Interpreter of Maladies is an eclectic mix of nine short stories, all penned by genius author Jhumpa Lahiri. Published in 1999, she deservingly won the Pulitzer Prize for her work the following year, though these tales do in fact transcend time. She was born in London, grew up in America, but is of Indian origin, specifically from Calcutta.
Each of the tales takes a different tone, but largely speaking Lahiri focuses upon the cultural struggles of Indian immigrants living in America, and also upon the strain that this places upon marriage, parenthood and friendship.
The penultimate story has also stuck in my mind determinedly. Lahiri uses the plural narrative form of ‘we’ and 'us’ as she relays the tale of Bibi Haldar, which has an unavoidable personal touch and bred in me sympathy for the crippled and solitary protagonist. The afflicted suffers from uncontrollable seizures and the primitive methods of the 'baffled family, friends, priests, palmists, spinsters, gem therapists, prophets and fools’ are unable to cure her. Her troubles are akin to those of an epileptic, but the dark comedy lies in the constant vain attempts to use unorthodox methods (although orthodox to those administering them!) to alleviate her condition: ‘Shuttled from one specialist to the next, the girl had been prescribed to shun garlic, consume disproportionate quantities of bitters, meditate, drink green coconut water, and swallow raw duck’s eggs beaten in milk’!
There are bleak undertones in most; it is hard to be cheered by the discourse of loneliness, but the final tale, entitled ’The Third and Final Continent’stuck out to me as being a more pleasant tale.
I found out recently that the story is based on Lahiri’s father’s own, and details the emigration of a young, naive Bengali to London and then on to the US. The beauty of the tale lies in the theme of arranged marriage. The unnamed protagonist flies back to Calcutta, exclusively for his wedding, and then leaves alone for America where his wife Mala will later join him. In a marvellously constructed meeting between the two newly weds and an amusingly crotchety old lady named Mrs Croft from whom the protagonist used to rent a room, Lahiri offers a snapshot of their relationship. He expresses his concern at the cultural clash: she was ‘scrutinizing Mala from top to toe with what seemed to be placid disdain. I wondered if Mrs Croft had ever seen a woman in a Sari’. But finally Mrs Croft declares, ‘Why, she is a perfect lady!’, much to his relief. He admits, ‘Now it was I who laughed. I did so quietly, and Mrs Croft did not hear me. But Mala had heard, and, for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled’.
It is made clear that he grows to love her, but at no point is this prior lack of intimacy and mutual knowledge described in a negative manner, as it might be in Western discourse; their love is true, it is just something that husband and wife learn.