Wednesday, May 7, 2014

[Review] Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Short-Stories, South-Asian fiction
Synopsis: Short stories about India, or being Indian living in the U.S.

I'm just going to come out and say it, I love Jhumpa Lahiri. She's such an amazing writer and has such a talent for description and nuance. Interpreter of Maladies consists of nine short stories. The book is not very long so it can be finished in a few sittings. I'll summarize and review each story separately because there's no way I can make any sweeping generalizations about the whole book.

But first off, some criticism about Jhumpa Lahiri that I want to talk about. She gets a lot of crap for only writing about Indian professors/students living in Cambridge. But so what? Leave the lady alone. Let her write what she wants to write. It's obviously working so why mess with a good thing? Whether she grows as a writer or not is nobody's business but hers. So, let's start.

"A Temporary Matter" is the first story in the collection. It's about a husband and a wife who become estranged after the death of their first child in the delivery room, but they are finally brought together by a series of blackouts in the neighborhood. They sit in the dark, and they tell each other truths they have never revealed before. Only in the dark, which is reminiscent to their life in India when electrical shortages weren't uncommon, do they open up about their feelings. The story is all about relationships and communication. Personally, it is one of my favorites in the collection.

"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" is the second story, and also one of my favorites. It's told from the perspective of a child who only vaguely understands the sociopolitical climate of what is happening in India during Partition. Her parents and Mr. Pirzada spend every evening together in front of the news and discussing what is happening. The thing about Mr. Pirzada is that his wife and daughters live in Dacca, one of the frontiers where all the fighting was happening in Pakistan (Dacca is now the capital of Bangladesh). The war, which is so important to her family and her family friend, is never mentioned in class, which is not at all uncommon in the American education system that prefers to avoid present day conflicts to focus on the same history lessons taught year after year after year. "No one at school talked about the war followed so faithfully in my living room. We continued to study the American Revolution."

"Interpreter of Maladies", the third story, is about an Indian tour guide who ruminates on his disappointing life. I actually didn't really care much for this story as much as the others, but to see the Americanized family is interesting. The title is actually the result of Mrs. Das, the mother on the guide, telling Mr. Kapasi (the tour guide) that his regular job as a translator for a clinic is an interpreter of maladies. This particular title gives Mr. Kapasi a renewed sense of importance and for a few hours he falls madly in love with Mrs. Das. The story doesn't end as had hoped, like everything else in his life.

"A Real Durwan" is about an old woman named Boori Ma who tells entertaining, but exaggerated stories, about her life when she was rich. Everyone in the apartment complex likes her because she acts as a durwan, which is basically a door-keeper who keeps out suspicious individuals from lingering around and causing trouble. The landowner gets promoted and installs two sinks, which leads the whole apartment complex into a home-improvement addiction. Boori Ma, who had been loyal and unaffected by this sudden materialistic enthusiasm, is eventually driven out so that the tenants, who believe that their upgraded homes mean an upgraded status, wants to hire a real durwan.

"Sexy" is about Miranda and her relationship with a married man. There isn't much I have to say about this particular story except that I liked how Lahiri dealt with the topic.

"Mrs. Sen's" is a story about a boy named Eliot who is taken to an Indian woman's (Mrs. Sen) house to be babysat when his mother is at work. This story exemplifies the difficulty immigrants have with adjusting to new cultures. And I just want to mention (this goes for the other stories too) that Jhumpa Lahiri is an amazing writer of food. She really makes everything sound delicious.

"This Blessed House" is a kind of odd story about a couple who recently moved into a new house. The wife is obsessed with finding Christian memorabilia stashed around the house that was left behind by the previous inhabitants and the husband detests it. The story is really interesting, but I had no idea what to make of it.

"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" is the only other story that takes place in India. It's about a woman who suffers from seizures and wants nothing more than to be someone's wife. But because of her medical condition, she never learned how to be a good housewife, and because she is in the care of her cousin, they don't have money to put together a dowry or to throw a wedding (and Indian weddings are lavish affairs, more so than American weddings).The ending is a pretty crazy twist, but in a good way... sort of.

"The Third and Final Continent" is the last story, about a man who has lived in three continents and then starts his life in America with a wife from an arranged marriage. The story revolves a bit around an old woman, over a hundred years old, who actually helps the protagonist adjust not only to his new surroundings, but to his new wife as well, who had been a complete stranger to him.

All of the stories have their own merits, though I did like some better than others. Like I said, Jhumpa Lahiri is a great writer and I think everyone should read her. South Asian literature has suddenly become all the rage, and if you've never read any before, Lahiri is a great place to start.

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