game’.The temporary matter finally leads to an understanding of their permanent end when Shoba turns on the light. Shoba finally takes the initiative to admit the reality of their failure to reconnect as she “blew out the candle, stood up, turned on the light” (20) and reveals her last secret to Shukumar. Upon discovering that Shoba is moving out and that “she has spent these past evenings preparing for a life without him” (21), Shukumar realizes that all along, even before the blackout, he has been in a state of darkness. He has not been happy with his marriage life, living in a house that has been neglected and living with a person who has neglected the house and him. It is finally time for him to let go of living with “a flashlight, but no batteries, and a half-empty box of birthday candles” (9), eating on a table full of “piles of mail [and] unread library books” (10), avoiding all “the friends and friends of friends” (9), and refusing all the liveliness in his life. The secret game that they have been playing during the temporary matter has not been a way of reconnecting, but it has been “an exchange of confession—the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves” (18). When Shoba turns on the light, it is as if Shukumar finally wakes up from a dark dream. As Shukumar reveals the last secret about their dead child—a secret “he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then” (22), he finally admits that he no longer loves Shoba. Their relationship has ended.
The Role of Rituals in Lahiri’s Lonely Characters
In Jhumpha Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, ritual plays important roles in both perpetuating and alleviating the loneliness of her characters. Many characters such as Mrs. Sen, Mr. Pirzada, Boori Ma, and Mrs. Croft maintain their rituals in order to connect to the society they miss. However, characters who stick too rigidly to rituals, such as Mrs. Sen and Sanjeev, find themselves even more isolated. On the other hand, Lilia, Twinkle, the narrator, and other characters create rituals as a way to conquer loneliness.Mrs. Sen maintains rituals that resemble her lifestyles in India because she misses her home. Despite being in America, “when Mrs. Sen said home, she meant India, not the apartment where she sat chopping vegetables” (116). While Noelle Brada-Williams suggested that Mrs. Sen’s “daily ritual or routine connects Mrs. Sen with India” (459), her ritual also emphasizes her loneliness from being distant from home and from her isolation in America.Mrs. Sen first appears wearing “a shimmering white sari patterned with orange paisleys” (112), which she ‘neatened’ upon hearing the word ‘India’. Her eloquent and formal manner of wearing her sari with a different pattern but “all identical, embedded in a communal expanse of log chips” (119) emphasize her longing for a sense of unity and community she finds in her hometown. Furthermore, Mrs. Sen occupies herself with ‘chopping’ abundant ingredients with her bonti. The bonti brought from India is a recurrent motif of the community she lost (Mitra 185). As Mrs. Sen chops the spinach, she recalls the evenings when “all the neighborhood women…bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle…laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night” (115). Lahiri emphasizes Mrs. Sen’s longing for those nights when ‘it is impossible to fall asleep…listening to their chatter” by contrasting them to Mrs. Sen isolated life in America where “she cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence” (115). Moreover, Mrs. Sen’s focus on the ritual process of chopping more than the meal itself and her persistence of chopping despite the fact that it “was never [for] a special occasion, nor was she ever expecting company”(117) convey her elaborate desire to connect to India. Lahiri depicts an imagery of Mrs. Sen chopping one of the rare fresh fish she finds in a flamboyant manner:“She pulled the blade out of the cupboard, spread newspaper across the carpet, and inspected her treasures. One by one she drew them form the paper wrapping, wrinkled and tinged with blood. She stroked the tails, prodded the bellies, pried apart the gutted flesh. With a pair of scissors she clips the fins. She tucked a ginger under the gills, a red so bright they made her vermilion seem pale. She grasped the body, lined with inky streaks, at either end, and notched it at intervals against the blade.” (127) Mrs. Sen sees the fresh fish as a ‘treasure’ that connects her to her life in Calcutta, where she eats fish ‘twice a day’, and thus her lengthy manner of preparing the fish serves to dramatize this connection.However, the rituals that connect Mrs. Sen to India also prevents her from feeling at ‘home’. Laura Anh Williams suggests a ‘lack of correct ingredients’ in Mrs. Sen’s Indian food. The tuna croquette is supposed to be made with bheki fish and the fish and green banana stew lacks the green banana (73). This suggests the impossibility for Mrs. Sen to feel like being in India despite maintaining her chopping rituals chopping with the same bonti she uses in India. In addition to not being able to fully connect with India, by maintaining her Indian rituals Mrs. Sen is also further alienated from American society. Madhuparna Mitra commented on Mrs. Sen’s ritual of cooking only fresh, whole fish: “if the fish is the tool of nostalgia, it is also the symbol of Mrs. Sen’s alienation” (185). Her desire for a fresh fish does not make sense in American society: Eliot’s mother broiled ‘shell fish, or the fillets’ (123) not whole fish, the clerk does not understand why Mrs. Sen wants the head despite it being the most valuable part in Mrs. Sen’s culture (127), and the old lady on the bus is bothered by the smells of Mrs. Sen’s fish (132). Furthermore, Eliot also notices that Mrs. Sen’s formal sari, “more suitable for an evening affair” (112), contrasts with his mother’s “shaved knees and thighs too exposed” (113). If Eliot’s mother represents a typical American, then the contrast represents Mrs. Sen’s isolation from American culture. Thus, Mrs. Sen’s inability to belong to either India or America further intensifies her loneliness from being far away from home.Alternatively, Eliot’s family’s lack of rituals also causes Eliot’s loneliness. As Mitra suggested, “’Mrs. Sen’s’ is not only a study of Mrs. Sen’s loneliness, but also that of Eliot and his mother who lived in a tiny beach housing having little relationship with the neighbors” (187). In contrast to Mrs Sen whose life revolve around sentimental rituals of preparing ingredients in elegant meals, Eliot’s mother does not “eat lunch at work” and would “pour herself a glass of wine and eat bread and cheese, sometimes so much of it that she wasn’t hungry for the pizza they normally ordered for dinner” (118). During dinner, Eliot would be left “to wrap up the leftovers” while his mother goes “to the deck to smoke cigarette” (118). The sense of isolation that Eliot associates with dining juxtaposes with the sense of community that Mrs. Sen tries to get through dining. Yet, dining for both Eliot and Mrs. Sen reminds them of their loneliness. Although Eliot has no awareness of missing someone from home because his house is “just five miles away” (116), he shares with Mrs. Sen the loneliness of not having a ‘home’.Together Mrs. Sen and Eliot construct rituals that enable them to alleviate each other’s loneliness. Mrs. Sen and Eliot who otherwise would be alone in their houses are able to keep each other company during Eliot’s daily visit. Each afternoon, Mrs. Sen would wait for Eliot at the bus stop “as if eager to greet a person she hadn’t seen in years” (119). Eliot “especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things” (115). While