Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

‘Interpreter of Maladies’ by Jhumpa Lahiri is a book of short stories published in 1999, a debut which soon became a global literary sensation as it won the Pulitzer Prize and Pen/Hemingway award. Her success as a short story writer strongly manifests itself in this collection, as when Indian novels were building up and laying bricks for the foundation of an Indo-Global literary genre, this short story collection ranked along with the best of them.

The collection is spread out over, to be precise, 198 pages and 9 short stories. Each of the stories relate and examine the lives of the peoples of the Indian diaspora living across the world, uprooted from their native roots and existing in the spherical curve of the planet, yet lost in their lives.

  1. A Temporary Matter
  2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
  3. Interpreter of Maladies
  4. A Real Durwan
  5. Sexy
  6. Mrs. Sen’s
  7. This Blessed House
  8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
  9. The Third and Final Continent

As a reader, I was attracted to this book, solely due to its wondrous acclaim, not many short story writers have cemented their place and achieved recognition in the world, at this rate. But I have to concede, some of the lurking doubts in my mind, came forthrightly to my attention once in a while, such as, would this book live up to the sheer standards of some of the greatest short story writers of recent times such as Alice Munro. I didn’t have an answer.

I began reading the ”A Temporary Matter”, and soon found myself flipping the pages of “Interpreter of Maladies”,and devouring the moral ambiguity of “Sexy”, and feeling ecstatic at the beauty of writing and inventiveness of the cyclic yarn of themes in ” The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”, lastly, felt the ground beneath my feet stir a little in “The Third and Final Continent”, not precisely because of the pain, but it is unlike any short story I have read before, and it is a mark of courage on the part of the writer, to add this nostalgic chapter to finish her otherwise exquisite and sharply plotted stories.

“A Temporary Matter” deals with the failing marriage of an Indian couple living in America; “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dinner” is a dilemma of a botany professor who has recently arrived in New England from Pakistan, and is splintered from his wife and children; “Interpreter of Maladies” is a story of Indian-Americans Mr. and Mrs. Das, travelling with their children and their guide Mr. Kapasi in India, a trip which changes their lives; “A Real Durwan” is a snippet of the tragic life of Boori Ma, a stair sweeper from Calcutta living in the peripheries of poverty; “Sexy” shows a young wife, Miranda who cheats on her partner with another married man; “Mrs. Sen’s”- a woman who has to obtain a driver’s license to keep her job; “This Blessed House” portrays the life of a newly married couple and the dissonance amidst the fading harmonies; “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” revolves around 28-year old Bibi Haldar who is fighting a mysterious ailment; “The Third and Final Continent” is a story of a man who has spent his life in a triumvirate of India, London, and U.S.A.

The writer, focuses on differing and contrasting landscapes of the immigrant story and in the process, tends to reinvent a genre which has been on the verge of being obsolete, and full of cliches for example, a boy remembering mother’s cooking, which doesn’t reflect upon much in today’s zeitgeist.

One of the admirable assets of the collection, is the simple, lyrical and multi-faceted prose style laced with a sharp needle-string of melancholy and pain, hurting in slow measures, imparting a myriad of themes and images to contemplate upon, enhanced by the sympathetic eye for the circumstantial punctilio and a sympathetic ear to listen to the character’s whisperings of the heart.

Selection of themes and images for the written word, is immaculate, especially in the way all cliches of usual Indian literature are omitted to give more room for characters to flesh out fully, such as, not much has been written about caste, creed, politics or Indian cooking, which I feel has exhausted itself out in general Indian novel writing and tends to be repetitious.

I also want to point out, the sequence of the stories is very carefully planned and acts out as a great tasting menu, balancing and challenging the palette every step of the way, whereas the final story leaves the reader with a beautiful, bittersweet seam of tranquility.

Interpreter of Maladies is a thought provoking, soul stirring and sharply observant short story collection scraping the heart of Indians to discover the trembling waves washing upon the shores of nationality and the boundaries of this world and the other.

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