Interpreter of Maladies Paperback – June 1, 1999
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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
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
- Publisher : Mariner Books; First Edition Thus (June 1, 1999)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 198 pages
- ISBN-10 : 039592720X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0395927205
- Reading age : 14 years and up
- Lexile measure : 1050L
- Item Weight : 8.1 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.31 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #21,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The meaning of marriage is returned to over and over. The matter of love, the dislocation of the immigrant experience, the role of longing in life are all explored. The cruelty towards the dispossessed in India is addressed. The therapeutic nature of being able to love and care for someone is understood. The silliness of collecting religious artifacts without also understanding and accepting their spiritual foundation is exposed.
I do quarrel with one premise present in the story, "When Mr. Prizada came to dinner". The author appears to believe that learning about the American Revoluion in elementary school should give place to current event war. In her case, the 1971 Packistan civil war. This thinking, all too common among those who attended schools after mandatory courses in Civics were abolished, reveals a basic misunderstanding of the cause of the War of 1776. The American War was not based on religious animosity or ancient tribal hatreds, but on intellectual beliefs in the nature of and rights under British law. It is the only war, I know of where the men who began it pledged, "their lives, their property and their sacred honor" and where so many impoverished themselves in its pursuit. Ms. Lahiri's excellent education missed American history ( prior to its present "woe is me" incarnation).
With this objection aside, this is a surprisingly mature book and so beautifully written.
Most of the stories here are very well done. “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, the title story “Interpreter of Maladies”, “Sexy”, “Mrs. Sen’s”, “This Blessed House” and “The Third and Final Continent” are all top-notch tales. They all invoke the flavor of India. Some are set in India, some are set in America among Indian-Americans or recent immigrants from India. Ms. Lahiri has a deft touch when showing us the different points of view that culture can cause.
In the title story, for example, a young American couple of Indian heritage is visiting India with their children. They are being shown around by an older guide called Mr. Kapasi. Over the course of their day together, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of the young wife when she glorifies his day job as a translator for doctors, an interpreter of maladies. He fantasizes a growing friendship between them only to realize that they see things very differently. They will not be able to bridge the distance. It is a wonderful examination of people.
Of course, the Indian themes are so pervasive that it can be overwhelming for someone with little knowledge of the culture or someone who has little interest in the culture. It can be helpful to space the reading of the stories out a bit to let each unique experience soak in before moving on to the next. But these are stories definitely worth the time.
The nine stories in the book are:
1. A Temporary Matter : A happy couple, Shukumar and Shoba who are hard-working Indian-Americans, lose their baby, and through their grief, they are alienated from each other. Environment in the background, such as the electrical power, the candles, and Indian food, provides the mood of this story.
2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine: This story reflects the feelings of innocent people from a personal level on both sides of a complicated political struggle. Told from the ten-year old Lilia’s point of view, this story tells of the concerns of immigrants for their old countries. Mr. Pirzada, from Pakistan, is friends with Lilia’s parents and visits them often, bringing sweets to the girl. He is concerned of the safety of his daughters back home, as things can go awry during a war. Since Lilia is a second-generation American, she views all this with deep emotion, yet childish understanding, and she misses Mr. Pirzada when he leaves for Pakistan.
3. Interpreter of Maladies: An Indian-American couple visit their old country and hire a tour-guide as their driver. The driver talks about his other job as an interpreter in a doctor’s office. Something resembling a romance starts to develop between the wife and the driver. In the story each character is flawed in some way and sees the others from a mistaken angle, and each character ends up feeling disappointed.
4. A Real Durwan: The Durwan, a stair-sweeper of an old apartment building who is an old woman, attracts the pity and the kindness of the residents, since she does this work without expecting anything. The old woman feels just as strongly about the residents and the building, as well. When a sink in the stairway is stolen, however, the residents turn their backs on the old woman, kick her out of the building and start looking for a “real Durwan.”
5. Sexy: Miranda and Laxmi work for a public radio station in Boston. Miranda is having an affair with Dev, an older, married Indian man. At work she hears Lami’s phone calls through her cubicles. Laxmi’s cousin’s husband is having an affair, and the grief of it has made the cousin unable to care for her son. When The cousin comes to visit Laxmi, Miranda babysits for her son, Rohin. Laxmi’s cousin is the victim of infidelity. It is through her stories that Miranda starts to feel and then face her own guilt and aimlessness.
