Sunday, February 3, 2019

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Source of book: I own this.

I have had this book on my list for a number of years - my list is too long and growing...too many books, too little time. However, I found a used copy for a couple bucks, and decided to get it. It won the Pulitzer for literature in 2000.

Interpreter of Maladies is a short story collection. As I have noted before, I rather like the short story format, and I find it is good to mix them in with longer books for variety. This particular collection covers Indian and Indian-American characters as they navigate relationships, cultural differences, and strive for a sense of home.

There are a total of nine stories, and they are set either in India or on the East Coast of the United States, mostly New York and Boston. They offer a window into a particular slice of Indian culture, particularly the differences between the older generation and the younger - the ones born in the West.

I think I will remember some of the stories for a while. Ones that stood out included “A Temporary Matter,” about the fallout of a miscarriage. The ending is ambiguous - will the marriage survive or not? The central scene involves them taking turns telling secrets in the dark, and is handled brilliantly.

“When Mr. Perzada Comes to Dine” is set during the Bangladesh War of Independence. The title character is living in the United States when hostilities break out - but his family remains behind, and he loses all contact with them. He comes to dine with the young narrator’s family so he can watch updates on the television. He forms a grandparent-like relationship with the narrator, and prays for him daily until he is able to reunite with his daughters and wife.

The title story is excellent as well, a picture of Indian Americans visiting India as tourists. The narrator, a private driver, tells of his other job, interpreting for a doctor (some patients speak an uncommon language) to the wife, who confides in him about her failing marriage.

“Mrs. Sen’s” is a story told by a young boy who goes to the title character’s house after school while his mother works. He is a (presumably) white American, while she is an Indian immigrant trying to maintain a connection with her past - and her family. Since she cannot seem to learn to drive, she is isolated from places she wishes to go, particularly a fishmonger who sells whole fresh fish. It was an interesting look at both the interplay of the marriage and the challenge of living caught between two cultures.

I think “The Third and Final Continent” might be my favorite one, however. The narrator, having immigrated to the United States, gets a job at the MIT library. He has recently married a woman in India - an arranged marriage. It will take her a couple months to get through the immigration process, so he needs to find lodging until she comes over and they can move to an apartment. He ends up renting a room from an older woman - over 100 in fact - who has some interesting quirks. However, he is a good guy, and rather wins her heart, and they become friends after a fashion. Later, he brings his wife to meet her. It is at this meeting that something happens that makes the husband and wife see a side of the other, and enables them to bond. It is a gently optimistic and tender story.

I thought Lahiri did a good job of portraying complex emotions in a short space. The characters are often unhappy for various reasons, but they are thoroughly human, and work through their challenges in psychologically believable ways. Lahiri also took pains to give a broad picture of Indian Americans. She portrays a great deal of diversity, from those newly arrived, to those born here, and various shades in between. She also focused on women to a significant extent, which was refreshing. When we think of immigrants, all too often we imagine men, and don’t envision the female experience.

I should mention a couple of references that I found interesting. In one story, the characters visit the Mapparium in Boston, a three-story tall stained glass globe at the Mary Baker Eddy Library. If I ever get to Boston, it is one place I want to visit.

There is also a reference to Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which I love, so that was rather fun. It’s not too often that Mahler makes it into a book - particularly in a way which shows the author’s knowledge of a particular work.

This book is pretty short - about 200 pages - and is a quick read. I definitely enjoyed it, and recommend it to any lover of short stories.  

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