seeming an ordinary activity, the two shares intimate connection as Eliot sits still upon Mrs. Sen’s order and watches her use the bonti and share stories about nights spent chopping vegetables with her neighbors in India. Eliot whose parents have always been away feels protected and cared for as Mrs. Sen worries about his safety. Mrs. Sen who has always been left alone in her apartment now has someone to express her homesickness to. Mrs. Sen gains the courage to practice driving with Eliot because he understands that “she wanted him sitting beside her” (119). Thus, her rituals with Eliot not only build her first human relationship in America but also enable her to reach out to her new life.Nevertheless, Mrs. Sen crashes while trying to drive to get her fish. Her life still only revolves around her Indian rituals and so is not ready to adapt into American lifestyles. Thus, she becomes “startled by the horn” of other cars (134). If the car is a motif of her connection to America and the bonti, her connection to India, the fact that Mrs. Sen gets ‘out of the car’ and ‘put away the blade’ marks her failure to belong to any community. The car accident ends Mrs. Sen and Eliot’s hopeful relationship. Lahiri suggests an unresolved loneliness as Eliot is left alone in his house watching the ‘gray waves’ while Mrs. Sen runs to her bedroom and ‘shut the door’.Like Mrs. Sen, Mr. Pirzada also maintains his rituals because he misses his home. The story ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came of Dine’ is also told through a child’s perspective about the rituals in Mr. Pirzada’s visit. Every evening at six o’clock, Mr. Pirzada would come to dine with Lilia’s family because they resemble the family he misses. In contrast, in ‘The Temporary Matter’ Shukumar and Shoba establish their separate dining rituals (Shukumar eating in the room prepared for their dead child and Shoba in the living room) so that they could avoid each other. Note, however, that these opposite dining rituals both suggest the loneliness of Mr. Pirzada as well as that of Shukuma and Soba. In fact, Lahiri often use dining rituals to portray the loneliness of many of her characters such as Mrs. Sen, Eliot, Eliot’s mother, or even the narrator in ‘The Third and Final Continent’ who eats cereal every day before Mala comes to America.During dinner, Lilia becomes aware of Mr. Pirzada’s loneliness as she observes his rituals in order to make sense of why Mr. Pirzada and her parents who “spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same” (25) are presumably ‘different’.He took out a plain silver watch without a band, which he kept in his breast pocket, held it briefly to one of his tufted ears, and wound it with three swift flicks of his thumb and forefinger. Unlike the watch on his wrist, the pocket watch, he had explained to me, was set to local time in Dacca, eleven hours ahead. For the duration of the meal the watch rested on his folded paper napkin on the coffee table. He never seemed to consult it.” (30)Through observing Mr. Pirzada’s eloquent yet anxious manner of looking at Dacca’s time, Lilia comes to understand that Mr. Pirzada is different not because of the different map color of his country or his different religion, but because he is lonely. He belongs to Dacca and is living there despite being in America. Lilia realizes that ‘life’ for Mr. Pirzada, “was being lived in Dacca first” and his life in America is only “a shadow of what had already happened [in Dacca], a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really belonged” (31). As Basudeb and Angana Chakrabarti pointed out, “this sense of belonging to a particular place and culture and yet at the same time being an outsider to another creates a tension in individuals which happens to be a distinguishing feature of Lahiri’s characters”(qtd. in Brada-Williams 454). Lilia observes how Mr. Pirzara always maintains a posture “as if balancing in either hand two suit cases of equal weight” (28), one suit case symbolizing his current life in America, another being his life back home.Similar to Eliot and Mrs. Sen, Lilia also connects with Mr. Pirzada through their shared loneliness although she does not understand the feeling of missing someone far away from home. Despite being loved by her parents and being “assured a safe life, an easy life, a fine education, every opportunity” (26), Lilia does not receive much attention from her parents. Before Mr. Pirzada’s visit, her father does not know what she learns in school (27) and she would be left with her book when the adults are watching the news (31). Lilia is always “sent upstairs to do [her] homework” (34) alone as she listens ‘through the carpet’ about the adult’s conversations. The fact that Lilia is an only child further emphasizes her loneliness.Mr. Pirzada and Lilia exchange their understandings of each other’s loneliness through their own little rituals. As Mr. Pirzada calls Lilia “the lady of the house” (29) and gives her candies with ‘rotund elegance’, Lilia who do not usually receive this much attention is “flattered by the faint theatricality of his attentions” (29). Moreover, Mr. Pirzada has been sending comic books to his seven daughters but has not heard from them for over six months (24). Hence, being able to give Lilia her candies and seeing her joy of receiving them resembles the joy he wants to see from his daughters. Despite not being able to utter her worries about Mr. Pirzada’s family or her thankfulness of his attention, Lilia keeps “each evening’s treasure as [she] would a jewel [and]…place it in a small keepsake box”(29) because she knows how important these candies are for Mr. Pirzada as they are for her.In attempt to do something to help alleviate Mr. Pirzada’s loneliness, Lilia innocently makes up her own praying rituals for his family’s safety: “I did something I had never done before. I put the chocolate in my mouth, letting it soften until the last possible moment, and then as I chewed it slowly, I prayed that Mr. Pirzada’s family was safe and sound” (32). The fact that a little girl decides that she ought to dedicate every night a piece of her ‘treasure’ to do something she has never been taught to do shows her profound connection and understanding of Mr. Pirzada’s feelings.Similar to the little Lilia, Twinkle in ‘This Blessed House’ improvises her own rituals. Twinkle does not have nostalgic rituals that alleviate loneliness like Mrs. Sen or Mr. Pirzada, but she is not a lonely character. She is always ‘content yet curious’ as she constructs her own meaning out of her simultaneous discoveries. As Williams suggested: “the scavenger hunts allows for the emergence of Twinkle’s identity” (76). Twinkle does know the cooking rituals that Mrs. Sen does, but she is able to construct dishes that are “unusually tasty, attractive even” (144) out of the vinegar she finds. Yet, still after a successful improvisation, Twinkle refuses to write the recipe down as she refuses to stick to rituals but is ready to make endless new discoveries. Furthermore, although Sanjeev reminds her that they are not Christian and he “can’t have the people [he] work with see this statue on [his] lawn” (147), Twinkle refuses to rid her discovered statues of Christ because “it could be worth something” (136). The incident illustrates how Twinkle sees everything in her simultaneous discoveries as opportunities. In contrast, Sanjeev follows blindly to Hindi rituals not because he sees meaning in these rituals but because he is afraid of how others might think of him.By contrasting Sanjeev to Twinkle, Lahiri emphasizes the difference between not having rituals and not having meaning in life. Twinkle does not have rituals but the one who is