Appearances and Unhappy Couples: Divergences in Lahiri’s Short Fiction

Appearances and Unhappy Couples In Jhumba Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, there is a common theme of glossing over the truth. Many characters preoccupy themselves with appearances in hopes of escaping the reality of their unhappy relationships. In the short stories “This Blessed House,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” and “A Temporary Matter,” symbols are used to demonstrate the need to put on a façade not only for others around them, but more importantly for the characters themselves. Ultimately, this inability to accept the truth is what causes each character’s perpetual unhappiness.

In “This Blessed House,” the character Twinkle is the total package—beautiful, funny, intelligent, and good-humored. Yet all her husband sees is a childish woman with a short attention span. Unlike most people seeking a relationship, Sanjeev does not want a partner who loves him or who brings meaning to his life. Rather, he wants someone who is just like him—sensible, organized, mature. He wants someone who will give him the appropriate life for a man of his age—a life that all of his friends have. This mistake costs him happiness as he marries simply to fulfill a step in his life plan rather than for love. His obsession with appearances can be seen in the way he gets angry at Twinkle for wearing heels because they make her taller than him. Sanjeev cannot stand the height difference because it deviates from his traditional image of a couple in which the man is taller than the woman. Similarly, his focus on appearances is seen through the symbol of the Christian paraphernalia. To Twinkle, it is simply a game—an unsolved mystery and an exciting treasure hunt. Yet to Sanjeev, it is inappropriate, strange, almost blasphemous. He is worried that others will see the paraphernalia and judge them. When Twinkle wants to put a statue of Virgin Mary on the front lawn, he adamantly objects and says: “All the neighbors will see. They’ll think we’re insane…We’re not Christian” (Lahiri “Blessed” 146). The Christian paraphernalia therefore becomes a symbol of the difference between Sanjeev and Twinkle. Ironically, Twinkle—a woman who could care less what anyone thinks of her—ends up being the most beautiful and likeable character. Because of Sanjeev’s need to appear a certain way, he fails to appreciate the eccentric and untraditional nature of Twinkle. Only at the end when he discards his preconceptions of what a couple should look like does he reveal any hope for the couple’s future.

Similarly, in “Interpreter of Maladies” both Mr. and Mrs. Das are too preoccupied with looking like a perfect family to realize how dysfunctional their family truly is. For Mr. Das, he cares so much about capturing idealized moments on his camera that he fails to notice that nothing about his family is ideal. In this way, the camera becomes a symbol of his desire to avoid the truth and to instead surround himself with pictures depicting a happy family—one that in reality is the farthest thing from his own. And just like Mr. Das, Mrs. Das cares more about the appearances of herself and those of her family than their actual happiness. She dreads having to take her daughter to the bathroom and remains completely inattentive to any of her children’s wishes like when Tina asks to have her nails painted. Yet, her fixation with appearances is clearly demonstrated when Bobby is attacked by the monkeys—something that never would have happened if she had not been so careless with her food. After the incident, she brushes it off as if Bobby’s being attacked by a swarm of monkeys is no big deal and says, “He’s fine. Just a little scared, right, Bobby?” (“Interpreter” 68). Instead of checking to see if he is alright, she is quick to tape over the cut on his knee and fix his hair—caring more about how he looks than how he is doing after such a traumatic event. Because of both Mr. and Mrs. Das’s need to appear perfect, they become oblivious to each other and their wishes—so much so that Mr. Kopasi thinks they look more like siblings than husband and wife.

The desire to cover up the truth is also present in “A Temporary Matter.” Both Shoba and Shukumar have let themselves go, seen in the way that Shoba is “looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble” (“Temporary” 1). They care nothing about how they look and Shukumar does not even bother to brush his teeth. So when the power goes out and darkness surrounds them, the couple is able to escape reality at least for a little while. The light, therefore, becomes a symbol of the harsh truth and the darkness represents their desire to avoid that truth. Though they are not preoccupied with keeping up appearances the way the other two couples are, they are still keenly aware of those appearances. By not being able to clearly see each other when the power goes out, Shoba and Shukumar can hide from the unpleasantness of what they see when the lights are on. Yet for this couple, it is not a concentration on appearances, but a lack thereof that defines their relationship. Ultimately, however, both lead to the same end result—an unhappy partnership.

Perhaps the malady is not that the characters are incapable of love or of sustaining their relationships, but rather that their desire to escape reality is what is ultimately holding them back. In showing the two extremes of the spectrum—couples that care only about appearances and couples that don’t care at all—Lahiri demonstrates that a healthy relationship must be composed of both. That is why the story “This Blessed House,” in which Sanjeev faces the truth, is the most hopeful of the three. Through Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri demonstrates that ultimately, it is a balance of caring enough to keep up appearances and being honest enough to see things for what they really are that leads to a successful relationship.

It Takes Two to Mango: The Role of Food (and Clothing) in Interpreter of Maladies

Regardless of language or culture, certain aspects of life are present in every person’s life. Among these are love, food and clothing; because of their connection to all peoples, they are popular symbols in literature. Jhumpa Lahiri, in Interpreter of Maladies, uses these ideas to convey major themes in each of the relationships she crafts. In her collection of short stories, Lahiri demonstrates the healthy and unhealthy phases of relationships through the symbols of food and clothing.

In “A Temporary Matter,” Lahiri crafts the entire plot around meals; the temporary power outages are always during dinnertime. However, she illustrates the importance of food prior to Shoba and Shukumar’s current relationship. When the couple enjoyed a loving, healthy connection, the food was extravagant and comforting. Shoba had made a ten-course meal for Shukumar for their anniversary, symbolizing the warmth and care that was present in their relationship. During this time, Shoba also exhibited her interest in their life together through her clothing. She would put her coats on hangers and her shoes in the closet, and if she went shopping, she would buy two of whatever blouses or purses she might like. This illustrates the attention to detail that she used to hold not just in her life, but in their relationship specifically. Shoba used to enjoy spending time with Shukumar, and she was precise in her actions so that they would live happily together. However, after the loss of their child, she lets herself go, and Lahiri reflects this in the same symbols that once showed her true love. Instead of Shoba preparing new and interesting dishes, Shukumar cooks. Not only do their roles switch, but their motivations do as well. While Shoba cooked to provide Shukumar with pleasure, Shukumar cooks because it is “the one thing that made him feel productive” (Lahiri 8). He also uses up the preserved foods that Shoba had prepared years earlier, as opposed to Shoba’s use of fresh foods when she cooked. The food that he cooks, regardless of quality, is not even eaten with his wife. They eat their dinner separately, signifying their isolation within the relationship. Shoba’s clothing also reflects this. Instead of keeping her appearance nice and neat, she wears a raincoat over gym clothes, with smudged makeup and a satchel that she does not bother to put away after work. She has become the woman “she’d once claimed she would never resemble” (1), and it illustrates how she has let go of her and Shukumar’s relationship. The transition from comforting food and put-together clothing to the exact opposite symbolizes the deterioration of their once-strong connection, a connection that is now unhealthy and unsatisfying for both people.

