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.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Read: 29 December, 2012

Esthappen has been re-Returned to the house in Ayemenem, and his two-egg twin Rahel is there to meet him. Years have passed since the Terror and the tragedy of Sophie Mol’s death, but the wounds are still fresh.

The narrative bounces all over the place. The “now” takes place when Esthappen and Rahel are adults, but they are children through much of the book, and the narrative flows around them and other characters, giving each a biography in turn, so that the timeline encompassed is actually about a century long. Despite this, it was surprisingly easy to follow once I had a grasp of the general outline.

The writing style is heavily focused on the senses, so that very few things or people are mentioned without lengthy sense-based comparisons. It’s all rather poetic, and I found it quite interesting to follow – particularly when these comparisons are used to link people and events.

The centre of the story – Sophie Mol’s death – is revealed from the beginning, but the details are danced around through the whole novel. I found it rather frustrating, since the event is brought up again and again throughout, but what the event really was or what it meant is withheld until the very end. On the other hand, the climax revelation was far more effective once I’d come to know the whole cast of characters.

I found the writing style to be quite beautiful, though I often found myself carried away by the cadence of it and forgetting to absorb the meaning – though fatigue may also have had something to do with this.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Read: 2005

Piscine Molitor Patel (known to all as Pi Patel) is the son of a zoo owner. He’s an exceptionally bright young man and shows his maturity quite clearly when it comes to religion. He’s a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian, all at the same time. But soon, political discontent drives his family out of India and towards Canada. The zoo is sold, the bags are packed, and the whole family (including several animals on their way to American zoos) board the Tsimtsum, a Japanese cargo ship with a Taiwanese crew.

“The ship sunk,” begins Part II. From that point on, this is a story of survival against amazing odds. Not only does Pi Patel survive 227 days in the Pacific Ocean, but he does it in the company of an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The thing I love most about this book is the fact that you can read it once and interpret the story one way, but then you can read it again and see everything differently. The revelation of Part III is certainly really good food for thought. There’s the literal interpretation of seeing the boy on a life-raft with a tiger. Then there is the alternative story given at the end of the boy on a life-raft struggling with his inner beast while trying to keep his humanity. Then, of course, there’s the third possibility that the entire story is complete fiction and is just about a boy maturing and struggling with the different influences in his life. It’s easy, especially as an English major, to really read too far into books and see things that just aren’t there. But I think Yann Martel makes it quite clear that all three of these interpretations are intentional. Heck, he even gives us two of them up front!

Another thing I loved about the story was the three part system. Part I deals with introducing Pi and the society he is coming out of. I found that what I read in Part I really brought Pi to life and let me identify with him enough that I really cared about what happened to him in Part II. I had bonded with him enough that when he suffered in Part II, I suffered as well. When he started to lose touch with his humanity (like when he suddenly notices that he’s eating like a tiger), I really feared for him. Thank goodness Part I ends with the message: “This story has a happy ending.” I think it would have been very difficult and painful to read otherwise. Part II is his struggle on the raft. Part III is his interview in which he explains what happens. I found this to be a really important part. It’s also a very interesting part in its function. It serves not only to ridicule the idea that the concept of the book (a boy surviving that long in the pacific with a tiger) is preposterous, but also serves to introduce a whole new perspective and the possibility that none of it might have happened at all (I mean that within the book’s fictional world).

Several people I have spoken to have said that the transition is too abrupt. Of course, it would have to be since that’s exactly what it was for Pi Patel: abrupt. But I’ve heard many times that there’s too much character development at the beginning to wade through before getting to the meat of the story. To each her own, I suppose.

One final fantastic point I just want to bring up in relation to the two possible stories offered by Martel is the idea that the more interesting story is more important than the story that is true. So that’s what Martel leaves us with: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” Which is more important to you, a good story or the truth?

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