6. Mrs. Sen's: An eleven year-old boy is babysat by Mrs. Sen in her own home. Mrs. Sen is a university professor’s wife who is homesick for her native land and is obsessed with objects like her special vegetable cutting blade and fish from the market. She also resists to attempt to the new country and learning to drive. One day, on a whim, she drives to the market on her own and has an accident with the boy in the car. Afterwards, the boy stops staying with her.
7. This Blessed House: An Indian-American couple, newly married, try to adjust to each other and their new house, which was owned by a fanatically religious Christian people who left artifacts hidden inside the house. The clash of cultures and the young couple’s ineptitude to accept each other’s different qualities are highlighted in this story.
8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar: Bibi Haldar is a twenty-nine year-old spinster who has a strange ailment. From the descriptions of her symptoms in the story, she suffers from seizures. The cure is marriage, the doctors have said, and that’s what Bibi Haldar wants, but despite all the efforts, she lacks the qualities of being marriage-able. Bibi keeps the inventory of her brother's cosmetics stall, but when the brother’s wife becomes pregnant, she is afraid Bibi will infect her unborn child. When a daughter is born to her and the child becomes ill, a seriously prejudiced treatment of Bibi begins. Women of the community sympathizing with Bibi stop their purchases from the brother, causing the brother to go bankrupt, leave his store, and move out. Bibi is left to live in the storage room, which she fixes to make it livable. Then it is discovered that Bibi is pregnant, but the father of the baby is a mystery for she might have been attacked during a seizure. The women help her with the care of her son and Bibi starts her own business with the old wares of his brother’s store and manages to raise her son on her own, with her ailment now cured.
9. The Third and Final Continent: An Indian-descent young man, a newcomer to the United States from London, rents a room from a quirky old woman in Cambridge, Mass. After living with her for six weeks, he feels attached to her. When the young man’s new wife arrives from India, he moves out to an apartment in the campus of MIT. As he is trying to adjust to his wife, whom he doesn’t know well, the old woman dies. After a while, the young man starts feeling love for his wife, but he also remembers the old woman, as she was the first person he liked in the new country, which started his adaptation process to USA.
This book not only it gives a glimpse into another culture, but also, it is a learning experience if the reader can analyze and interpret it with a discerning eye.
Top reviews from other countries
I like her lack of sentimentality - she neither judges nor makes excuses for her characters. She takes us on a journey from the self inflicted misery of her characters to later stories where her characters get it together.
Her writing is fluid like an essay but without the cold smart ass intellectuality that haunts many “literary” novels.
She has a gift to make the ordinary extraordinary.
Now for a few splashes of vinegar. The opening stories are far too long and my attention wandered. Maybe her editor asked her to pad it out.
Some of her description of clothes were too detailed and bordered on the tedious. Clothes descriptions should be enough to fit the character.
I like the descriptions of food - they added to the ambience and were appropriate.
Finally her use of rhetoric is very effective and writers should learn those valuable tools.
So an excellent read and a masterclass in how to craft a short story.
The ruthlessly economical language, overall, does risk creating the impression of cold detachment. Jhumpa Lahiri lists the great Alice Munro among her literary heroes and the influence is easy to detect. I for one happen to love Munro therefore liked Lahiri very much indeed.
And it's true, the book has the faults all short stories collections usually suffer from: read in isolation, each story is interesting, even startling. Each story is also masterfully complete and left me satisfied with the amount of detail about each character, and with the ending. But as a whole book, the stories become repetitive. I quickly found the characters to resemble each other throughout, and that I had read the same story too many times, in this book and elsewhere. The affair between a young woman and an older, married man has been done to death, surely, and so has the young or not so young couple falling out of love. Furthermore, here, unfortunately, the unrelenting stylistic simplicity (the very thing which, for me, defines great writing) ends up feeling a little like dullness, and the author's elegant objectivity could push the reader into feeling disengaged and therefore uninterested.
'Interpreter of Maladies' certainly cannot be described as unputdownable; in fact, it is best to put the book down after one, maximum two stories, and come back to it much later. That being said, there are a few stories to which I shall return with delight, for sure.
Her style is subtle and spare but lyrical and unique. A wonderful find and glad I read it