The relationship between Miranda and Dev in “Sexy” follows a similar path, ending in the destruction of each person’s feelings for one another. At the start of their relationship, during the love-filled, healthy stage, they go on dates to fancy restaurants, eating a pig’s head and holding hands across the dinner table, symbolizing Dev’s extreme care for Miranda and their reciprocated feelings for each other. Even when their first week together ends, they stay happy for a while; Miranda buys all of Dev’s favorite foods, like baguettes, pickled herring, and pesto, for his Sunday visits. These visits, and the food that accompany them, signify luxury similar to a that of a honeymoon stage, and the couple is very obviously happy together. Miranda also buys herself some luxurious items, “things she thought a mistress should have” (92), such as a silk robe and a slinky cocktail dress, showing her devotion to the relationship and the value she places on their feelings for each other. Unfortunately, following Dev’s wife’s return, things slowly start to go awry, and the symbols follow. Miranda begins to eat sloppily, even eating “straight from the salad bowl” while waiting for the Sundays during which Dev visits her (97). As she tries to save the relationship, visiting an Indian grocery to find out what Dev’s wife looks like, she finds the food in the store unfamiliar and confusing, feeling extremely out of place. The worker in the store even mentions to her that the food is too spicy for her; this illustrates how Miranda feels out of place in her relationship with Dev. He can only visit her on Sundays, and his wife seems to be of more importance to him than Miranda is, hurting her subconsciously. Their clothing also reflects this shift, as Miranda’s new “mistress clothes” go unused, her dress in a pile on the floor of her closet and her lingerie tucked into the back of her underwear drawer. This signifies that what was once a symbol of hope for the future of their relationship is now gone, and the luxurious, loving stage is over. On Sundays when they meet, Dev wears sweats and Miranda wears jeans, showing that they do not care about their appearance, nor do they care about the relationship much either.

Lahiri uses the same symbols in “This Blessed House” in the marriage of Twinkle and Sanjeev. When the couple first met, they were at a party; their bonding moment was when they agreed on the lack of taste in the food they were eating, and Twinkle mentions that she was “charmed by the way Sanjeev had dutifully refilled her teacup during their conversation” (143). Their happy relationship, albeit short-lived, begins with this warm, inviting meal, one they can connect over. This connection unfortunately proves faulty as time goes on. By the time they move in together, the meals shared by the couple are not quite the same. The first meal shown in the story features a fish stew made by Twinkle, but this is no ordinary fish stew. The stew is made with the vinegar she found with the first Christ figurine, placed on a Jesus trivet, and finally covered with a dishtowel featuring the Ten Commandments. This infatuation that Twinkle has with Christian paraphernalia is the main issue in their relationship, and it manifests itself three ways in the first meal of the story. The first meal in the new house is the exact opposite of the first meal they had ever shared; instead of exemplifying hope for the future, it foreshadowed major issues to come. Clothing is also prevalent in this phase of the relationship, as Sanjeev notes that he hates the way she throws her undergarments at the foot of the bed instead of away in a drawer. This seemingly insignificant issue with her handling of her clothing demonstrates his inability to deal with all of her idiosyncrasies. Additionally, during their major fight over the statue of Mary, in which Twinkle cries and Sanjeev yells at her, Twinkle is wearing a simple bathrobe. She is not wearing real clothes, illustrating that a lack of care in clothing correlates to massive holes and misunderstandings in their relationship.

Interestingly, “This Blessed House,” although similar to the other two stories in terms of symbolism, does not follow the same plotline as them. While the first two stories end in the termination of the relationships, this story ends with Twinkle and Sanjeev staying together. The last scene shows Sanjeev caving in to his wife’s will, taking the bust into the living room even though he is against doing so. This saving of their marriage, this turnaround of what seems like the end of an unhealthy relationship has its own symbol in clothing as well. Each of the stories prior to this one have two major stages of the relationship, love and heartbreak, but “This Blessed House” introduces a new stage: reconciliation. Just before he agrees to carry the bust into his living room, he moves Twinkle’s high heels out of the way so that she will not trip. This is extremely significant because Sanjeev has previously noted that he hates when she wears high heels, yet he moves them out of her way. This suggests that the one piece that the other relationships are missing is not simply love but a willingness to work with one another. Sanjeev cares about his marriage, and so he is willing to work through his issues so that they might prosper. This idea is perhaps the strongest of the three stories, using the same symbol to flawlessly convey a completely new concept.

Children and Relationships in Interpreter of Maladies

In society, people view children as innocent and ignorant beings because they lack worldly experiences. As a result, the fact that children can cause and shed light on problems in adult relationships is often overlooked. Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, discusses the factors that contribute to the success or failure of relationships. In the stories, “A Temporary Matter,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” and “Sexy,” children directly affect the fate of each romantic relationship. Therefore, Lahiri uses children as catalysts to propel relationships towards their destinies.

First of all, in “A Temporary Matter,” the death of Shoba and Shukumar’s child leads to their eventual separation. At the time their child is born, the two are physically far apart–Shukumar is in Baltimore and Shoba is in Boston. They each cope with the death of their child differently, and thus, they continue to drift away from each other. For instance, though unreasonable, Shoba blames Shukumar for not being with her at the time of the incident. Her once caring attitude disappears, as shown by the fact that she stops cooking and stops dressing nicely. Meanwhile, the two put as much distance between themselves as possible while still living together. Shoba takes on extra hours at work, and Shukumar sets up his study in the nursery, “partly because the room soothed him, and partly because it was the place Shoba avoided” (Lahiri 8). When Shoba finally tells Shukumar that she is moving out, Shukumar reveals the gender of their child to solidify their separation. Lahiri states, “These were the things he had told her. He had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise” (22). Shukumar withholds information about the child in an attempt to spare Shoba and save their relationship, but when he realizes it is destined to fail, he releases the information and thus releases Shoba.

While the child in “A Temporary Matter” causes a physical separation between Shoba and Shukumar, the children in “Interpreter of Maladies” symbolize the mental separation between Mr. and Mrs. Das. The disconnect between Mr. and Mrs. Das is evident from the start–the story opens with an argument over who should take their daughter to the bathroom. When Mrs. Das loses the argument, “She did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the restroom” (43). Tina is the daughter of both Mr. and Mrs. Das, and their reluctance to nurture her shows that they view their relationship as more of a burden than a team effort. Meanwhile, Bobby is not Mr. Das’s son, but the direct result of Mrs. Das’s infidelity. He is a constant reminder of Mrs. Das’s guilt, and she tells Mr. Kapasi, “I feel terrible looking at my own children, and at Raj, always terrible” (65). Because Mr. Das does not know about Mrs. Das’s adultery, they have no way to fix and no reason to end the unhealthy relationship. Thus, Bobby and the other children are simultaneously holding the relationship together and destroying it internally.

Unlike the children in “Interpreter of Maladies,” Rohin helps Miranda break away from her unhealthy relationship. While Rohin tries to act mature by drinking coffee and memorizing capitals, he is still a child. In his naivety, he tells Miranda that sexy means “loving someone you don’t know” (107). Rohin learns the word “sexy” in the context of his father’s affair, after his father decides to move in with a stranger he meets on a plane. Like his father’s mistress, Miranda is just a girl that Dev meets at a store. As much as she wants to learn about his culture and life, she will always be an outsider in the Indian grocery store and the outsider that Dev can only see on Sunday afternoons. Thus, Rohin’s incorrect definition of “sexy” inadvertently sheds light on the fact that Miranda needs to move on with her life. Interestingly, the name “Rohin” means “ascending,” and Rohin helps Miranda ascend past her relationship with Dev.

