Ordinary Things with Deep Symbolism: Food and Clothes’ Discourse 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.
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