Stories about Indians in India and America. The story, A Temporary Matter, is on mixed marriage, Mrs. Sen's is on the adaptation of an immigrant to the U.S., and in the title story an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors.
As with any collection, a few stories stood out:
+ A Temporary Matter – A couple mourns the loss of a stillborn baby, and begins sharing secrets with one another during a power outage. Their grief, and the void between them, is palpable.
+ Sexy – Miranda, an American woman, has an affair with a married Indian man. At the same time, her office mate consoles her cousin in India, whose husband has left her for a young English woman. Miranda meets the cousin on a visit to the US and, while babysitting her son, has a revelation about her own romantic relationship.
+ Mrs. Sen’s – An Indian woman has recently arrived in the US, and provides after-school care for a boy while her husband teaches at a local university. She is isolated and lonely, is afraid to drive a car, and longs for friends and comforts of home.
+ The Third and Final Continent – A young man, educated in London, comes to the US to work at a university. He is recently married, and waiting for his wife’s immigration papers to be processed so she can join him. For six weeks he rents a room from Mrs. Croft, a 103-year-old woman whose daughter visits once a week to deliver food. He contemplates the woman’s infirmity and isolation, as well as his own emotional uncertainty about life as a married man.
After each of these stories, I had to set this book aside and allow the feelings to wash over and through me. Despite this, it was difficult to put down and even more difficult to let go of when finished. A wonderful book, and very deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.
After the re-read, I still think that Lahiri is a master of short stories. Each detail is well chosen. Each phrase is thick with meaning. Consider these two short sentences about a couple whose relationship is struggling: "He refilled the wine in her glass. She thanked him." There is a lot of meaning in the terseness of that second sentence. Or this sentence, about a young man who is entering an arranged marriage: "I flew first to Calcutta, to attend my wedding, and a week later I flew to Boston, to begin my new job." The word "attend" makes the man seem like a guest at his wedding. The fact that the wedding doesn't even get its own sentence is significant too. These are the rewards that you get from a close reading of Lahiri's stories.
Another thing that is noteworthy about Lahiri's stories is that she doesn't shy away from big themes - creating a life in a foreign country, falling in love, becoming strangers, searching for companionship and support. There are themes woven in and out of these stories, and I think that the title of the collection is a clue to one of them. There is a story in the collection that is titled "Interpreter of Maladies" as well. In that story, Mr. Kapasi works as a tour guide on the weekends, but during the week, he is an interpreter for a doctor. He literally is an interpreter of maladies. But I think that we could also see Lahiri as an interpreter of maladies, making sense of losing a child, observing a war, having an affair, and being shut out by others. Each story encapsulates the maladies of everyday life.
However, I'm not sure that this book will end up on my desert island list or my all-time favorites list when all is said and done, and this may be because Lahiri is too good at what she does. She lays human nature bare, and it isn't always pretty. She doesn't have much sympathy for her characters, and as a result, some of them weren't very likeable. She is an interpreter of maladies, and while I appreciate her ability to play that role, I felt sad for many of the characters. This is the kind of book that I appreciate greatly, but that was sometimes difficult to read. I think this may be why I like Lahiri's short stories better than her novels. I was ready to leave the desperation of these characters behind after 25 pages. But that's also why Lahiri is one of my favorite authors. Anyway who can have that impact with a few well-chosen words deserves respect.
Read for book club (2015).
This collection of short stories won the Pullitzer Prize. Lahiri is a great observer of life. While writing with a distinct cultural view, she explores universal themes of grief and connectedness.
By Jhumpa Lahiri
The Interpreter of Maladies is not only a collection of nine short stories, but I think, a name well suited to the author, Jhumpa Lahiri. Her writing is direct and easy, yet expertly and artistically controlled. She gives you just enough detail in the right places so that her subtle hints help bridge the landscape of her characters and their stories. Yes, her stories entail the immigrant experience, but they also tell a universal story; the story of ordinary living that compels you to appreciate and consider the implications they have.
There is the story of the couple who has grown apart only to reveal the vulnerable parts of themselves to each other in the dark.
There is the story of the bond between a father figure and a girl only to be separated by borders and the reunion of the man with his missing wife and seven children.
There is the story of desire for an American tourist only to discover she is compelled to confess her own indiscretion to her tour guide.
There is the stigma and scapegoat of a street woman for the woes of an old apartment building.
There is the love and tolerance of an American mistress toward her Bengali lover only to understand the inevitability of the relationship’s failure.
There is the bond and love between an Indian babysitter and a neglected American boy.
And the culmination of a secretly unhappy marriage due to a flamboyant wife compelled to ignore her husband’s wishes by collecting Christian artifacts.
And the story of the isolation and desolation of a woman neglected and misunderstood because of her episodes of epilepsy.
Lahiri is a master storyteller who doesn’t hide behind obtuse language to prove she is a good writer. She tells you just enough so that you can understand her characters’ positions and experiences as if they are your own. And she makes the plots interesting enough, that once you come away from the stories, you linger, wishing there were more.
She is a wonderful ambassador of India and America and what it means to be on the peripheral. I am glad to say that Jhumpa Lahiri is my new heroine as a masterful writer, an intelligent artist, and a person with the heart of a poet.
"While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and I am certainly not the first. Still, 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. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."