In each of these short stories, children serve the purpose of ending communication in a relationship. Often times, the lack of communication is devastating–Shoba and Shukumar’s inability to communicate pushes them apart, while the Mrs. Das’s unwillingness to share her secret holds Mr. and Mrs. Das together in a suffocating marriage. However, in Miranda’s case, the decision to end communication with Dev is empowering. Since Lahiri uses children to catalyze relationships towards their destinies, these relationships must all be destined to lack communication.

False Love, Forever Culture: “Interpreter of Maladies,” “Sexy,” and “Hell Heaven”

Through stories of American-Bengali collision, Jhumpa Lahiri explores the nuances and complexities of cross-cultural relations and desires. In her three distinct works, “Interpreter of Maladies”, “Sexy”, and “Hell Heaven”, Lahiri examines how one’s roots can lead to resentment, as well as how people can be vehicles for cultural exploration. In each story, Lahiri tells each character’s unique stories of cultural frustration and transition through the lense of lust, both sexual and platonic. Through this narrative of desire, Lahiri explains how while lust is often the manifestation of cultural transitioning and dissatisfaction, it is also only temporary.

In three distinct stories dissecting American-Bengali cross-cultural relations, Lahiri uses lust to explore the intense longings of each character to belong to a culture different than his or her own, whether it be American or Bengali. In “Interpreter of Maladies”, Lahiri immediately establishes this theme when Mr. Kapasi first describes Mrs. Das, the mother of the American tourist family. In a description of intense fascination, Lahiri notes that Mr. Kapasi “observed her. She wore a red-and-white-checkered skirt that stopped above her knees, slip-on shoes with a square wooden heel, and a close-fitting blouse styled like a man’s undershirt” (“Interpreter of Maladies” 2). In this description, Lahiri captures Mr. Kapasi’s lust through detailed observation and fixation on the fit of Mrs. Das’s blouse. Hardly describing the other characters in similar detail, Lahiri instead focuses on Mr. Kapasi’s obsession for Mrs. Das to explore how his lust for Mrs. Das is also lust for America. Mr. Das’s attention towards the tight fit of Mrs. Das’ blouse as well as her ‘red-and-white-checkered skirt’ muddles the line between Mr. Kapasi’s attraction to Mrs. Das and his interest in the ‘Americanness’ that the skirt and her other American attire represents. Lahiri once again conveys desire for American culture as a lust for an individual person when Usha, a girl raised in a traditional Bengali household, idolizes Deborah, the white, American fiancé of her Bengali family friend.

In contrast to Usha’s traditional Bengali outfits that her mother imposes on her, Deborah’s attire is the archetype of American culture. Usha longs for this look and the American lifestyle it implies and notes, “I loved her serene gray eyes, the ponchos and denim wrap skirts and sandals she wore, her straight hair that she let me manipulate into all sorts of silly styles. I longed for her casual appearance” (Hell-Heaven 4). Usha’s obsession not with Deborah’s personality but rather with her appearance demonstrates Usha’s specific infatuation with the American culture that Deborah represents. In contrast to the strict and formal lifestyle that Usha’s Bengali parents impose on her, Deborah’s ‘casual’ appearance portrays the American freedom and ease that Usha yearns for. Similarly, in “Sexy”, Miranda lusts after Dev in order to achieve the romantic exoticism that she associates with his Bengali culture. Throughout the story, Miranda ties together Dev’s Indian ethnicity with him being “worldly” and “mature” (“Sexy” 4), whether these conclusions are fair or not. As she sits at her cubicle, Miranda fantasizes about taking pictures with Dev at places like the Taj Majal, just as her Indian and more worldly deskmate Laxmi already has with her boyfriend: “Miranda began to wish that there were a picture of her and Dev tacked to the inside of her cubicle, like the one of Laxmi and her husband in front of the Taj Mahal” (“Sexy” 4). The image of the Taj Mahal, a symbol of worldliness and Indian culture, emphasizes Miranda’s desire to associate herself with this different culture. Miranda does not simply want to be with Dev, but wants to be with Dev at the Taj Mahal, demonstrating how her longing for Dev is not only for his love and companionship but also for the Indian culture that he represents. In all three stories, Lahiri intertwines attractive features with symbols and indications of other cultures to draw out how regardless of the characters’ awareness, their lust captures both interpersonal and intercultural attraction.

Once this lust is established, Lahiri demonstrates how this desire derives from Mr. Kapasi and Usha’s dissatisfaction with Bengali Culture, and Miranda’s guilt she feels towards her own narrow American upbringing. In “Interpreter of Maladies”, Mr. Kapasi’s fantasies about Mrs. Das stem from his unhappiness with his own marriage. While his own wife represents traditional Bengali culture, Mrs. Das is the antithesis; while his wife serves her husband tea and dresses conservatively, Mrs. Das is self-centered, demanding, and her attire exposes more skin. Lahiri notes this distinction and explains “He had never seen his own wife fully naked… He had never admired the backs of his wife’s legs the way he now admired those of Mrs. Das, walking as if for his benefit alone” (“Interpreter of Maladies” 9). This juxtaposition contrasts Bengali and American culture as well as highlights Mr. Kapasi’s attraction to the latter. His dissatisfaction with his Bengali marriage not only fosters dissatisfaction for his culture, but also serves as a point of comparison that awakens Mr. Kapasi to this perceived ‘value’ of American clothing and culture. Usha similarly loves Deborah because she is the opposite as well as the enemy of her mother. While her mother represents Bengali culture through her traditional family values and reserved demeanor, Debora instead represents the American culture that Usha longs to be a part of. As Usha’s begins to associate herself with American culture, her respect towards her mother and her Bengali lifestyle falters: “I began to pity my mother; the older I got, the more I saw what a desolate life she led” (“Hell-Heaven” 11). Usha’s pity for her mother who symbolizes Bengali values not only demonstrates Usha’s disdain for Bengali culture, but also her perceived superiority. Her choice of the word desolate further promotes this notion of a perceived hierarchy between the two cultures by explaining how Usha’s love of America can only be so strong because she compares America with her perception of empty Bengali culture.

However, presenting a contrast to Usha and Mr. Kapasi, Miranda’s lust derives not from dissatisfaction, but rather guilt. Miranda, born into American culture, feels ashamed of how this upbringing caused her to have racist misconceptions towards Bengalis. As a child, when Miranda would pass by the home of the Dixits, a Bengali family, she “held her breath until she reached the next lawn, just as she did when the school bus passed a cemetery. It shamed her now” (“Sexy” 10). In Lahiri’s discussion of then vs. now, Lahiri explores how Miranda’s past informs her present. In describing how Miranda’s only now feels shame about her past cultural awareness, Lahiri connects Miranda’s very white, American, and homogeneous childhood culture with her current obsession of experiencing Bengali culture through Dev. Like Mr. Kapasi and Usha, the root of Miranda’s lust is not love but rather ulterior feelings of disgust towards her origins.