lonely is Sanjeev because he sticks to the rituals meaninglessly. Sanjeev awkwardly reads about how the Fifth Symphony is supposed to be “music of love and happiness” (140) in attempt to impress people of his taste, while Twinkle simply feels the music. He is annoyed at how Twinkle lies carelessly “in bed in the middle of the day” while he mundanely unpack boxes, sweep the attic, or retouch the paint in preparation for the guests (141). Consequently, Sanjeev misses the opportunity to feel the excitement and contentment in Twinkle’s everyday discoveries. Despite all the rituals he tries to do to impress his guests, they are more impressed by Twinkle’s lack of rigid rituals. As all his guests disappear to join Twinkle’s discoveries, Sanjeev is left alone.Yet although Mrs. Sen, Mr. Pirazada, and Sanjeev are lonely characters, they are not hopeless. Mrs. Sen is isolated from both India and America but Lahiri leaves possibilities of Mrs. Sen’s future adjustment to her hyphenated life through the story’s unresolved ending. Moreover, Mr. Pirizada eventually reunites with his family in Dacca. Sanjeev, although rigid and mundane, has the hopeful and talented Twinkle by his side. Furthermore, even the lonely children in Lahiri’s stories are portrayed in positive and hopeful notes. Despite not receiving much attention from their parents, Eliot and Lilia still have their families and have a secured society that they belong to.Some of Lahiri’s characters, however, experience tragic loneliness to the point that rituals cannot alleviate their loneliness. Boori Ma in ‘Real Durwan’ and Mrs. Croft in ‘The Third and Final Continent’ are alone and estranged from society with very little hope of reconciliation. Their rituals only enable them to yearn for their long lost past. Every day for ‘twice a day’, Boori Ma would sweep the stairwell from top to bottom as she enumerates “the details of her plight and losses suffered…[being] separated her from a husband, four daughters, a two-story brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffer boxes whose skeleton keys she still wore” (71). Her rituals of sweeping the stairs and wearing the skeleton keys emphasize her longing for the life she lost. At other times as Boori Ma sweeps, she would ‘chronicle’ the elegant life she used to have: “by the time she reached the second-floor landing, she had already drawn to the whole building’s attention the menu of her third daughter’s wedding night” (71). Like Mrs. Sen who recalls her time in Calcuatta to Eliot as she chops, Boori Ma also appears to be alleviating her loneliness as she sweeps and recalls her ‘easier times’ by gaining attention from the tenants. Yet, unlike Mrs. Sen and Eliot, the tenants do not share Boori Ma’s loneliness but simply like her ritual stories because they are entertaining and like her ritual sweeping because she keeps “their crooked stairwell spotlessly clean” (73). Thus, Boori Ma does not have any one who truly cares for her and she is literally alone in the world. Furthermore, in contrast to Mrs. Sen’s memory of her community, Boori Ma’s ritual story telling also seems illogical. This further suggests the futility of her rituals that makes her live in a past that may not even exist. (15) Similarly, Mrs. Croft lives alone in an irreversible past of the last century. Every day she sits “on the piano bench, on the same side as the previous evening (182) remembering how she used to teach piano and raise Helen up. She wears “the same black skirt, the same starched white blouse” (182) that reminds her of “a world in 1866…filled with women in long black skirts, and chaste conversation sin the parlor” (189). As she yearns for a society she lost, Mrs. Croft demands the door ‘locked’ as if she is locking herself out of reality. Like Boori Ma, Mrs. Croft does her rituals in order to live in her imagined world that can only be a distant past.Fortunately, however, Mrs. Croft has the narrator who empathizes with her loneliness. Although the narrator shows more capability of adjusting than Mrs. Croft because he has traveled across three continents and is still young and hopeful, he initially is alone and estranged from American society just like Mrs. Croft. Mrs. Croft is the narrator’s first friend in America. As Judith Caesar commented, “despite all their differences, [the narrator] and Mrs. Croft are equally distant from the societies in which they grew up” (54). Similarly to Mrs. Sen and Eliot, and Mr. Pirzada and Lilia, Mrs. Croft and the narrator construct their own rituals as their little way of comforting each other’s loneliness. Each evening Mrs. Croft “declared that there was a flag on the moon and declared that it was splendid” (183) and the narrator would cry out “Spendid!” too. Mohit Ray commented on how the narrator continues “keeping up the ritual even when he knew the flag no longer stood on the moon” (193), because he understands how important these ritual means for Mrs. Croft. Additionally, their rituals not only console Mrs. Croft from her loneliness during her last days of life, but also help the narrator adjust into his new life. His relationship with Mrs. Croft enables the narrator to see Mala as the ‘perfect lady’ as Mrs. Croft sees, thus marking the beginning of his happy marriage life in America.The narrator and Mala are able to successfully establish a happy life because they are able to adapt their rituals to suit their Indian-American lifestyles. The narrator understands Mala’s need of connecting to India through her rituals of wearing saris and preparing meals. Thus, instead of nudging Mala to become independent as Mr. Sen does to Mrs. Sen, the narrator helps Mala adapt her Indian rituals to suit American lifestyle: he intends to tell Mala to “wear her sari so that the free end did not drag the foot path” (190) and does not object her preparing breakfast for him but tells her to make cereal instead of lengthy rice preparations. Furthermore, in contrast to Mr. Sen who leaves Mrs. Sen alone knowing only that she is a ‘professor’s wife’, the narrator understands that Mala is homesick and needs emotional support. He tries to include Mala into his society by showing her where he works and taking her to Mrs. Croft. Similarly, Mala also shows her potential of adapting rituals. Like how Mrs. Sen, Boori Ma, and Mrs. Croft dress, Mala initially wears her sari to resemble the society she misses. However, she is prepared to adjust into American lifestyles that her sari does not drag the floor when she arrives. When the narrator “told her cereal would do” for breakfast, Mala immediately adjusts and “poured the cornflakes into [his] bowl” (192). Both characters are no longer lonely because they adapt their rituals for each other and for their new life in America.Unlike the other characters, the narrator and Mala construct rituals that not only alleviate the loneliness of missing the society they grow up in, but also enable them to make both India and America the society they belong to. They maintain good relationship with their relatives in India, but also establish a life and raise a son in United Sates: “Though [they] visit Calcutta every few years, and bring back more drawstring pajamas and Darjeeling tea, [they] have decided to grow old [in America]” (197). They reach out to find “fresh fish on Prospect Street” and send pictures of their new life to Mala’s parents (196), these being the things Mrs. Sen fails to get in America. By comparing their liveliness with the other characters’ loneliness, Lahiri emphasizes how this ritual construction is not an ‘ordinary’ adjustment but a notable accomplishment. Lahiri ends her collection with the couple’s perfect rituals, suggesting hopeful potential for her characters to conquer loneliness.
