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Interpreter of Maladies Hardcover – May 22, 2000
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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 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Written with such pristine clarity, each story is quite capable of sweeping the reader away into the human experience of what it feels like to be an outsider trying to fit in. In other cases, there are stories detailing the lives of first generation Indian-Americans who want to keep their footing in their cultural roots. Yet, the navigation between the two landscapes often causes stressful situations, for what might be common in one country-particularly India-would not be typical in the other, notably the United States. It is a walk on a tight-wire between two different worlds. And that walk on the razor's edge between the inherited primitive and modernized new world is not always easily maintained, despite the best of efforts, for the protagonists always seem to be on the cusp of losing either one or the other. It is indeed a terrible Catch-22 predicament to find one's self in.
While all the stories in Interpreter of Maladies are of a high literary caliber, laced with a nuanced sensibility and a human touch for feeling, it's very difficult to just pick out one story and say that one or this one is the best of the rest, for each one has its own special offering, its own profound insight. While the majority of the characters are urban professionals and or academics or just family folks, single and otherwise, their situations have a common thread: the American dream and or the failure of it. But there is a culture clash at its root.
Of all the stories, a couple of my favorites were: This Blessed House, A Temporary Matter and A Real Durwan. The first tale is about a young couple named Sanjeev and Twinkle. In their new house, they are finding Christian parapfipnella left behind from an overzealous Christian couple. Twinkle wants to display the gaudy stuff while Sanjeev, who constantly reminds her that they are not Christian, gradually gets irked by her. You can't really tell if the relationship is gradually going into tatters due to Twinkle's spontaneity or a cultural rift that can't be mended. There is an ambiguity that leaves a reader guessing.
The second tale, A temporary Matter, details a marriage falling apart, the primary catalyst being the death of the couple's baby. Shoba was at one point a very loving and attentive wife. But when she had a stillborn child, she became increasingly hardened and aloof. Shukumar tries to recapture the sparks that initially brought them together, but it really is to no avail, for it is really his indifference to her grief that is pushing her away, not so much the loss of the baby. When they get a notice that their electricity will be shut off, they live for a while in darkness and reveal secrets to each other. However those secrets get larger and larger, and the rift between the two becomes increasingly apparent. While I thought this was one of the sadder stories in the collection, I thought it was impeccably well written and addressed with humane maturity.
Lastly, there is A Real Durwan, a tale about an elderly woman named Boori Ma who acts as a caretaker of the building in which she is allowed to live. She is shunned after a criminal happening in her building and is later cast out onto the Calcutta streets by the other tenants. She is always on the threshold of poverty and is discriminated against due to her storytelling prowess and limitedness or I should say, lifestyle primitiveness. I think this story best illustrates the crux of what Jhumpa Lahiri is trying to convey in Interpreter of Maladies, the humanness of all people from all ethnicities and from all backgrounds, poor, rich, all of it.
This was an amazing collection of simple short stories, beautifully written without being preachy or over-the-top. It was subtle yet not-too-subtle. And it was elegant without being flowery. It was just a pitch-perfect collection of stories that had depth and dissected a slice of American life that is not always looked at. Highly recommended!
The short stories collected in this Pulitzer Prize-winning volume focus on different aspects of the modern Indian experience. Stories like "Sexy" and "This Blessed House" deal with Filofax-toting, young Indian professionals, apparently successful in the academic or computer fields in the USA, but nevertheless unsure of themselves and spiritually cast adrift in their adopted country. Often a contrast is made between traditional lifestyles, which, although far from perfect, seem somehow more real than modern ones. This echoes the way Chekhov used to juxtapose the hollow, glittery lives of the Russian bourgeoisie with the earthy lives of the peasants.
In "Mrs Sen's" the painstaking method of preparing proper Indian meals, involving a litany of vegetables, is seen through the eyes of a young white boy whose single mother is too busy to look after him. But Lahiri is a good enough writer not to commit herself to narrow cliches about a 'spiritually vacuous West' or a 'soulful India.' Her stories set in the Subcontinent, like "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," show how superstitious and narrow-minded such societies can be regarding illness and the need for marriage. The women in "This Blessed House" and "A Temporary Affair," by contrast, seem liberated by their lives in America.
These stories explore the psychological and spiritual fissures opened up by the cultural dissonance of our modern age, and, as such, should strike a chord with anyone dissatisfied with the complexity and shallowness of out modern lives. The ultimate value of these stories is that they offer a subtle critique of globalization.