However, ultimately Lahiri concludes that this lust is only temporary when the characters’ choose to return to the comfort of their original cultures. In “Interpreter of Maladies”, Mr. Kapasi gives up on his hopes of a relationship with Mrs. Das when cross-cultural communication and understanding proves to be too difficult. In a series of dissonant moments beginning with a divided reaction to Mrs. Das’s affair, Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi’s cultural disconnect culminates in the irredeemable loss of Mr. Kapasi’s address: “The slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind. No one but Mr. Kapasi noticed. He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze” (“Interpreter of Maladies” 15). This slip of paper, created at the birth of their relationship, symbolizes Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi’s connection, as well as Mr. Kapasi’s network beyond his own Bengali culture. As it flies away forever, Mr. Kapasi’s lust for Mrs. Das and his hope to expand his cultural ties similarly becomes lost and irretrievable, as he knows he will instead return to his wife and original culture. Furthermore, the way in which the wind carries the paper away as Mr. Kapasi watches passively portrays cross-cultural miscommunication as the natural way of the world and as something one has no choice but to accept.

In “Sexy”, Lahiri once again notes the false and momentary nature of lust when she discusses what the word ‘sexy’ means to Miranda as opposed to a child who is a victim of infidelity. When Dev first calls Miranda sexy, she is blinded by lust and believes it is a sign of love, or at least real emotion. Yet after asking Rohin, the child a cheating father, what the word ‘sexy’ means, he explains that “it means loving someone you don’t know” (“Sexy” 13). Whereas Miranda believed Dev used the word ‘sexy’ because he loved her truest self, Rohin realizes that in fact he never truly knew her. Just like Miranda’s infatuation with Bengali culture, Dev’s love wasn’t from a place of understanding, and so their love, as well as their cross-cultural relationship, would always be too unfamiliar to last. Lahiri further enforces this point when Dev returns to his Bengali wife and Miranda finds new friends in Manhattan, demonstrating their natural tendencies to find comfort in similar people.

Finally, in “Hell-Heaven”, Usha witnesses this trade of cross-cultural connections for comfort and one’s cultural origins when Pranab Kaku, her Bengali family friend, leaves Deborah for a Bengali woman. Despite the seeming strength of his and Deborah’s relationship at the beginning of the story, as the plot develops their lust gives way to the inevitable desire to find people who share their backgrounds: “After twenty-three years of marriage, Pranab Kaku and Deborah got divorced. It was he who had strayed, falling in love with a married Bengali woman” (“Sexy” 19). Lahiri’s neutral and unsurprised tone makes clear that the Pranab and Deborah’s relationship was hopeless from the start. Lahiri’s impartial acceptance of their fate only undermines the couple’s history of lust and stability, demonstrating the little and temporary influence of lust, and the immense authority of cultural ties.

Interpreter of Maladies: Lahiri’s Guide to Forging One’s Identity

In her collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri illustrates the difficulties that immigrants face when displaced and distanced from their culture. Each story serves as a different viewpoint on cultural experience, which allows Lahiri to bring together a detailed image of cultural displacement and the challenges it poses when forging one’s identity. The importance of cultural ties is emphasized in the stories, as is the natural longing to achieve such connections. However, Lahiri shows the difficulties in doing so, especially with a younger generation that has only family ties to their culture because they have already been assimilated into American society. She also illustrates that distance is not always a disadvantage as she begins to show the reader the first steps to establishing one’s identity and home. The stories in the collection Interpreter of Maladies illustrate the need and natural inclination people have to connect with their heritage and culture while conveying how to safely make those connections and forge one’s identity.

In Lahiri’s stories, there is a longing among the people of the younger generations to connect with their culture, a longing that seems impossible for those assimilated into American culture. In “Mr. Pirzada Comes to Dine,” Lilia’s mother declares proudly that her daughter was born in America as Lilia remarks, “She seemed genuinely proud of the fact, as if it were a reflection of my character” (Lahiri 26). However, Lilia desires to understand Mr. Pirzada and treasures the candies that he gives to her, as if eating one made a connection with her culture. As she observes him and her parents in the living room watching the news from overseas, she observes, “…I remember the three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear” (Lahiri 41). Lilia is an outsider among them because she is the first generation to be separated from her heritage by distance and she realizes in the end a connection with her heritage is impossible as she throws away the candy from Mr. Pirzada. In the short story “Interpreter of Maladies,” Mrs. Das attempts to make a connection with Mr. Kapasi, which in turn would serve as a connection to her heritage from which she is far removed. Mr. Kapasi imagines corresponding with Mrs. Das after her return to America saying it would fulfill his dream of “serving as an interpreter between nations” (Lahiri 59). However, as his address floats away, Lahiri shows, as she did with Lilia, that a cultural connection cannot be forged when one has already become enveloped into American culture, which creates both a physical and cultural distance too great to overcome.

After her negative depiction of distance, Lahiri illustrates how distance can be used as an advantage. In “This Blessed House,” Sanjeev becomes angry at Twinkle as she collects and displays the Christian paraphernalia all over the house to the point that he questions whether or not he loves her. However, when she takes the partygoers to the attic, Sanjeev feels completely alone and distanced from her in the same way that he felt at the beginning of their relationship, when they were in a long-distance relationship. Distance allowed Sanjeev to imagine their life together and retain a romantic view of her fashioned through their phone conversations. He sees her shoes on the floor and “instead of feeling irritated, as he had ever since they’d moved into the house together, he felt a pang of anticipation at the thought of her rushing unsteadily down the winding staircase…” (Lahiri 155). Distance forges a want to make a connection with Twinkle within Sanjeev. In “The Third and Final Continent,” there is a similar occurrence. The narrator observes the world of Mrs. Croft, where she retains the pieces of America from her time that she is comfortable with and securely locks the rest of the world outside. She allots him physical distance, which allows him to create his own “country” where he can feel at home. In both cases, distance facilitates one to retreat away from reality and create a romanticized view of their world, an illusion that encourages and aids connections with others.

Alongside the positive view of distance and its usefulness, Lahiri also illustrates the dangers of forging this type of connection. In “A Real Durwan,” Boori Ma creates her own identity by painting elaborate pictures of her past. In the same way that a romanticized version of reality can aid connections in the real world, Boori Ma’s tales help her accept the harsh reality of her life. Those around her suspect that “she probably constructs tales as a way of mourning the loss of her family” (Lahiri 72). She grounds her identity in her savings and the keys she keeps in her sari. After these are stolen, her forged identity is shattered. She has failed as the guard to her identity and calls out for the people to believe her and her claims. However, when she shakes her sari to emphasize her point and nothing jingles, she can no longer believe herself. Similarly, Mrs. Sen attempts to keep India with her by placing rugs around the house and cooking traditional Indian food. She also continues to identify her home as India and states, “Everything is there” (Lahiri 113). However, the letters that she allows to come through shatter the illusion of being in India within her apartment because it reminds her that home is thousands of miles away, where life is continuing without her. Boori Ma grounds her identity in concrete and insignificant things, namely the savings and keys, while Mrs. Sen continues to identify her true home as India, making both illusory coping mechanisms faulty and impossible to maintain.

