Masking Reality with Illusion: Unhappy Relationships in Lahiri’s Short Stories
Appearances and Unhappy Couples In Jhumba Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, there is a common theme of glossing over the truth. Many characters preoccupy themselves with appearances in hopes of escaping the reality of their unhappy relationships. In the short stories “This Blessed House,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” and “A Temporary Matter,” symbols are used to demonstrate the need to put on a façade not only for others around them, but more importantly for the characters themselves. Ultimately, this inability to accept the truth is what causes each character’s perpetual unhappiness.
In “This Blessed House,” the character Twinkle is the total package—beautiful, funny, intelligent, and good-humored. Yet all her husband sees is a childish woman with a short attention span. Unlike most people seeking a relationship, Sanjeev does not want a partner who loves him or who brings meaning to his life. Rather, he wants someone who is just like him—sensible, organized, mature. He wants someone who will give him the appropriate life for a man of his age—a life that all of his friends have. This mistake costs him happiness as he marries simply to fulfill a step in his life plan rather than for love. His obsession with appearances can be seen in the way he gets angry at Twinkle for wearing heels because they make her taller than him. Sanjeev cannot stand the height difference because it deviates from his traditional image of a couple in which the man is taller than the woman. Similarly, his focus on appearances is seen through the symbol of the Christian paraphernalia. To Twinkle, it is simply a game—an unsolved mystery and an exciting treasure hunt. Yet to Sanjeev, it is inappropriate, strange, almost blasphemous. He is worried that others will see the paraphernalia and judge them. When Twinkle wants to put a statue of Virgin Mary on the front lawn, he adamantly objects and says: “All the neighbors will see. They’ll think we’re insane…We’re not Christian” (Lahiri “Blessed” 146). The Christian paraphernalia therefore becomes a symbol of the difference between Sanjeev and Twinkle. Ironically, Twinkle—a woman who could care less what anyone thinks of her—ends up being the most beautiful and likeable character. Because of Sanjeev’s need to appear a certain way, he fails to appreciate the eccentric and untraditional nature of Twinkle. Only at the end when he discards his preconceptions of what a couple should look like does he reveal any hope for the couple’s future.
Similarly, in “Interpreter of Maladies” both Mr. and Mrs. Das are too preoccupied with looking like a perfect family to realize how dysfunctional their family truly is. For Mr. Das, he cares so much about capturing idealized moments on his camera that he fails to notice that nothing about his family is ideal. In this way, the camera becomes a symbol of his desire to avoid the truth and to instead surround himself with pictures depicting a happy family—one that in reality is the farthest thing from his own. And just like Mr. Das, Mrs. Das cares more about the appearances of herself and those of her family than their actual happiness. She dreads having to take her daughter to the bathroom and remains completely inattentive to any of her children’s wishes like when Tina asks to have her nails painted. Yet, her fixation with appearances is clearly demonstrated when Bobby is attacked by the monkeys—something that never would have happened if she had not been so careless with her food. After the incident, she brushes it off as if Bobby’s being attacked by a swarm of monkeys is no big deal and says, “He’s fine. Just a little scared, right, Bobby?” (“Interpreter” 68). Instead of checking to see if he is alright, she is quick to tape over the cut on his knee and fix his hair—caring more about how he looks than how he is doing after such a traumatic event. Because of both Mr. and Mrs. Das’s need to appear perfect, they become oblivious to each other and their wishes—so much so that Mr. Kopasi thinks they look more like siblings than husband and wife.
The desire to cover up the truth is also present in “A Temporary Matter.” Both Shoba and Shukumar have let themselves go, seen in the way that Shoba is “looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble” (“Temporary” 1). They care nothing about how they look and Shukumar does not even bother to brush his teeth. So when the power goes out and darkness surrounds them, the couple is able to escape reality at least for a little while. The light, therefore, becomes a symbol of the harsh truth and the darkness represents their desire to avoid that truth. Though they are not preoccupied with keeping up appearances the way the other two couples are, they are still keenly aware of those appearances. By not being able to clearly see each other when the power goes out, Shoba and Shukumar can hide from the unpleasantness of what they see when the lights are on. Yet for this couple, it is not a concentration on appearances, but a lack thereof that defines their relationship. Ultimately, however, both lead to the same end result—an unhappy partnership.
Perhaps the malady is not that the characters are incapable of love or of sustaining their relationships, but rather that their desire to escape reality is what is ultimately holding them back. In showing the two extremes of the spectrum—couples that care only about appearances and couples that don’t care at all—Lahiri demonstrates that a healthy relationship must be composed of both. That is why the story “This Blessed House,” in which Sanjeev faces the truth, is the most hopeful of the three. Through Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri demonstrates that ultimately, it is a balance of caring enough to keep up appearances and being honest enough to see things for what they really are that leads to a successful relationship.
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