Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the portraits I admired recently at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., and in order to know her better, I read her seminal work, Interpreter of Maladies. While all the stories in this collection are bright examples of Indian life, Lahiri uses several to focus on cultural differences between India and the U.S. This is especially evident in the story “Mrs. Sen’s,” which is about an Indian woman living in the U.S. who babysits a neighbor’s latchkey child. Lahiri brings us into the blandness of the woman’s life (no car, no fresh fish), while highlighting how rich the child’s life has become because of her.
Another story that highlights cultural differences is “Interpreter of Maladies,” namesake to the book title. Here, we meet an Indian man who imagines an affair with a woman from New Jersey while driving her and her family to a tourist spot in India. Her sundress, exposed arms, and outspoken nature entice him. While we see her as a slightly bored, middle-aged mother, the man finds her overtly sexual, especially when he compares her to his traditional Indian wife.
“Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” delves into the sense of security we have in the U.S. when compared to the turmoil in other countries. While this story is less about cultural differences, it underlines the point that political turmoil abroad is often ignored here unless it’s a matter of personal interest.
In “A Temporary Matter,” Lahiri uses food to reflect the state of a couple’s relationship. Lahiri equates the ritual of preparing a meal to getting ready to make love. The aroma of Indian spices is like an aphrodisiac. Eating is like making love. When the relationship begins to crumble, the couple’s interest in food diminishes along with their desire to make love. The result is a sad but very sensual story.
“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” is my favorite. It’s about a young woman who, after suffering from an unknown disease for years, becomes convinced that marriage will cure her. While Bibi searches for a husband, her family leaves because they believe Bibi will infect their unborn child. Bibi never marries, but becomes pregnant, has a child, and lives and works at a business she sets up in the building abandoned by her fleeing relatives. I would have entitled this story “The Revenge of Bibi Haldar,” but then again, I never won a Pulitzer Prize.
In each story, Lahiri beautifully makes critical observations that quickly come to the crux of the issue at hand, be it a disappointed husband, a depressed wife, or a man worried about the safety of his family in a far away country. She enriches each story with the cultural experience of India. I enjoyed the intimacy of the tales. All of the stories were creative and memorable. I recommend the book with enthusiasm.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel,Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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