In her short story collection, Jhumpa Lahiri establishes the need for a connection with one’s culture and illustrates both the right and wrong way to forge such a connection. The strong longing to connect with one’s culture is illustrated in Lilia and Mrs. Das as they both attempt to make unsuccessful connections with those that embody their heritage. Next, Lahiri illustrates that distance itself is not the problem by showing that it can be used to one’s advantage. Distance can encourage a romantic view of the world, which aids one in making connections with others. At the end of “The Third and Final Continent,” Lahiri finalizes her discussion about forging one’s identity by illustrating the best way to do so. In the final lines, the narrator identifies his great accomplishment by stating, “While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years” (Lahiri 198). He avoids the faults of Boori Ma and Mrs. Sen because he finds his cultural ties in nothing material and identifies his home as where he resides. He has forged an identity within this “third continent,” which symbolizes the world he has created for himself that cannot be tainted or taken away from him. He claims, “…I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept” (Lahiri 198). He does not feel the displacement of being thousands of miles away from the country of his birth and yet he carries all the miles he has traveled with him, making his identity a collection of where he has been and what he has accomplished that is grounded in himself.

The Dual Womanist Perspective of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Short Stories

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story author, one who has been lauded as one of the first authors to establish a literature for Indian/Bengali-Americans. These diasporic writings address many issues that involve adapting to new cultures, generational relationships and traditional gender roles for both men and women. Many have declared that Lahiri is a proponent of feminism, however, a closer reading of her the characters and plot within her short stories reveals that her writings display both pro-womanist and anti-womanist sentiments. Jhumpa Lahiri has written two books of short stories: Unaccustomed Earth and The Interpreter of Maladies. These short stories contribute to the womanist genre but also subvert this genre in other ways by placing the masculine over the feminine. This occurs in “A Temporary Matter” from “The Interpreter of Maladies” as well as “Unaccustomed Earth” and Nobody’s Business” from her other collection. An examination of characters and plot within these stories allows us to see the conflict that is created between the expected gender roles of male and females, generational differences in the perspective of this dichotomy, as well as the difficulties that surround cultural diasporization—all of which demonstrates that her stories contribute and detract from womanist ideals. If many of her critics would take a closer look “they would have known her to be writing against rather than with those significant segments of the past half-century’s feminist culture” (Cussen 5).

The womanist movement differs from that of feminism only because it is focused on women of color, in this case American-Bengali women. Thus it may seem it requires an even greater focus because of the greater persecution of women of color over Caucasian women, though both often lie at a disadvantage. Up until this point, womanism has primarily focused on African women and the desire they have for greater freedom and rights. Other forms of womanism may develop but in the meantime, “Indian-/Bengali-American womanism is yet to be heard of, let alone articulated and this is unfortunate. Though she never explicitly addresses womanism by name in her fiction, the womanistic manifestations of Jhumpa Lahiri in her various works of fiction provide an insightful point of exploration” (Kasun 8). Many of the characters in her stories are women that are exploring their independence in the face of their traditional genders role, rooted in their culture. Indian/Bengali women face different cultural expectations than African or Middle Eastern women would and Jhumpa Lahiri seems to make an effort at raising awareness of their plight. However, we can also see evidence that contradicts a womanist reading of her collections of short stories. Her stories “highlight Lahiri’s intervention in complicating and expanding feminist critical expectations” (Ranasinha 175).

The first of these stories is “A Temporary Matter”. It begins with a young married couple, Shukumar and Shoba. Despite the fact that they are married, because of a tragedy they live like strangers until a scheduled electrical outage in the neighborhood brings them together. The four nights of darkness gives them time to talk to teach other. We are slowly given bits and pieces of memory that bring insight to the distance that separate Shukumar and Shoba. It is revealed that they are mourning over the death of their stillborn baby. This traumatic loss drives a wedge between them. The readers feel hope that they can be reconciled because with each night of darkness, they confess more and more of their secrets to each other. Many of them are simple things like having a late night with a friend, a photo from a magazine, or disliking a sweater vest. However, this hope for their marriage is quickly dimmed as they both reveal one last confession. Shoba admits that she is moving out and has found her own apartment and Shukumar tells her that he saw and held their stillborn son. Ultimately, “they wept for the things they now knew” (Lahiri, “Interpreter of Maladies” 22).

In this story, Lahiri uses her descriptions of Shoba to place masculine over feminine. In this vein of thought, “the woman becomes the object, the body, wheras the masculine is granted the power of asserting his nihilating look at the feminine being-in-itself as a passive object” (Asl 124). This idea of nihilating the female by placing the masculine in a station of power and the metaphor of vision are both connected with constructs of sexual differences and gender roles. We see this phenomenon in advertising and the way that a woman’s physical appearance is viewed. Men are frequently placed in a position of power while women are merely passive objects in the story of their lives. This is obvious in the writing of Lahiri in “A Temporary Matter” because Shoba is frequently being looked at by Shukumar or described to the reader. She is reduced to a physical entity as she and Shukumar only occupy the same space physically, not emotionally. This is a method Lahiri also uses in a few of her other stories. It undermines a feminist reading of the story. Her physical appearance is discussed frequently throughout the story. In one instance, Shukumar notes that “her beauty, which had once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed superfluous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow” (14). Shoba is put into the position of being looked at and relegated to being an object which is defined by her cosmetics. Shukumar can no longer relate to her on an emotional level and this is causing their marriage to fall apart.

Even before the death of their baby, Shukumar seeks some sort of attraction elsewhere. During the course of their secret telling, he admits to her that he had cut out a picture of a woman—an advertisement for stockings—that he had found strangely attractive because Shoba had been pregnant at the time and had grown so large “to the point where Shukumar no longer wanted to touch her” (19). Especially pregnant, Shoba was not attractive to him anymore and he found himself in a position of dominance over her because of this perspective on her attractiveness. “A Temporary Matter” relegates women to an object in the sight of men and is in direct contrast to the idea that Lahiri is primarily a feminist writer who portrays strong, independent female characters that resist cultural norms. Another story that introduces the same idea of women being objectified is “Nobody’s Business” which is also introduced in the collection “Unaccustomed Earth.” Sang, an Indian American immigrant, is in a relationship with Farouk, an Egyptian man who is away in Vancouver. Farouk returns and he and Sang spend all of their time together. One of her roommates, Paul, is fascinated by her and wishes that he could be in a relationship with her. While Sang is visiting her sister in London, Paul receives a phone call from a woman named Deirdre who says that she is Farouk’s lover. Paul decides not to tell Sang what happened. Eventually she finds out that a woman but does not believe Paul when he tells her what she had called about. Eventually she listens in to a conversation between Deirdre and Paul, Sang decides to go to Farouk’s apartment and she and Paul confront him together. Farouk and Paul fight and eventually the police arrive to calm things down. Sang then returns to London to be with her sister and Paul goes about his life before Sang arrived.