A Look Inside the Outsider
“Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.” These are the words of the 19th century writer and poet Oscar Wilde, and they perfectly illustrate the oft-contentious dispute between individualism and conformity to the community. Indeed, this dispute has played out through the pages of history, and it is difficult to objectively state that either of the extremes provides better outcomes or a more correct answer. On the side advocating conformity to community, there are both unforgiving despots who wished to carve men into machines, along the lines of Stalin, and cherished apostles of societal betterment, similar to Mother Teresa. On the other hand, advocating individualism and relative neglect of larger society, we can see both great writers, much like the above-mentioned Oscar Wilde, and cruelly apathetic hedonists, including Nero and many other Roman emperors of the first century. In reality, though, few people have devoted their lives to advocating either extreme conformity or extreme individualism, as have the above-mentioned individuals. Rather, most people hold views somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, incorporating bits of both theories. When the debate does surface in the modern world, it tends to do so quite tacitly, perhaps through a certain slant or implication about society when discussing current events or perhaps through symbolism and hidden meaning in works of literature that focus on protagonists who are “outsiders.” The short stories “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie are perfect examples of this latter situation. Both of the stories depict an individual from an outside world, so to speak, trying to live in a foreign society. This, however, is where the similarities end. While “The Third and Final Continent” holds that “outsider” individuals can become a part of society and benefit from it without having to lose their tradition and dignity through complete conformity, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” offers a much darker conclusion, stating that conformity in a new community is difficult to achieve, but those who do not achieve it will be chewed up and spit out, with a loss of tradition and dignity resulting either way.In his many adventures across three continents, the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” always manages to successfully blend himself into a new society, in small and large fashions, all the while hanging on to both his tradition and his dignity. The narrator never forgets to bring a small slice of his “first continent” wherever he goes. For example, in London, before he has arrived in the United States, the narrator speaks of attending the London School of Economics while living “in a house occupied entirely by penniless Bengali bachelors like myself, at least a dozen and sometimes more” (1216). At the same time, he and his roommates sip tea while smoking Rothman’s, a prominent British cigarette; they listen to traditional Indian music on a western-made reel-to-reel tape player. All in all, this shows that the narrator is keen on retaining his traditions, and the fact that he is able to easily do so is a comment by the author. Entering a new society does not necessarily mean losing every bit of the old society, she seems to say. Indeed, time and time again, it is emphasized that the narrator not only wants to maintain his traditions while factoring in some aspects of his new community, but that he is accepted for doing so. One particularly charming, if understated, instance of this state of affairs is the narrator’s meal regimen after his wife, Mala, arrives. “I… [came] home to an apartment that smelled of steamed rice,” says the Narrator, “The next morning when I came into the kitchen, [Mala] had already poured the cornflakes into my bowl” (1225-1226). This blending of Indian cuisine for dinner and American fare for breakfast suggests the ultimate harmony of cultures in a mundane way. After all, when the narrator says he prefers cereal for breakfast, his wife does not bat an eye, and when he comes home to an Indian dinner, he eats it as a taste of home that he would not (and should not) deny himself. As if this wasn’t enough, there are many more testaments to harmonious blending of old culture with a new community littered throughout the story. Mala, for instance, wears an Indian sari every day, but it is not frowned upon by the community. Indeed, when the narrator takes her to meet Mrs. Croft, he thinks to himself, “I wondered what she would object to. I wondered if she could see the red dye still vivid on Mala’s feet, all but obscured by the bottom edge of her sari. At last Mrs. Croft declared, ‘She is a perfect lady!’” (1227). This delightful response on the part of Mrs. Croft exemplifies what the story hammers into our heads again and again: communities are not at all incompatible with outside individuals and their traditions.In stark contrast to the successful mixing of cultures in “The Third and Final Continent,” the societal blending in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” is messy and unsuccessful, fraught with tales of lost heritage. The most strikingly obvious testament to this is the homelessness of the main character and, indeed, most of the Native Americans in the story. It clearly indicates that, for one reason or another, the goals and tribulations of the Native Americans were not reconcilable with American culture. This testament, however, is furthered immensely with the description of Jackson, the protagonist: “I grew up in Spokane, moved to Seattle twenty-three years ago for college, flunked out within two semesters, worked various blue- and bluer-collar jobs for many years, married two or three times, fathered two or three kids, and then went crazy” (1246). The downward spiral of Jackson’s life, then, began when he moved away from his Indian family to Spokane, into a new community. Thus the implication here is that entering a new community does indeed mean losing the bearings provided by the old community, and it also means that no new bearings can be gained until very difficult conformity and assimilation are achieved. Jackson’s story is not the only one, however. There are many more Indians in the story whose lives pay tribute to both the difficulty of conformity and the dangerous results of being unable to conform. “Most of the homeless Indians in Seattle,” Jackson notes, “come from Alaska. One by one, each of them hopped a big working boat… to Seattle… [partied] hard at one of the highly sacred and traditional Indian bars, went broke and broker, and has been trying to find his way back to the boat and the frozen north ever since” (1249). Like Jackson, these Indians left their homes with bright prospects, only to see everything spiral downward as they failed to conform. This passage, however, makes note of something else. There is an intense irony in partying hard at a sacred, traditional Indian bar, and this suggests a true loss of tradition and heritage. All Indians, even those who ended up unable to conform, saw their valued traditions trampled in the process, replaced with the American value of a good party even as they were still unable to conform and fit in. This constitutes a slap on each cheek, and it also gives new meaning to the homelessness of the Native Americans in the story (and the rootlessness of the few with a home). They could not assimilate into the white community, and in the process, they lost everything that makes them Native American, precluding a return to that community. The Native Americans in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” truly are homeless in every sense of the word.Venturing into his “Third and Final Continent,” the narrator of that story embarks on a true coming-of age journey, for his new community affects him in an undeniably positive way, directly preparing him for the rest of his life. When he first leaves India, the narrator is but a boy. He is unmarried. He has no job. He doesn’t have much of a formal education. While he gains the latter of these three things in England, it is without a doubt that the narrator truly comes of age in his third continent, America, particularly through his interactions with Mrs. Croft. Over the time he spends with Mrs. Croft, the narrator begins to feel a sense of duty toward her. At first, this is apparent simply in the ritual that he performs every night, keeping Mrs. Croft company on the bench and telling her how “splendid” it is that the American flag is now on the moon. After he learns of her age, he is very impressed, and he offers to heat up her soup, though Mrs. Croft’s daughter turns down the offer. The narrator laments, “There was nothing I could do for her beyond these simple gestures” (1224). However, there is a tinge of admiration apparent in his voice when he tells Mala that “for the most part [Mrs. Croft] takes care of herself” (1226), despite her age. This admiration, this desire to care for another person is built up in the narrator by Mrs. Croft. When Mrs. Croft finally meets Mala, she declares, “She is a perfect lady!” (1227). In giving the narrator her seal of approval, the narrator’s care for Mrs. Croft is, in a way, bestowed upon Mala; it is this event that begins to spark the love in their relationship. In this way, it is thanks to the narrator’s new community that he grew into a good, caring husband. It should not be forgotten that the narrator’s new community readily bestowed him with numerous other positive things. He easily obtained a job; he found a home without any trace of discrimination; he grew emotionally mature, living on his own for the first time. Despite these important positive contributions, it was Mrs. Croft whose contribution was greatest, but either way, the third continent and its community were undeniably forces for good in the narrator’s life.On the other hand, our outsider protagonist in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” is negatively affected by the community, his interactions with the people of Seattle hearkening directly back to interactions between White settlers and Native Americans so long ago. Negotiations with Native Americans from the 17th through the early 20th centuries were marked by lavish gifts of everything from precious metals to food and alcohol to “protected” reservation land in exchange for “just a little bit” of their current, unprotected land. According to the government, they did not even own that land, anyway. Eventually, the tribes began to rely on these gifts, economically and socially, but once the supply of land, the only truly durable resource, had