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Interpreter of Maladies Paperback – June 1, 1999
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Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri's title story, would certainly have his work cut out for him if he were forced to interpret the maladies of all the characters in this eloquent debut collection. Take, for example, Shoba and Shukumar, the young couple in "A Temporary Matter" whose marriage is crumbling in the wake of a stillborn child. Or Miranda in "Sexy," who is involved in a hopeless affair with a married man. But Mr. Kapasi has problems enough of his own; in addition to his regular job working as an interpreter for a doctor who does not speak his patients' language, he also drives tourists to local sites of interest. His fare on this particular day is Mr. and Mrs. Das--first-generation Americans of Indian descent--and their children. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of Mrs. Das and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. "I told you because of your talents," she informs him after divulging a startling secret.
I'm tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I've been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better; say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.Of course, Mr. Kapasi has no cure for what ails Mrs. Das--or himself. Lahiri's subtle, bittersweet ending is characteristic of the collection as a whole. Some of these nine tales are set in India, others in the United States, and most concern characters of Indian heritage. Yet the situations Lahiri's people face, from unhappy marriages to civil war, transcend ethnicity. As the narrator of the last story, "The Third and Final Continent," comments: "There are times 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." In that single line Jhumpa Lahiri sums up a universal experience, one that applies to all who have grown up, left home, fallen in or out of love, and, above all, experienced what it means to be a foreigner, even within one's own family. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
The rituals of traditional Indian domesticityAcurry-making, hair-vermilioningAboth buttress the characters of Lahiri's elegant first collection and mark the measure of these fragile people's dissolution. Frequently finding themselves in Cambridge, Mass., or similar but unnamed Eastern seaboard university towns, Lahiri's characters suffer on an intimate level the dislocation and disruption brought on by India's tumultuous political history. Displaced to the States by her husband's appointment as a professor of mathematics, Mrs. Sen (in the same-named story) leaves her expensive and extensive collection of saris folded neatly in the drawer. The two things that sustain her, as the little boy she looks after every afternoon notices, are aerograms from homeAwritten by family members who so deeply misunderstand the nature of her life that they envy herAand the fresh fish she buys to remind her of Calcutta. The arranged marriage of "This Blessed House" mismatches the conservative, self-conscious Sanjeev with ebullient, dramatic TwinkleAa smoker and drinker who wears leopard-print high heels and takes joy in the plastic Christian paraphernalia she discovers in their new house. In "A Real Durwan," the middle-class occupants of a tenement in post-partition Calcutta tolerate the rantings of the stair-sweeper Boori Ma. Delusions of grandeur and lament for what she's lostA"such comforts you cannot even dream them"Agive her an odd, Chekhovian charm but ultimately do not convince her bourgeois audience that she is a desirable fixture in their up-and-coming property. Lahiri's touch in these nine tales is delicate, but her observations remain damningly accurate, and her bittersweet stories are unhampered by nostalgia. Foreign rights sold in England, France and Germany; author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies," a collection of nine stories, marked the debut of a remarkable Indian-American writer. A grand debut it was! Her title story was selected for both the O'Henry award and the annual Best American Short Stories. Topping this, the book won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Born in London of Indian parents and raised in Rhode Island, Jhumpa Lahiri studied at Boston University, receiving an MFA in creative writing. The stories in her first book focus on the intercultural miscommunications and conflicts all too often experienced by Indian immigrants and second generation Indian-Americans.
"Interpreter of Maladies," at 27 pages the longest in the collection, is a multi-layered story about a second-generation Indian-American couple, who along with their three children are visiting India and hire a tour-guide to see the famous Sun Temple at Konarak. Their guide, Mr. Kapasi (we never learn his first name), becomes curious about the couple who look Indian, yet dress like American tourists and speak with an American accent he had heard many times on American TV shows.
The opening sentences expose the bickering that symptomizes the couple's failing marriage. Mr. Kapasi works as a tour guide only on weekends, and has another job during the weekdays as an interpreter in a doctor's office -- translating the Gujarati spoken by some of his patients. Mina Das, the wife tells him that his job as an interpreter of maladies must be "romantic."
Perked up, Mr. Kapasi, from whose point of view the whole story is told and whose own marriage is faltering, looks at her closely: "Her sudden interest in him, an interest she did not express in either her husband or her children, was mildly intoxicating. When Mr. Kapasi thought once again about how she had said 'romantic,' the feeling of intoxication grew." He begins to fantasize a romantic relationship with her.
The couple invite him to be included in the photographs they take; Mina asks him for his address so they can send him copies from America. This feeds his fantasy.
