Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of short stories about the intermingling of two very different cultures, and the challenges faced, issues of identity, religion and love. The certain exotic charm of this book was not lost on me. That being said, not all stories left an impression on me, and only a couple deeply affected me in this Pulitzer Prize winning collection of nine. While I didn’t love every story, they had their moments. Even The Blessed House, my least favourite, for instance, starred the most delightfully annoying characters. But here are the details and themes that really stood out;
In the story When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine, a little Indian girl living in America follows the news of India and Pakistan coming closer to war, a war which for her is a mystery; something entirely irrelevant and impersonal. That is, until, she notices the effect it has on their family friend, whose family resides still in Dacca. The story strongly portrays the identity crises faced by the immigrant parents and their Muslim friend; and the innocent obliviousness to it of the little American girl.
The story A Real Durwan, though not dealing with Lahiri’s apparently quintessential theme of immigrants, does capture a key aspect of the Indian society perfectly; one, it should be noted, that is often covered up. In this collection, there is a story called Mrs. Sen’s, about 11-year-old Eliot, who spends his days at his Indian sitter’s house. At one point, referring to the cultural adjustments she has had to do, Mrs. Sen asks Eliot if the neighbours would answer if she screamed out loud right then. Eliot replies that they might, but they’d probably only do so to tell her to stop! Many stories of immigrants adjusting to the life in America (even apart from this collection) talk of the crowds in India, the feeling of belonging and the love-thy-neighbour attitude followed oh-so-sincerely, of people getting together every evening and coolly hooliganing around in the streets. A Real Durwan, in an amazing contrast, brings out the loneliness of the people in India, those who live as outsiders among their own people, with whom they share language and religion. It is the story of Boori Ma, who sleeps in the stairwell of a small housing society, telling anyone who cares to listen the story of her tragic deportation to Calcutta after Partition.
I have little to say about the title story, Interpreter of Maladies, except perhaps that I adored its premise (the power of interpretation.) The idea of building the story around a tourist guide for an American-Indian family, whose day job is as a language interpreter at the local doctor’s is ingenious, but not its execution. It wasn’t long before the story became a bit too contrived for my taste.

Sexy was your typical story about a love affair. But it had that nicely delicate moment towards the end; with the little boy, whose father left his mother for a woman he met on a plane defining the word ‘sexy’ as loving someone you didn’t know.

This is not a book to rush through. I enjoyed reading it over a number of days, letting each story sink in. I would recommend reading the stories in the intended order. While the book starts on a disappointingly pessimistic note, the ending is essentially a positive, romantic one. The final story titled The Third and Final Continent neatly wraps up the collection.

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