Sang, like Shuma, is frequently described physically in the way that Paul (who desire to have a relationship with her) perceives her. At one point, he sees her in a towel after just finishing a shower. “For weeks, he had longed to catch a glimpse of her this way, and still he felt wholly unprepared for the vision of her bare legs and arms, her damp face and shoulders” (Lahiri, “Unaccustomed Earth” 190). Just like Shuma, she is relegated to an object—a phenomenon that Paul hopes to catch a glimpse of. It is interesting that we never get many physical descriptions of Paul, Farouk, or any other man in her stories. But nearly every story has a description of what the woman looks like. Paul sees her again when “she came up to his room, wearing a pretty dress he’d never seen, a white cotton short-sleeved dress, fitted at the waist. The neck was square, showing off her collarbones” (205). This is an example of when “the woman becomes the object, the body, wheras the masculine is granted the power of asserting his nihilating look at the feminine being-in-itself as a passive object” (Asl 124). Despite the examples of independent, feminist women in her stories, Lahiri reminds her readers of the reality that women are frequently relegated to objects in both the Western world and the Indian/Bengali culture. Another story written by Lahiri that suggests the complicated dichotomy between male and females is “Unaccustomed Earth” from her second book of short stories. This short story involves familial relationships between three generations, a father, daughter, and grandson. This is in addition to the discussion of cultural immersion and gender roles. However, we do not see objectification of the female character. The father visits his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash.

After her mother’s death, Ruma suddenly felt a strong desire to resume many of the same roles that her mother played. Ruma left a successful career outside the home to raise children while her husband Adam supports her. After her two-week bereavement after her mother’s death, “overseeing her client’s futures, preparing their wills and refinancing their mortgages, felt ridiculous to her, and all she wanted was to stay home with Akash” (“Unaccustomed Earth” 5). She suddenly has more of a desire for maternity, a womanist trait, and Lahiri points out that “it was the house that was her work now” (6). Since it is also her choice to stay at home, she does display more independence and ability than someone might who is forced to remain at home by cultural requirements. It is also interesting to note that despite the fact that her father is of a more traditional Bengali culture, he encourages her to seek employment outside of the home. He himself is beginning to embrace Western ideas when he begins dating a woman who wears western clothing, like cardigans and slacks. However, Ruma finds staying at home with her son more fulfilling and does not seem to miss the time that she had in the work place. This demonstration of choice in her desire to remain at home, Ruma is different from some of Lahiri’s other characters who stay at home like Mrs. Sen or who in reality don’t speak much throughout the story, like Shoba. “By placing her female characters in traditional roles—such as nearly silent, often jobless housewives and/or mothers—Lahiri displays, through the inner monologue and narrative of her female characters, their impact on other characters’ consciousnesses, and their communal bonding—in short, their great power…despite situating her female characters as outwardly powerless in Western society, Lahiri reveals their inner adaptability yet not over-assimilatory nature” (Kasun 20). The character of Ruma really demonstrates the contrast between the traditional gender roles encouraged by Indian/Bengali culture and the ideas of feminism and womanism that many believe Lahiri promotes. She has an ability to choose for herself a career and be independent, but she realizes that she is drawn to the responsibility of motherhood and staying at home with her son instead of seeking the Western idea of success in a professional life. Lahiri is presenting her audience with the idea that maybe gender expectations can fit with the ideas of womanism.

We see that the subversion and support of a feminist reading of Lahiri’s works exist simultaneously. Both tradition and non-traditional gender roles are demonstrated which leads us to realize that in these stories “the configuration of gender roles for both male and female characters become an intertwined, continuous process. Although there are some characteristics that can be attributed to the different generations of character, an analysis of these narratives show that they reject stereotypical representations of male or female characters” (Marques vi). When characters are surrounded by their own culture, it becomes easier and more necessary to follow the normative approach to gender roles and the traditions of their culture. Many of Lahiri’s stories involve Indian/Bengalis who are transplanted into a new Western culture where traditional gender roles are not necessarily the norm. Their diasporic state creates a conflict between the culture of their heritage and the desire to assimilate with their newfound culture. This creates situations where we begin to see a rejection of typical gender roles and stereotypes.

One of the examples of the rejection of these stereotypes is in how Lahiri writes her male characters. Traditionally male characters in Asian diasporic literature are oppressive figures who are esteemed above women. However, most of the characters in these short stories “struggle almost in the same manner as the female characters do to deal with their feelings of being hyphenated subjects who live in between worlds. As a consequence, the male characters in her narratives often distance themselves from the stereotypical representation of Indian male characters” (Marques 3). We can look at Shukumar for an example of a non-traditional male character. At the beginning of his marriage to Shoba it seems that she followed the gender expectations of their culture by cooking traditional foods for him and cleaning the house. However, after the death of their baby, their roles seem to become opposite. Shukumar begins to do more of the cooking. He stays at home and makes sure that the chores get done around the house. Despite the fact that womanists may choose to reject typical gender roles, they celebrate characteristics like maternity. After the death of her child in pregnancy, she rejects this role of motherhood and seeks to separate herself from femininity in many ways and chooses to work outside of the home more and more until Shukumar does take over the daily duties around the house. Lahiri paints her characters in the typical male/female fashion and then chooses to subvert these characteristics through small differences that separate them from the typical mold.

Another example of a non-traditional male character in Lahiri’s stories is Paul, Sang’s roommate in “Nobody’s Business.” He is not of the same culture as Sang but he does not follow many of the gender norms that have been placed on males even in Western culture. We find him to be unexpectedly feminine. He does not have a strong, assertive personality and has retreated into some form of a shell. Even though the story is written in a third person perspective of his life, Sang is the center focus. He wants to have a relationship with Sang but does nothing to make this a reality. In a self-analysis of a previous relationship, as it came to an end he realizes that “he had not argued; in the wake of his shame, he became strangely efficient and agreeable, with her, with everyone” (“Unaccustomed Earth” 187). Many would see this reaction as a fairly feminine one. He becomes a spectator in his own relationship and accepts the fate that she places onto him. He feels shame and hides by becoming agreeable with everyone—a common coping mechanism for women. The only point that it seems he displays masculine characteristics is when he goes with Sang to confront Farouk and they get into a fight. Despite this, Paul is generally a contradiction—not the masculine character you might expect him to be. Lahiri continues to throw off the balance between the male and female characters in her stories.

Even in “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma’s father, who may seem even more displaced because of generational differences begins to embrace western ideas and finds himself struggling to continue to accept the gender norms of his culture. He had been married so long to a tradition woman who cared for him by cleaning, cooking, and being his companion that now that she has passed away, he seeks the companionship of someone radically different. This can be seen as his rejection of a need for traditional roles and a support of both feminist and womanist culture. He also encourages his daughter to work outside of the home despite the fact that this advice goes against much of what their traditional cultural norms are. Ruma’s father is an excellent example of upending the traditional gender roles and upholding a womanist reading of “Unaccustomed Earth”

In some of Lahiri’s stories we see her placing men as the more dominant characters who place the women as objects that they look at, such as in “A Temporary Matter” with Shoba and Shukumar or with Paul and Sang in “Nobody’s Business.” However, we also see the male characters taking on female characteristics like Shukumar’s desire to remain at home and take on the household chores and Paul’s inability to be assertive and put himself in control of his relationships. Even still, Lahiri does uphold feminist ideals throughout some of her stories which complicates a critical reading of her stories. Although some scholars would like to use Lahiri’s short stories as an example of purely womanist themes, further examination reveals that the dichotomy between male and female is increasingly complicated. This is especially true in Lahiri’s text because of the complication of cultural differences and the Indian-Bengali diaspora. Her writings both contribute and contest the ideas of womanism and feminism in a way that demonstrates the difficulty of assigning one reading or the other to these short stories.