dried up, the flow of gifts was choked off, and they were utterly ruined (Banner 51). They lost both their self-sufficiency and their dignity. Was the little bit of protected land that they held onto truly theirs if it was tossed at them like some sort of gift? Just the same, the whites of Seattle’s community that Jackson befriends are constantly giving him “gifts.” When Jackson is trying to raise money to buy the regalia, the pawnbroker decides to help him a bit: “He opened up his wallet and pulled out a crisp twenty-dollar bill and gave it to me” (1249). Moments after receiving the money, Jackson went over to “7-Eleven and spent it to buy three bottles of imagination” (1249). This symbolizes the manner in which the Indian tribes lost their trades and abilities in the face of gifts provided by European settlers. The prompt expenditure of the cash on alcohol also portrays something deeper. It represents the downward spiral of alcoholism unleashed upon the Native Americans as they became further dependent on something that only the white man could provide. If this was the only occasion in the story along these lines, though, this symbolism could be written off. On the contrary, it happens time and time again. Jackson later visits a newspaper publisher to buy a large number of newspapers to sell on the street for profit. With only five dollars for initial investment, the company manager says, “I’ll give you fifty papers for free. But don’t tell anybody I did it” (1250). After selling five newspapers, Jackson promptly trashes the other 45 and spends the profit on some food. When Jackson wins $80, he spends it on alcohol. When Officer Williams, a friendly white policeman, gives Jackson $30, he spends it on some more food. All of this occurs in the course of a day, drawing an undeniable parallel between Jackson’s dependence on gifts and alcohol and the dependence of the Native Americans on the settler’s “gifts” and alcohol. In the end, Jackson is given the regalia only as a gift, likely foreshadowing that he will eventually sell it for alcohol or a good time. The irony in this, though, draws one final parallel between Jackson’s situation and that of the colonized Native Americans. The gift that was ultimately given to them, the regalia in the former case and the “protected” reservation land in the latter, already belonged to them in the first place. The numerous resemblances between the sad state of Native Americans in the 19th century and Jackson’s situation in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” puts it beyond doubt that Alexie intended to declare through his story that an outsider can only be further hurt by a community which has denied him acceptance.The narrator of “The Third and Final Continent” does not manage to change much about his new community, but considering the story’s overall argument that larger societal conformity is unnecessary, the small, personal way that he does have an effect on his community is more than sufficient. Just as the most prominent mark left on the narrator came from Mrs. Croft, the most prominent change exacted upon the narrator’s new community was concentrated on Mrs. Croft. Mrs. Croft is a person very focused on the past, in no small part due to her age. For example, note her response when her daughter, Helen, speaks with the narrator upstairs: “It is improper for a lady and a gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!” (1222). Though the world Mrs. Croft speaks of is gone, she still holds emotional attachment to it. It was, after all, that world of “chaste conversations in the parlor” in which Mrs. Croft grew up. When Helen asks Mrs. Croft what she would do if she saw a girl in a miniskirt, Mrs. Croft responds dryly, “I’d have her arrested” (1223). As time progressed, Mrs. Croft slowly became more separate from and bitter toward her community. The narrator actually gives her hope. One day, the narrator hands his rent payment, on time, directly to Mrs. Croft instead of placing it on the piano ledge. This touches her. She says nothing at first, but after the narrator returns that night, many hours later, she still holds the payment in her hands, saying, “It was very kind of you!” (1221). While this is a relatively minor action on the narrator’s part, these small acts of chivalry have come to be all that Mrs. Croft truly desires, as mentioned above. After all, these acts of chivalry hearken back to Mrs. Croft’s time, a time during which a gentleman would rise when a woman left a table or remove his hat in a woman’s presence. Indeed, Helen tells the narrator, “You’re the first boarder she’s ever referred to as a gentleman” (1222). In the final months of her life, the narrator gives Mrs. Croft something to believe in, just as Mrs. Croft gives the narrator something to care for; in this way, he gives back to the community that helped him, having a positive effect on it. In the end, this is a change that the narrator exacts on an individual, not the community, but since the story touts maintenance of individualism in the face of a new community as an admirable, possible goal, there can be nothing more glorious than giving an old woman one last hope.Jackson of “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” also falls completely short of changing the larger community around him, but considering the story’s opposing message, this incapacity for change in the community has an entirely different meaning. Recall that “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” holds that the effect of a new community on an outsider is wholly negative, resulting in forced conformity, which usually ends up unsuccessful and, either way, robs the subject of his/her heritage. This is directly in contrast to the positive effect of a new community on an outsider extolled in “The Third and Final Continent.” Thus the former is in need of change and the latter is not, so a lack of change in this story can only be a bad thing. (The aspect of the community in need of change, of course, is its perpetuation of the old, indirectly-cruel treatment of Native Americans.) Jackson does indeed build close personal relationships with some white characters in the story, not too much different from the narrator’s relationship with Mrs. Croft in “The Third and Final Continent.” In particular, note the interaction of Officer Williams with Jackson. “You bet I’d give you a thousand dollars if I knew you’d straighten up your life,” says Officer Williams. “He meant it,” Jackson reassures us, “He was the second-best cop I’d ever known” (1256). At the end, though, Williams gives Jackson $30, perpetuating the cycle of his dependence on gifts in exchange for dignity. This previously-noted negative relationship between Jackson and his community is further indicated by another passage relating to Officer Jackson: “He’d given me hundreds of candy bars over the years. I wonder if he knew I was diabetic” (1255). A diabetic may crave sugar, but it will only further harm him/her. Just the same, Jackson craves the gifts with which his white friends provide him, but they only makes him more dependent on them, causing him to lose his dignity (and recall that this, itself, parallels the larger situation of Native Americans). In the end, the reader is left with the impression that, unlike in “The Third and Final Continent,” individual relationships with the conformed members of the community do not matter here; they have no influence on the community or how it eventually treats the outsider. However, the conclusion of “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” does offer one small glint of hope. “I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection,” says Jackson, adorned with his grandmother’s regalia, “Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother” (1260). That the entire city takes pause to focus on a homeless Native American man represents that the community has realized what its destructive behavior has wrought. Perhaps they can realize the sad irony in the happiness of a homeless Native American man, shunned from the land that should have been his, who is thrilled to receive that which belonged to him all along. After all, while Jackson was, on a personal level, unable to change Seattle and its destructive modus operandi in terms of Native Americans, the reader is left with the hope that maybe, just maybe, it can realize the error of its ways and change itself.All in all, “The Third and Final Continent” and “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” come to entirely different conclusions about outsiders entering a community; according to the former, entering a new community can be an emotionally enriching experience that does not require abandonment of traditions, but according to the latter, an outsider who comes into contact with a new community will forcibly try hard to conform, usually ending up unsuccessful, and always losing his/her heritage and dignity. Throughout the two stories, differences that indicate these conclusions are made obvious. While the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” successfully brings reminders of his first home wherever he goes, the story of Jackson’s life in “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” is one of an intense downward spiral after immersion in a new community. While the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” undergoes emotional and mental growth in his “third continent,” coming to admire someone for the first time and learning to love his wife, Jackson’s interactions with his new community are negatively marked by a dignity-draining cycle of dependence on others and addiction to alcohol, mirroring the sad fate of many Native American tribes. Even though the two stories agree that the only real effect an individual can have on a large community comes about through individual relationships, they draw a different conclusion based on this premise. “The Third and Final Continent” holds that these personal relationships are more than enough, allowing any individual to have a beneficial and admirable effect on a community as he/she chooses. On the other hand, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” paints the picture that, though caring individual relationships are possible, they can do nothing to change the overall negative effect that a community has on an outsider. On the whole, these two diametrically-opposed conclusions that Lahiri and Alexie have produced represent two different outcomes for two different individuals. In conclusion, when we enter any society as outsiders, it may be for the best to take both of the theories in each of our hands.
