Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Thirty-One: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Books like this are really the reason I started this one book a week challenge; a highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories which has spent far too long sitting unread on my bookshelf. So with a busy week and the need for good reading I decided to grab something I should have read long ago. I wish I had since I now realize I've been missing a great writer.

Lahiri's first publication received almost too much success, but in reading this collection one can see what all the excitement is about. Lahiri examines the gulf for Indian/Bengali immigrants struggling to understand their new country (the U.S.), maintain a relationship with their place of birth or ancestral home, and find their place in life. What she is exploring is hardly new territory. In fact, she ends the collection with the narrator saying, "I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home and certainly I am not the first...As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Precisely in this "ordinariness" is where Lahiri manages to create a range of outstanding stories. There is simply not a weak link in the collection, although they refuse to follow any formulaic route. The title story actually takes place in India, but the immigrants in question are Indians who now live in the U.S. coming to the country as tourists. Lahiri sketches the characters quickly, but just when you think a flat, stereotypical character has emerged she shows a new depth to the person. Mr. Kapasi is driver taking them to their tourist destination, but he also makes money as an interpreter for a doctor (e.g. interpreter of maladies). It is this fact which awakens the mother/wife of the family he is taking along and she seeks to share her maladies in desperate search for a cure. Of course, her maladies are not physical, but symptomatic of the society in which she now resides.

But Lahiri is not by any means anti-American society -- it exists in so much as her characters interact with it. While it may give them freedoms that Indian society has not offered, we see that in the end it is up to the people to decide how that society will influence them. Some retreat into traditional lifestyles in which they find comfort, but little interaction. Others take to the new society and their new life reflects these choices.

In "This Blessed House" we see the conflicts with society in a humorous story surrounding the Indian owners of a house finding Christian artifacts in all parts of their house. The previous owners have left many small items behind which the wife finds fascinating and displays on their mantel, much to the surprise of her husband. But when a statue of Mary shows up when raking leaves, her insistence on displaying it goes against his concern of being thought Christian. A compromise is reached, but when they host a house warming party the husband realizes that his wife is also something that requires a new look as he begins to see her through the eyes of others.

No story is more moving than "A Temporary Matter" in which a couple deals with the loss of a stillborn son. As they attempt to move on with their lives they find themselves incapable of being honest with one another until a temporary evening blackout gives them the opportunity to face the truth. It is a touching story which completely skirts sentimentality and instead shows the pain such a loss brings to a young couple.

Overall the collection is outstanding for several reasons. Not only does Lahiri present the immigrant experience in a variety of interesting ways, she does so with respect to all the cultures involved. Her stories are about people and how life impacts them and how they respond, but she sees people as the driving force. In addition, the stories are incredibly well written without the clunky dialogue or plot shifts so common in first attempts.

The book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and since then Lahiri has published two novels, "The Namesake" (which was made into a movie) and "The Unaccustomed Earth" in 2008. She was born in London but raised in the U.S. and has dealt with many of the issues covered, although certainly not all given the range. You can read more about her at Jhumpa Lahiri's Website. A better bio and interesting story of her name is at The Asian Heroes Project.

Also, the Bengali culture is really at the heart of the collection. I will not claim to be familiar with the whole history here, so I visited the always reliable (?) Wikipedia and offer this summary (and the link to the site):  

Bengal (Bengali: বঙ্গ Bôngo, বাংলা Bangla, বঙ্গদেশ Bôngodesh or বাংলাদেশ Bangladesh), is a historical and geographical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent. Today it is mainly divided between the sovereign state of the People's Republic of Bangladesh (previously East Bengal / East Pakistan) and West Bengal in India, although some regions of the previous kingdoms of Bengal (during local monarchical regimes and British rule) are now part of the neighboring Indian states of Bihar, Assam, Tripura and Orissa. The majority of Bengal is inhabited by Bengali people (বাঙালি Bangali) who speak the Bengali language (বাংলা Bangla).

Reading Challenges

Even though I knew this would be a tough week, this was a tough week! I had 17 research papers to grade, one meeting late at night, and just the hectic pace of pre-Christmas issues to address. Lately I've been finishing books midweek and writing a day or two ahead of time, but here I sit at 11:14pm finally finishing my blog. I did start a minor expansion this week by including some info/links on the author and other information I've found interesting. I usually look at this information anyway so I should be better about sharing it.

Coming Up
At the moment, I'm not sure. I could not find the version of The Christmas Carol I wanted and am now just thinking of grabbing another book off the bookshelf. Anne Tyler needs to make it on this blog sometime since I do not think she gets the critical acclaim she should, but I'm not sure where I will end up. It will be a surprise -- how exciting! 


  1. Nice review. I haven't read this one, but I was totally shocked by how much I enjoyed The Namesake. She is an immensely talented (and fun-to-read) writer!

  2. i've read alot of the books by the collective of commonwealth indian writers (and loved them), and i'm keen to read this one too, just put it on my TBR list, thanks!