At the crisis point of the story, when the two of them are in the car, Mina discloses (the author uses the word "confesses") to Mr. Kapasi that one of the couple's two boys was clandestinely fathered by her husband's Punjabi-Indian friend during a brief visit. This is the malady which she hopes Mr. Kapasi will provide a remedy for. However, all the interpreter of maladies can come up with is: "Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?" After all, he is only a translator of native languages.
In the closing paragraph, Mr. Kapasi observes the little paper on which he had so carefully written his address slip out of Mina's handbag. "No one but Mr. Kapasi noticed. He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below. Mr. Kapasi observed it too, knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve forever in his mind."
"The Third and Final Continent" is a first-person story of an Indian immigrant who looks back at his first few weeks in America, thirty years ago. In the late 1960s, at age thirty-six, he arrives to work as a librarian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after having studied for four years in London (his second continent). Just before coming to America, he takes a trip to Calcutta to "attend" his arranged marriage, staying there only a week, barely getting acquainted with his bride. She has to await her visa for six weeks before she can join him in America.
On arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the narrator checks into the local YMCA and later rents a room in the home of a 103-year-old widow, Mrs. Croft, who lives by herself. She is a stay-at-home eccentric mother of a 68-year-old daughter, who thinks it improper that her visiting daughter wears a dress high above her ankle. "For your information, Mother, it's 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?" Mrs. Croft sniffs: "I'd have her arrested."
When the narrator's wife, Mala, arrives from Calcutta, Mrs. Croft scrutinizes her ". . . from top to toe with what seemed to be placid disdain. I wondered if Mrs. Croft had ever seen a woman in a sari, with a dot painted on her forehead and bracelets stacked on her wrists. 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, with equal measure of disbelief and delight I know well: 'She is a perfect lady!' "
It is this scrutiny that first evokes the narrator's empathy with his bride for it reminds him of his own experiences as a bewildered stranger in London. Looking back, "I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft's parlor as the moment when the distance between Mala and me began to lessen."
All nine of the stories are a showcase of elegant craft.
In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” for example, Lahiri marks the distinctly young narrator, Lilia, by her intuition and empathy rather than her Indian-American background. As her parents welcome a local Muslim professor to their home, Lilia is challenged to define her Indian culture, but mistakenly does so using certain surface-level qualities: “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” (Lahiri, 25). Lahiri uses the lens of a child to show the instinctual nature of grouping people by their appearances. Lilia is defined by this cultural naiveté, as well as a feeling of powerlessness in worldly issues. She dwells on how she can do little for Mr. Pirzada’s family in war-struck Dacca: “I wanted to join them, wanted, above all, to console Mr. Pirzada somehow. But apart from eating a piece of candy for the sake of his family and praying for their safety, there was nothing I could do” (Lahiri, 34). This quote shows the depth of Lilia’s character as she yearns to help a people she knows little about. Her upbringing as an Indian-American has no influence on her desire to help a struggling people, nor does it stop her from instinctively aligning herself with Mr. Pirzada based on their outward appearances.
Basic human emotions dominate each of Lahiri’s characters, including the main character in the short story that shares the collection’s title, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Though the protagonist Mr. Kapasi is a native of India, Lahiri defines him more by his desire to escape the banality of life than by his Indian homeland. She includes a significant amount of information on Mr. Kapasi’s strained marriage and how he views his medical interpreting job as “a sign of his failings” (Lahiri, 52). Overshadowing Mr. Kapasi’s Indian background are these basic human emotions of disappointment and desperation. Perhaps most central to Mr. Kapasi’s character is how he desperately clings to the small doses of intimacy offered by Mrs. Das, an Indian-American woman on his tour who depicts his job as some heroic deed. “Her sudden interest in him,” Mr. Kapasi found “was mildly intoxicating.” (pg. 51) As Mrs. Das inquires about his job, Mr. Kapasi blows every hint of interest out of proportion – imagining a day where he will exchange intimate letters with this woman he hardly knows. As Mr. Kapasi becomes more infatuated with Mrs. Das, his Indian background takes a backseat to his resolution of using love as an escape.
In defining Lilia by her intuition and empathy and Mr. Kapasi by his belief in love, Lahiri gracefully demonstrates how human emotions supersede cultural barriers. We do not see Mr. Kapasi merely as an Indian tour guide or Lilia as another Indian-American child. Lahiri brings to light the individuality of each character, showing how culture is an important, but not defining feature of any one person. She purposefully weaves culture into small details of the story, such as the food Lilia’s mother prepares and the marriage customs forced on Mr. Kapasi, but she leaves the core of her characterization to explore basic human sentiments.