Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Read: 31 July, 2018

There’s a “third culture” aspect to these stories that I really enjoyed. The characters in each story are outsiders, they are Indians in America or American-born Indians in India, and there’s always a sense of looking from the outside in.

That sense is amplified by the voyeuristic nature of the stories. In each case, the narrator is an audience, perceiving the subject of the story. It’s an interesting layering effect.

This is a great collection. I hated some of the stories, some of them made me so angry or so sad, but every one affected me. And even the weakest entries are beautifully written with vibrant characters who seem to leap off the page.

1. A Temporary Matter: A heartbreaking story about a couple trying to recover (separately) from a traumatic event, finally forced together to talk by a planned power outage. It’s a look at grief, and especially in the ways that our lives can impede the healing process (as we bury ourselves in work or hobbies).

2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine: War in Daca, as seen through the eyes of a little girl in America. This story struck a real chord with me, as the narrator’s environment is totally unequipped to deal with what she is going through. She even has that particularly third culture experience of being punished for trying to learn more about a current conflict with direct relevance to her life because she should be studying the American Revolution.

3. Interpreter of Maladies: A driver is giving a tour to Americanised Indians. This story is peak voyeur, as the narrator weaves an elaborate fantasy around the wife of the family. There were aspects of this story that were interesting, but I personally found it to be one of the weaker entries. Though perhaps it’s bias talking, as I found the narrator to be rather gross.

4. A Real Durwan: A relentless story of someone who has already lost much losing everything else. It’s a story of casual cruelty, of the way people can simply toss away human beings who are no longer useful to them. And, perhaps, a story about people who are unable to adapt as situations change, and who find themselves left behind.

5. Sexy: A little on-the-nose, redeemed by good writing. A woman is in an affair with a married man while her co-worker’s cousin is the wife in a similar situation.

6. Mrs. Sen’s: One of my favourite stories in the bunch, though the foreshadowing is somewhat anxiety-inducing. This is a fantastic meditation on the experiences of middle aged, unwilling immigrants (spouses of people who’ve immigrated for work, for example). Mrs. Sen has been taken from everything she knows, and finds that she cannot adapt to her new way of life. Her loneliness in the story is palpable.

7. This Blessed House: This one is a story about a jerkass husband who doesn’t deserve his magnificent wife. She sounds lovely – vivacious, curious, interesting – while he offers absolutely nothing.

8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar: The voyeur aspect is taken so far in this story that the narrator is barely even a character at all (they are part of a neighbourhood “we” who observe the events of the story). This is something of a mirror story of “A Real Durwan” – while that one was of a woman who had found something of a place and then loses it due to the cruelty of those around her, “Bibi” is about a woman who is a victim of cruelty but who finds her place. The surface message that having a baby can cure epilepsy seems rather odd, though it’s hard not to root for Bibi as she builds a life for herself out of terrible circumstances.

9. The Third and Final Continent: An interesting story about love and emigration. The narrator’s marriage is arranged, so he doesn’t have a chance to get to know his wife until after they are already married. It’s interesting to see how tentatively they get to know each other, and how the conservatism of the immigrants can mirror the conservatism of the elderly.

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