The Proper Balance of Indian and American Culture
In Interpreter of Maladies, the book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, the protagonists are often in an unknown place. The reader can gain insight into the characters based on how they act during while in an uncomfortable situation. In the short story “Mrs. Sen”, Mrs. Sen is unable to find the right balance between her Indian heritage and American culture, while the protagonist in “The Third and Final Continent” is successful in striking a gooda balance between the two cultures. In the short story “Mrs. Sen”, Mrs. Sen holds onto her Indian heritage through her material Indian possessions. She did not want to leave India in the first placea and cannot let go of her homeland. Throughout the story, Mrs. Sen expresses her love for the fish in Calcutta. While the fish from her local grocer is indeed fresh and reserved for her, She constantly remarks that the fish is not as fresh in America. For Mrs. Sen, the fish is not just food, rather, it’s a piece of India. In her mind, India will always be superior to America. She did not choose her new country or its new fish. Moreover, Mrs. Sen displays her culture through her traditional cutting blade and her saris. She constantly is using the blade because it reminds her of gatherings with fellow Indian women. She holds on to these gatherings because in America, she is a prisoner in her own home, lacking social relationships. At the same time, her saris are symbolic of her Indian customs and she refuses to stop “wearing” them. Furthermore, the story ends with Mrs. Sen attempting to drive to the market to purchase the fish, but she crashes her car in the process. Her attempt to buy the fish is symbolic of her decision to finally “buy” into American culture. By ending the story with a crash, Lahiri shows that for some immigrants, assimilation is not possible. As a result, Mrs. Sen will remain miserable and uncomfortable in America. While living in unfamiliar America, Mrs. Sen proves that she will not be able to achieve a balance between her original heritage and her new culture because she lacks the opportunities and drive to assimilate.In the short story “The Third and Final Continent”, the protagonist demonstrates that assimilation to America is possible by eventually achieving a manageable balance between Indian and American Cultures. When he came to America, he purchased “The Student Guide to North America” to read on the flight even though he was no longer a student. By reading the guide, the protagonist shows that he is willing to and plans to learn how to adapt to his new society. He successfully adapts due to his determination to make a good life for himself in America. Although the protagonist embraces American culture, he does not forget his Indian heritage. He preserves his Indian customs through food. He says, “In the end I bought a small carton of milk and a box of cornflakes. That was my first meal in America. I ate at my desk. I preferred it to hamburgers or hotdogs… at the time I had yet to consume beef” (Lahiri 88). Although the protagonist does openly practice Hinduism, he still feels that he should not eat beef, because it is part of his heritage. The protagonist keeps the customs of his past culture because shared customs gives him a sense of unity with other Indians. By the end of the story, the protagonist recognizes how to keep a balance between his two cultures. “We are American citizens now, so that we can collect social security when it is time. Though we visit Calcutta every few years, and bring back more drawstring pajamas and Darjeeling tea, we have decided to grow old today. I work in a small college library. We have a son that attends Harvard University. Mala now longer drapes her sari over her head…” (Lahiri 99). The balance translates into a more complete life for the protagonist and his family. Lahiri shows that assimilation was possible for the protagonist because he had the desire and the opportunities to do so. Mrs. Sen fails to embrace American culture by only expressing her Indian side while the protagonist in “The Third and Final Continent” achieves a balance between both his cultures. Mrs. Sen’s life is lonely and unhappy, while the protagonist of “The Third and Final Continent” eventually has a well-rounded life. Mrs. Sen originally had no intent on mixing the two cultures and partly because she is an Indian woman, she did not have as much exposure to allow her to assimilate to America. The protagonist of “The Third and Final Continent”, on the other hand, is able to prove that with the right opportunities, assimilation is possible.
The Gravity of Misconception
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.
Postcolonial Remembrance and Amnesia: A Double-Sided View
“Postcolonialism can be seen as a theoretical resistance to the mystifying amnesia to the colonial aftermath. It is a disciplinary project dedicated to the academic task of revisiting, remembering, and, crucially, interrogating the colonial past” (Gandhi, 4). One of the most difficult aspects of a confusing or traumatic experience on the part of the victim is the memory it leaves behind. More often than not just the mention of a word or phrase or place can suddenly all at once bring that victim back to the day or time something happened, forcing them to relive it again. In this case, sometimes the victim has the ability to shut out a painful or difficult memory to protect his or herself from being affected by it further. It is as if it never happened, and they enter a dangerous phase called denial. The question of whether it is healthy to deal with the issues at hand or sweep them under the rug is handled in two works: a novel called Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Interpreter of Maladies.” The effect the recurring memories have on the characters from each postcolonial work suggests that neither produces a positive outcome in terms of remembering or forgetting.
In Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, the narrator is Saleem Sinai, who travels back and forth in the past years before he was born to the present, many years later, when his experiences are far behind him. In this case, Rushdie’s entire novel is a form of postcolonial remembrance. Saleem narrates to his fiancée as well as the reader the background of his family, the struggles he has faced in his lifetime and the problems he still faces in the present: the ghosts he cannot leave behind him, but cannot seem to silence. Bhabha wrote: “Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present” (Gandhi, 9). Saleem’s remembrance of his family’s history, especially when his mother, he learns, was unfaithful to his father, proves particularly painful to Saleem. In the chapter entitled “Revelations,” Saleem finds out his parents are not his, and that he was switched at birth with Shiva, his sometime rival and childhood friend. The truth is revealed by Mary Pereira, who switched the children at birth, who finally breaks her silence after believing to have seen the ghost of Joe D’Costa, her former boyfriend. Her secret comes out as the result of her remembrance of Joe who was a political radical and once planted bombs in a tower. The revelations surrounding Saleem’s life continue to haunt him even more. He describes the major tragedies he has gone through as a chain reaction to something that he did: “If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero, Mr. Zagallo would never have pulled my hair. If my hair had remained intact…Masha Miovic wouldn’t have goaded me into losing my finger. And from my finger flowed the blood that was neither-Alpha-nor-Omega, and sent me into exile, and in exile I was filled with the lust for revenge which led to the murder of Homi Catrack; and if Homi hadn’t died, perhaps my uncle would not have strolled off a roof…and then my grandfather would not have…been broken…” (Rushdie, 319). Saleem has a lot of difficultly in describing his life and keeping his guilt and pain hidden from his fiancée and the readers. He is, obviously from reading this passage, racked with guilt for the things he has done. Even though he may not be directly responsible for these things, it is apparent the act of remembering is making him think so.
Midnight’s Children explores the ways in which history is given meaning through the telling of individual experience. For Saleem, born at the instance of India’s independence from Britain, his life becomes inextricably linked with the political, national, and religious events of his time. Not only does Saleem experience many of the crucial historical events, but he also claims some degree of involvement in them. Saleem expresses his observation that his private life has been remarkably public, from the very moment of his conception. Therefore, his remembrance carries that much more weight than anyone else. Not only was he around during the notable transformation of India, his emotions and experiences shape that time.
In articulating what Saleem views as the relationship between his personal life and the events of the formation of India’s nationhood, he narrates, “It is my firm conviction that the hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more or less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth” (Rushdie, 386). Saleem places more importance on his own family history than upon the entire nation’s formative events. In addition, on the duality inherent in Pakistani citizenship as a result of divide, Rushdie writes, “I suggest that at the deep foundations of their unease lay the fear of schizophrenia, or splitting, that was buried like an umbilical cord in every Pakistani heart” (399). This “splitting of self” reflects a fragmentation of identity Saleem knows all too well. Raised by who he thought were his parents, only to find at the age of eleven he is not their child, Saleem goes through a period of adjustment. His parents are distant, his sister becomes a peer. Saleem’s fragmented identity is shared on a larger scale with his nation’s fragmented identity. The fragmentation of the large British colonial territory into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, whose cultural, religious, political, and linguistic traditions differ, presented a complex and intimidating task. Therefore, India’s early days as an independent nation were burdened with division and strife. Rushdie draws a comparison between India’s struggles with its neighboring peoples and Saleem’s struggles with various family members and with the other members of the Midnight Children’s Club. Rushdie also uses metaphorical allusions to fragmentation or disintegration that indicate the loss of a sense of identity. For example, Rushdie describes both Aadam Aziz and Saleem Sinai as possessing a void or a hole in their centers as a result of their uncertainty of God’s existence. In their respective last days, Rushdie describes the “cracking” and eventual disintegration of their exteriors.
At the end of Midnight’s Children, Saleem adopts a particularly pessimistic outlook on the future. Saleem says, “My dream of saving the country was a thing of mirrors and smoke; insubstantial, the maunderings of a fool” (Rushdie, 529). Linked to this sense of hopelessness are both the loss of his silver spittoon and his knowledge that all of midnight’s children have been sterilized. Rushdie does not always accurately recount the events in recent Indian history during the course of Midnight’s Children. At times, he makes mistakes on details or dates, but he makes them intentionally, in order to comment on the unreliability of historical and biographical accounts. For example, Saleem informs the reader that an old lover of his shot him through the heart; however, in the very next chapter he confesses to having fabricated the circumstances of his death. By the end of the novel, Saleem discusses his imminent thirty-first birthday. At the conclusion of the novel, Aadam Aziz, after having remained silent for the first three years of his life, speaks his first word: Abracadabra. The reference to magic refers both to the novel’s genre, magical realism, and to the role of magic in the child’s life. Rushdie writes, “My son, who will have to be a magician to cope with the world I’m leaving him, completes his awesome first word” (528). Saleem, despite the dominant tones of pessimism in these last chapters, also expresses some degree of confidence in his young son and his ability to learn from the mistakes of his father’s generation. Saleem says of his son that “Already, he is stronger, harder, more resolute than I: when he sleeps, his eyeballs are immobile beneath their lids. Aadam Sinai, child of knees-and-nose, does not (as far as I can tell) surrender to dreams” (529). All the way through the novel up until this point, Saleem has given us a history of his family and his experiences, unburying sorrowful memories and experiences that seem to be too fresh or too difficult to deal with. Now he bestows on his son, who actually is not biologically his, the hope for the future. He wishes for him a life unaffected by what his father has left for him and by the painful re-membering Saleem has drawn out.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” we follow, for a very brief moment in time, the experiences of an Indian family visiting their motherland. Although spoken in the third person, we gain an astute filtration of the family through the eyes of their tour guide, a man named Mr. Kapasi. When we are given our first description of the family, it is not what one may expect. Indians who have migrated, or even some who were born in America, often do not adopt the American way of dress or manner. They tend to be very sentimental or traditional in these two things. Although Mr. and Mrs. Das were not born in India, but hail rather from New Brunswick, New Jersey, they dress “as foreigners [do]”, their children as well, in “stiff, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors” (Lahiri, 44), and when Mr. Kapasi meets Mr. Das, he “squeezes hands like an American.” Mr. and Mrs. Das are visiting their parents, who have moved back to India, where they were born. Mr. Kapasi pays particular attention to Mrs. Das, with whom he has the most contact with throughout the story. He notices she often becomes annoyed and pays little attention to her three children: Tina, Ronny and Bobby. Their choice of names suggests Mr. and Mrs. Das’s little regard for traditional Indian names and desire for more American names, perhaps so their children can be considered as American as they can be. Mr. Das says little throughout the narrative. He wears an expensive camera around his neck and is portrayed as a tourist, a foreigner, in many ways. At one point he asks Mr. Kapasi to pull over so that he may take a picture of a homeless, emaciated Indian man, which is some ways can be seen as an exploitation of his people and his very little compassion for the state of the people in India.
Mr. and Mrs. Das’s disregard for their culture is shocking and a little unsettling. Everything they embody, from their manner to their way of dress, is hugely American. They place no emphasis on their family, ignoring their children and leaving them to their free will. Even when they visit their home country, which they are doing by the time this short story takes place, they have no interest in participating or at least trying to adapt to the different ways of life. They dress in American clothing, get an English speaking tour guide, and either express little to know interest in the country in Mrs. Das’s case, or act as a reporter in Mr. Das’s case, treating his country as a vacation spot, disconnecting himself from it all together. Lacan’s ironic reversal of the Cartesian cogito “I think therefore I am” to “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think” (Gandhi, 9) expresses this notion quite well. Their inability, or perhaps their lack of desire, to mesh with their culture turns them into what some stereotype Americans as: the label of the ugly American, who goes to another country as disrespects the culture their by refusing to adapt to their lifestyle, wanting everyone to adapt to him instead. The fact that Mr. and Mrs. Das belong to this culture makes this stubbornness that much more imminent.