Works Cited

Asl, Moussa Pourya, Simon Peter Hull, and Nurul Farhana Low Abdullah. “Nihilation of Femininity in the Battle of Looks: A Sartrean Reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”” GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies 16.2 (2016): n. pag. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Cussen, John. “The William Morris in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Wallpaper and Other of the Writer’s Reproofs to Literary Scholarship.” Journal of Ethnic American Literature 2 (2012): 5-72. Web.

Kasun, Genna Welsh. “Womanism and the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri.” Thesis. The University of Vermont, 2009. Print. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.

Marques, Carine Pereira. “Unaccustomed Narratives: Crossing Gender Barriers in the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri.” Thesis. Universidade Federal De Minas Gerais, 2013. Print.

Ranasinha, Ruvani. “Migration, Gender and Globalization in Jhumpa Lahiri.” Contemporary Diasporic South Asian Women’s Fiction: Gender, Narration and Globalisation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 175. Print.

Food Symbolism in Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”

Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short works that explore and examine issues of identity and assimilation between Indian and American cultures. Weaved into and between each story and each struggle is the presence of traditional Indian food and the nuances of its ritualized preparation. It serves as a metaphor for several things in interaction with the coping protagonists of her stories: community, normalcy, culture, love, and so on. The meaning of food, its implications and effects, is most prevalent in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” “Mrs. Sen’s,” and “A Temporary Matter.”

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” exudes food symbolism from beginning to end, even in its title. “Coming to dine” is, in and of itself, a social event, a routinized gathering to share space and conversation over a meal. Sifting through phone books and university directories, Lilia’s parents search tirelessly for Indian surnames in an attempt to find dinner company – that is, until they find a Pakistani man named Mr. Pirzada. When he arrives at their home, he introduces a portrait of his daughters, “producing from his wallet a black-and-white picture of seven girls at a picnic… eating chicken curry off of banana leaves.” (23) Picnicking represents recreation and familial bonding, and his introduction of them through that particular snapshot of their lives frames them in a context that Lilia can relate to and empathize with. When Lilia’s father tries to explain that Mr. Pirzada “is no longer considered Indian,” Lilia finds it hard to recognize the differences between he and her parents, noting that they both “ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands… for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea” and interacted like any other Indians would. (25) Even at her young age, Lilia understands the meaning of food eaten between people of like-culture, the sense of security and the shared understanding that come with it. In several scenes, Lilia helps her mother prepare the table for dining or sets condiments and spices beside their plates, fully aware of the refined blend of tastes customary – even expected – of Indian meals. She describes her mother’s efforts in putting together a meal for her family, bringing forth a “succession of dishes” to the living room where they would sit across from the television and await news from Dacca. (30) The labor afforded by her mother is representative of Indian tradition and the women that spend hours in the kitchen concocting elaborate traditional meals for their guests on a nightly basis. By bringing the food out of the dining room and onto the couch, Lahiri signifies an informal scene; in this way, she uses food to break down the polite distance between family and invitee and creates a smaller, more special space.

In “Mrs. Sen’s,” Lahiri presents the significance of food in a much less communal setting, through the eyes of a young boy – Elliot – under the wary supervision of a lone professor’s wife. Separated by an ocean from her family, Mrs. Sen uses the ritualized practice of cutting vegetables, cooking stews, and hand-selecting fish to keep ties with her ideas of normalcy and sociality. Elliot observes that a great deal of Mrs. Sen’s day is occupied by her detailed preparation for grandiose meals she serves her husband when he returns from work. She lays out newspapers opposite the television and sits comfortably with a steel blade, peeling, slicing, and chopping an assortment of vegetables for nearly an hour every day. The procedure utilizes a cultural instrument and reflects, as Mrs. Sen explains to Elliot, a ritual of sorts in which neighborhood women celebrated an important event by “[sitting] in an enormous circle on the roof of [her] building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night.” (115) Her recollection of the practice as a social event, a scaffold for bonding between women, juxtaposes her alternate practice, performed without need for occasion and with only the television to keep her company; it only emphasizes her estrangement from family and friends, and reiterates her day-to-day alienation. The lengths to which Mrs. Sen is willing to go to secure fresh fish for her dishes, and the precise care with which she portions and fillets each one, is extremely telling of how important cooking proper meals is for traditional Indian women. She pushes herself out of her comfort zone to travel to the fish market by the beach, even going as far as getting behind the wheel without a license when Mr. Sen is unavailable (or unwilling) to drive her all the way over. Lahiri also uses Mrs. Sen to draw a distinction between a traditional Indian woman and Elliot’s American mother and how their cooking, or the degree to which they do, signifies a pronounced difference in culture. Every evening, when Elliot’s mother comes to pick him up, Mrs. Sen extends the courtesy of inviting her into the living room and serves her something to eat; she always nibbles a bit on whatever she’s given, chalks up her small appetite to a late lunch, and then orders a pizza for she and Elliot when they arrive home. Mrs. Sen’s rigor toward preparing home-cooked meals is absolutely lost on Elliot’s mother. Correspondingly, Elliot feels much more involved and important when observing the effort by Mrs. Sen to prepare and cook dinner for her husband than when his mother orders takeout and leaves him to wrap leftovers on his own. The hours spent preparing traditional meals is indicative of a sense of appreciation and compassion by Indian mothers for their children, while fast food feels more indifferent, and speaks more to the weaker affections (or lack thereof) between an American mother and her child.

Lahiri explores the ideas of love and compassion as represented by food and cooking in “A Temporary Matter” through the experiences of a disjointed married couple, Shoba and Shukmar. Following the death of their newborn son, Shukmar witnesses a profound change in his wife – her intrinsic “capacity to think ahead,” her impulse to prepare and store ready-to-serve, home-cooked food for any possible visitor or occasion, suddenly disappears. (6) He recalls her ability to “throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare… peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes” and the gratification it provided her. (7) Shukmar’s testimony of the stark contrast of his wife before and after their son’s death is representative of the heart put into Shoba’s traditional home cooking; when her grief presides her efforts, she completely stops caring to even heat up meals from her prepared stock, leaving Shukmar to heat up what was left for the two of them and noting that, “if it weren’t for him, Shoba would eat a bowl of cereal for her dinner.” (8) He can just as easily purchase ready-made, microwaveable meals for Shoba to heat up, but his concern for her wellbeing and willingness – enthusiasm, even – to pore through her cookbooks and prepare full meals for their dinner indicates that he loves her, and still cares to extend the effort. Inversely, he notes that, “for their first anniversary, Shoba had cooked a ten-course dinner just for him,” but gifted him a lone sweater-vest for their third anniversary, and presently has stopped cooking for him altogether – a sequence symbolic of their depreciating relationship. (18) In this story, Lahiri uses cooking and preparation of food as a measure of sentiment and intimacy, comparing endeavors in the kitchen to the strength of the couple’s deteriorating marriage.

It holds true within any culture that a home-cooked meal brings people together and allows bridges to be built, but Lahiri takes the meaning of food to another level. Like many other things, traditional cooking and food tips the scales in the balancing act of maintaining a sense of both cultures and ties people to their roots. Through her characters, their meals possess a special symbolism and act as a means of grappling with the conflicting ideas of culture, identity, and emotion that come with being immigrants or first-generation members of a community.