"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" is a girl's reflections on a family friend from Pakistan. It's interesting the juxtaposition of her learning about the American Revolution in class, while a real war was threatening in a faraway county, the relation of the concerns of the near compared to the concerns of the far and how they are the same for some.
"Interpreter of Maladies" is an amazing story, one I just now realized I've read before. I didn't properly absorb it then -- so many layers -- and I already feel the desire to read it again, to see what new things I might discover. Gorgeous.
"Sexy" is a melancholy tale of a young woman in an adulterous relationship. I like that though the characters may judge each other, Lahiri as the author doesn't seem to make any judgements herself.
In "Mrs. Sen's", a young boy named Elliot becomes witness to the isolation and loneliness of Mrs. Sen, who takes care of him after school. Very bitter sweet, in fact that's a way to describe most of the stories in this book.
I loved "This Blessed House," which has a newly married couple moving into a house and discovering a menagerie of Christian idols and paraphernalia in various nooks and corners. While the husband hates these things and wishes to throw them out (they are Hindu, after all, not Christian), the wife is fascinated by them and treats the situation as a treasure hunt. The course of these discoveries reveals just how much they are strangers, and the ending is more bitter than sweet.
"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" and "The Third and Final Continent" were my least favorite stories in the collection, but they were still worthy tales keeping with the same bitter and sweet emotions. It is clear why Jhumpa Lahiri was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this collection. Her writing is beautiful and she has a wonderful way of revealing the multi-layered humanity of people.
This Pulitzer winner was a collection of short stories – all centered around “maladies” that affect humans, such as loneliness, homesickness and regret. Each story touches on one malady, brilliantly represented by characters of Indian origin (either living in India or the U.S.). The stories brought the reader through a full range of emotions – sometimes happiness, other times grief. This was no small feat, considering you get to know the characters in only a few pages. That’s a testament to the power of Lahiri’s writing. Each short story evoked an emotional and very human response.
Another reviewer commented that she wished each short story was a full novel. I couldn’t agree more. Interpreter of Maladies packed richness in every punch. I am not an avid reader of short stories – mostly because I want more after finishing the story – but I learned with this book that wanting more is a good thing. Without a doubt, Interpreter of Maladies left me wanting to read more by this talented young writer.
The next story, “When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine”, contained one of the most memorable moments for me, when schoolgirl Lila returns from trick-or-treating to find the pumpkin at home decimated. The pumpkin had accidentally been given an “expression of placid astonishment” because of a knife slipping during a news bulletin on the television earlier in the evening. The far-away war is being reported on the television throughout the story, and juxtaposed with this young girl’s mixed Indian-American life, the safeties and the threats in this story add to the sense of placelessness, uprooting and things half-understood that pervades the stories.
Another favourite moment of mine came in the eponymous story where Mr Kapasi’s shame at his translating job is lifted, and quite rightly, by Mrs Das pointing out the crucial importance of the precision of his translation – which is at a doctor’s surgery.
“A Real Durwan”, the next story, set in Calcutta, is almost like a folk-story, the way the residents of the building turn into an amorphous crowd behind this one character, and then “Sexy” hurls us back into the US - Boston. “Mrs Sen” grabs your sympathy, as, homesick in the US with her university professor husband, she struggles with driving and with alternative ways of getting a fresh fish home. “This Blessed House” left me pretty cold as a young Hindu couple unearth more and more gaudy Christiana in the house they’ve move into, until Sanjeev took final stock of his lot and the partner he’s stuck with, having been urged by their families into marriage.
“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” echoes Boori Ma in “A Real Durwan”, set back in India with a twenty-nine year-old woman suffering fits and dependent on her brother and sister-in-law, but in her case relatively well looked after by the neighbourhood. “The Third and Final Continent” sort-of dropped me back at the airport in no man’s land in a way, which is odd since it’s celebrating a man’s courage in settling down in a new country. But on the way there, I thoroughly enjoyed the gentleness of the narrator towards his cranky old landlady, Mrs Croft – “the first life I had admired”.
She’s a lucid writer, and her characters are mostly gentle, believable, foolish or strong – they’re a pleasure to be with, and I’m sure the stories resonate with 1st generation immigrants to the West from India.
While picking up the book from a pavement seller, all that appealed to me was the dusky face on the cover along with the words “ Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2000”
This was the first time I would be reading a book by a female, contemporary Indian writer; considering that the last time I had done so was about half a decade ago.
Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories, written by a writer who was born to Bengali parents in London and grew up in Rhode Island, USA.
Her writing and her stories are not enclosed in a water tight compartment. The most distinguished aspect of her writing is that she is able to justify each character, despite the fact that they belong to a different time span, a different age group, even gender and reside in different parts of the world. Most of the stories are concerned with the lives of ordinary people who show extra-ordinary courage in stepping out of the environment where they have grown up; and in so much so, it is related to the “maladies” of every being.
Reading through each and every story that she pens down in the book, one is able to draw a picture so vivid, that the experience of reading her work leaves one mesmerized.
This is one of those books whose cover justifies not only its association with the story but with the writer too.
My favorite story is "A Temporary Matter," about a young estranged couple who learn to communicate again when the lights in their neighborhood are cut. It's crafted with such grace and subtlety that the end comes as not merely a surprise but a visceral, painful shock.
Wonderful debut collection, quite a bit better than her new novel "The Namesake" (which is also good but lacks the concentrated focus of these stories).
I look forward to reading Unaccustomed Earth.