Interpreter of Maladies

Of ordinary people who just happen to be Indians caught in the throes of immigration pangs, of trying to be two different identities at once and justifying both, fighting usual battles in their own unique ways – Lahiri’s debut short story collection is a paean to their bifurcated lives. Mostly, for there are two stories here that are typically Indian, set in Kolkata, from where the author hails. In its entirety though, the 80EAE12A-0DD1-4579-8E40-43BB92FEA89Ais a well written though sombre collection of stories and characters that are caught in the never-ending of journey of figuring themselves out. America is just the background, these stories could have happened anywhere and to anyone.
Short stories are in many ways an acid test for a writer. While a novel is a magnifying glass providing detailed views of its characters, a short story is a surgeon’s needle that has to find the diseased spot in the very first biopsy. Lahiri has that down effectively. Not one story in this collection of nine leaves you feeling cheated. The intimate prose and the nuanced characterisations make Lahiri’s stories seem real. As an Indian, it is obvious that I would feel connected, but the author has a way of defining the Indian-ness without sounding explanatory that would appeal even to non-natives. Compared to other greats of the genre – O Henry, Guy Maupassant, Dahl – Lahiri is of course pretty tame. She doesn’t invent stories, nor pluck them out of the atmosphere around her. Her stories ARE the atmosphere and of this she has been liberally criticised. True that her stories are Indian flavoured, but the taste is surprisingly universal. For instance, Shobha and Shukumar, protagonists of the opening story – ‘A Temporary Matter’, could be any couple dealing with the loss of a beloved child and a crumbling marriage. Lilia from ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine’ is any ten year old who mumbles prayers while sucking on sweets, and is then afraid to brush her teeth for fear of brushing away the prayer still stuck to her lips. Mr. Kapasi, the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ from the title story is a cab driver turned confidante burdened with the sordid secretes of a dysfunctional Indian-American family, much like a friendly bartender in the West. Miranda in ‘Sexy’ is every American caught in a lustful relationship with an exotic immigrant, wishing to stay while guilt bade her run. Twinkle and Sanjeev are the quintessential newly weds traipsing through their ‘Blessed House’, exploring its confines while exploring each other. And while Mrs. Sen, from “At Mrs. Sen’s”, pines for her lost life and is too afraid to let go and accept America, the unnamed narrator from ‘The Third and Final Continent’ is every fulfilled American dream.

There are two stories in the collection based in Kolkata – “A Real Durwan”, and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”- which by themselves are good reads handling the sensitive topics of caste system and women marginalisation in India, but somehow feel a little lost in the all-American context of the other stories. You probably might even skip these on a second perusal; I definitely did.

Lahiri is one of those ABCDs who are pretty comfortable with her Indian genes. This shows through in her portrayal of her hometown Kolkata. She talks of the dilapidated buildings and the shady bylanes without sounding apologetic about the squalor, nor does she glorify it in any way. Her prose is always simple, and has this wonderful evocative quality that I find endearing. Like I said before, her stories aren’t out of the ordinary tales; it’s her characters and the way she infuses each of them with a special discerning attribute that saves her stories from becoming rhetorical. I also like the way she uses food as a metaphor for the emotional turmoil her characters face – an undercurrent of memory that runs right through the skin of her fiction. Part celebratory; for she talks lovingly of age-old recipes and well-loved flavours, and part a secret rant of loss and pain.

Three of the stories included in the book were published before its release in the New Yorker magazine – Sexy, The Third and Final Continent, and my favourite and the opener A Temporary Matter. The book won the 2000 Pulitzer award, and the title story Interpreter of Maladies was chosen for the ‘O Henry Award for Best American Short Story, and included in the anthology Best American Short Stories 1999. Whether it’s deserving of these platitudes is a highly controversial debate, but what’s obvious is that the book definitely deserves a place on your book shelf. For nostalgic evenings when you wish to be transported back home, or when you feel a little divided and need to read about kindred souls. Memorable characters, elegant prose, and a little healing – these just might be the Lahiri’s gifts to you.

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