The Interpreter of Girls: How Kincaid and Lahiri Write Women

Among the many problems of society, the constrictions of gender has been perennially prevalent. From birth, people are forced to conform to certain gender roles based on their biological sex. Such constrictions are better associated with women because culture places more burden on them. For instance, female vanity is solely for the purpose to attract a man, yet is a double edged sword. A natural look is considered unattractive yet a woman who wears a lot of makeup and minimal clothing is thought to sleep around. Moreover, the majority of female expectations involve her submission to a man, in which she is obligated to love and cater to one. These requirements are the basis of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Embedded in the necessary commands is the harsh criticism of women in culture, presenting the societal image of what a female is supposed to be and represent. If the girl does not heed to this advice, she will become much like Mrs. Das, the heroine in “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri. This short story tells of the Das family on vacation in India, following a tour led by Mr. Kapasi. In disregarding “Girl”’s advice, Mrs. Das is not conscious of being a woman in Interpreter of Maladies, in which her carelessness illustrates her as promiscuous and unloving.

The introduction of “Interpreter of Maladies” immediately takes note of Mrs. Das’s “shaved, largely bare legs” (Lahiri, 335) dragging across the back of the car seat. Even though this statement is in the point of view Mr. Kapasi, it shows an immediate attraction. At the same time, her clothing captures the same interest. While “observing her,” Mr. Kapasi describes her wearing “a red and white checkered skirt that stopped above her knees, slip on shoes with a square wooden heel, and a close fitting blouse…decorated at chest level with a calico applique in the shape of a strawberry” (Lahiri, 337). Details such as the length of the skirt and fit of the blouse point to Mrs. Das’s licentiousness. Her revealing outfit directly contradicts the warning in “Girl”: “this is how to hem a dress when you can see the hem going down and so to prevent yourself from looking like a slut I know you are so bent on becoming” (Kincaid, 120). This translates to the idea of clothing, or lack thereof, as being sexualized. The less clothes a woman wears, the more promiscuous she is perceived to be.

Repeated several times in “Girl”, the threat of being called a slut is often used as the consequence of being ignorant towards womanly duties. For example, the speaker chides her to “walk like a lady” on Sundays and not like the “slut you are so bent on becoming” (Kincaid, 120). The next repeated element, “bent on becoming,” makes the speaker, and therefore the reader, believes the girl wants to be perceived sexually by men. This correlates with Mrs. Das’s affair with her husband’s friend, resulting in Bobby’s birth, for “she made no protest when the friend touched the small of her back, the pulled her against his crisp navy suit” (Lahiri, 350). The consent shows that Mrs. Das reciprocated the same sexual desire, thus wanting the other man to be sexually attracted to her. When Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi of this affair, her main intention is to gain his sympathy, but perhaps she also wants Mr. Kapasi to see her as a woman not bound by marriage.

Despite his job as an interpreter of maladies, Mr. Kapasi does not understand the purpose of the confession; in fact he finds it “depressing, all the more when he thought of Mr. Das at the top of the path” (Lahiri, 351). Revealing the truth about Bobby evokes repulsion in Mr. Kapasi, fittingly the one that the speaker in “Girl” predicts. Again cautioning against the pitfalls of promiscuity, the speaker instructs, “this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t immediately recognize the slut I have warned you against becoming” (Kincaid, 120). This piece of advice applies to “Interpreter of Maladies” in regards to the Mr. Kapasi’s reaction after her confession of adultery. He is illustrated as the “man who doesn’t know you very well,” and her “behavior in the presence of him” disobeys what the speaker instructed. As a result, Mr. Kapasi discerns Mrs. Das differently for the worse. His realization of her as a “woman not yet thirty, who loved neither her husband nor her children, who had already fallen out of love with life” (Lahiri, 351), further discerns Mrs. Das as someone who is careless in both sex and love. Her carelessness about these two subjects extends to a carelessness of how men morally perceive her. In relation to “Girl,” Mrs. Das is therefore is careless of her duties as a woman.

Although sex plays a role in the downfalls of women, love is an inevitable component that can redeem its seemingly immoral quality. The speaker in “Girl” teaches the girl “how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways” (Kincaid, 120). The absence of love in the Das family provides a reason for the wife’s wantonness as another “way” to express a feeling similar to it. However, committing adultery does the opposite, for it exhibits that Mrs. Das has no love for her husband or children. Along with Mr. Das, her interactions as a spouse and parent show a disconnect between the Das family. They “bicker” over who should tend to their child, and ends up with Mrs. Das “relenting” because Mr. Das took responsibility the day before, as well as the lack air conditioning in the car (Lahiri, 335, 339). When they do not argue, they ignore each other, especially Mr. Das, who is too focused on photography to pay his wife or children any mind. Instead, Mrs. Das converses with Mr. Kapasi, emphasizing her lack of feeling for him, as well as her flirtatiousness with other men. Combined with their bickering, their alienation of each other could be considered bullying, which “Girl” addresses: “this is how to bully a man, this is how a man bullies you” (Kincaid, 120). The speaker wants the girl to be aware of bullying so she will be able to love, but Mrs. Das is incapable of loving her husband, and can only communicate with him through conflict.

In their focus elsewhere, Mr. Kapasi and the reader sees the couple as parents who neglect their children. Mr. Das continuously asks his children where the others are, and Mrs. Das chides her daughter for wanting to interact with her. When Bobby is being beaten by the monkeys, neither of them step in to rescue their son. Their inability to care for their children is a product of their lost love, so they cannot project it onto them. Although the advice of “Girl” is told through a conversation, the speaker can be perceived as an older, wiser, woman such as a mother or grandmother. Despite their harsh tone, the speaker is probably informing her of this brutal reality of women out of love. They want the girl to seriously consider the instructions because if she does not, society will view her as dishonorable and unconventional. In this way, this female authority figure cares about the girl, as she only wants the best for her, which will be accomplished by conforming to society’s expectations for women. In contrast, the lack of connection between Mrs. Das and her daughter expands on her carelessness. Juxtaposed with the parental figure in “Girl,” Mrs. Das uses similar abrasiveness towards the children, but there is no evidence of her love for them. Both of these portraits of parenthood are unconventional, yet it is clear that one implicitly is out of love, and the other is completely devoid of it.

Kincaid and Lahiri utilize the female in their short stories as a mechanism of the point of view. The rules and regulations are clear in “Girl,” so the reader can easily understand what society expects of a girl and its cruel reality. Despite a different setting, the commentary applies to “Interpreter of Maladies” because Mrs. Das is the product of failure to comply to it. She does not embrace the commands of modesty and love, and in choosing to ignore it, she is deemed a slut who is inept of endearment towards her family. By rebelling against the speaker in “Girl,” it is evident that Mrs. Das is not conscious about being a proper woman. In its ending, the young girl also rebels, asking if the baker will let her feel the bread, and the speaker is stunned: “You mean after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” (Kincaid, 121). A prime example of this kind of woman is Mrs. Das, who has relinquished her values and responsibilities of being a woman in society, resulting in a negative reflection of her character.

Works Cited

Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, pgs. 119-121. Spencer Richard Jones London. W.W. Norton Company and Inc. 2014, 2011, 2006. Print.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Interpreter of Maladies.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, pgs. 335-353. Spencer Richard Jones London. W.W. Norton Company and Inc. 2014, 2011, 2006. Print.