What is really happening in this story, if placed in the backdrop of postcolonial remembrance, is Mr. and Mrs. Das’s unwillingness to remember their culture. Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha announces that “memory is the necessary and sometimes hazardous bridge between colonialism and the question of cultural identity” (Gandhi, 9). This explains that Mr. and Mrs. Das’s education of their cultural identity is either aborted or is never given the chance to form because of their disinterest, or maybe even fear, of remembering where they came from. They were both born in America and raised in an American culture. Although their parents were born in India, they have since moved back, severing their ties to their roots even more, and Mrs. Das explained even still she was never that close to her parents in the first place. It is never explained fully why Mr. and Mrs. Das close their eyes to something that is still a part of them and do not recognize their people as one of them. A particular scene where this is manifested is when Mrs. Das stops to buy something to snack on and the shirtless man behind the counter begins to sing to her a popular Hindi love song. Mrs. Das walks away, appearing to not understand what he is saying, “for she did express irritation, or embarrassment, or react in any other way to the man’s declarations” (Lahiri, 46). Mrs. Das’s reaction to the man, on a much larger scale, conveys her attitude toward the land and the culture and the people in general. Not understanding but not caring to understand, walking away as if it didn’t exist.
As Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das talk, we learn Mr. Kapasi’s second occupation: an interpreter for a doctor. This additional means of work becomes very important. Mr. Kapasi, an interpreter of maladies, acts as an interpreter of the families maladies the more he gets insight to their private lives. Later on, Mrs. Das confuses his occupation after she lets him in on a secret of her infidelity to her husband she had never told anyone until now. When Mr. Kapasi asks her why she has done this, she explains it is because she hopes he can help her. Although he is an interpreter for a doctor, he only is able to identify physical ailments, not psychological ones, yet wishing to please Mrs. Das because of his growing affection for her, he tests out a theory about her anyway. Mrs. Das explains she met her husband very young, a sort of informal arranged marriage between their two parents. Although at first they were madly in love, they fell out of love very quickly. Mrs. Das became overwhelmed very quickly by her premature marriage, and slept with one of her husband’s friends to which Bobby was born. When Mr. Kapasi asks her, “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?” (66), Mrs. Das becomes enraged and steps out of the car. This entire sequence, the telling of the secret and the failed marriage followed by Mr. Kapasi’s inquisitive but out-of-bounds question, gives us an insight to Mrs. Das’s disenchantment with her past, present and future. Her past is overrun with memories of her failed marriage to her Indian husband, her infidelity with a white man, and her desperation to want to finally confide in someone. Bhabha explains how memories can be harmful: “While some memories are accessible to consciousness, others, which are blocked and banned—sometimes with good reason—perambulate the unconscious in dangerous ways, causing seemingly inexplicable symptoms in everyday life” (Gandhi, 9). The “banned memory” of Mrs. Das’s infidelity which surfaces easily in this scene could have caused her to do a variety of these things Bahbha calls “symptoms.” Either her symptom as a result of her unfaithfulness was then to disregard her culture because she is turned off by it, or, in a sort of paradox, her blocked memory of her culture caused her to commit adultery. Whichever one may be true, this shows Mrs. Das’s rejection of her culture has somewhat of a motive. It surrounds her; it represents a life she does not want anymore, which is very apparent, therefore she has no concern to cement a bond with or “remember” it.
In the story’s final scene, after Mrs. Das leaves the car in a huff to join her family who are exploring the terrain (it might be beneficial to this paper’s thesis to also point out that Mrs. Das initially refused to leave the car and explore with her family, wishing to rest, unconcerned with her relationship to the land) her son Bobby, who is not her husband’s child, gets attacked by monkeys. That this is the story’s climax and the final action suggests a harmful relationship between the Das’ and the land. Although the attack was partly the fault of Mrs. Das, who accidentally drops food on the ground for the monkeys to become excited over, that fact that this negative action even happens is telling of how much the Das’ do not belong and cannot seem to learn how to belong to this country. It all comes in a downward chain reaction. First with Mrs. Das’s revelation followed by Mr. Kapasi’s offensive question, then to Mrs. Das becoming upset, leaving the car, and dropping the food on the ground. All of this relates back to Mrs. Das’s initial action of cheating on her husband, which then inadvertently did harm to the child who was the result of that action. Mrs. Das’s recollection of her past therefore bled over into her present, causing even more harm in the long run. This suggests the action of remembering being detrimental in the case of the Das’. It caused, although in a strange sort of way, but in a clever way nonetheless, a direct harm to a member of their family. As a final note, after Mr. Kapasi saves the child from any more harm, he stands aside as the family tends to Bobby. When Mrs. Das takes out her hairbrush from her bag, the paper on which Mr. Kapasi wrote his name and address flies away with the wind. No one notices but Mr. Kapasi. That final link that would have still connected Mr. Kapasi to the Das’ and the Das’ to the land is lost forever, and Mr. Kapasi realizes that in a short time he too will be forgotten. He looks at the family once more, “knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve forever in his mind” (Lahiri, 69). This final act of forgetting make up the last lines of the story, and this encounter between the Das’ and Mr. Kapasi will fade away just as everything else does and has.
Salman Rushdie’s novel and Lhumpa Lahiri’s short story, which are chronicles of Indians after colonization, are in a sense very similar yet very different. Whereas “Maladies” is a observation of a family who refuses to recognize their roots or “remember” any part of themselves as being a member of that culture, they remain blissfully ignorant but effected. Mr. and Mrs. Das cannot escape retribution when their son is attacked by monkeys, yet they refuse to identify this unfortunate event as a punishment. If anything, it will perhaps even push them further away from this culture, a culture they cannot seem to find any warmth towards, and a culture they will most likely continue to push themselves away from. Therefore, the act of “amnesia” has produced a harmful result in the form of a direct attack to their life. Midnight’s Children in its entirety is an active work of remembering, and it for the most part makes for a very depressing novel. Saleem’s narrative is downtrodden and self-deprecating. The novel does not end happily, but rather with all the figures, all the ghosts of his past still coming back to haunt him, to remind him, to squash him still. As we can see in the case of Saleem, postcolonial remembrance is painful and can trap oneself into the past as if he or she were reliving it over and over again. However, ignorance in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Das, who refuse to acknowledge their land or play by the rules can prove just as harmful. In a larger scale, this shows colonization’s effects on its victims. In a sense it embodies the saying, “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” which does not offer any positive light for the colonized. Lahiri and Rushdie’s stories give us an opportunity to view the options from both sides, and sadly, the view is rather grim.
Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mufflin Company, 1999.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.