Saturday, February 7, 2015

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

For a while I was ritualistically adding fiction that had won the Pulitzer Prize to my bookshelf, and this collection of short stories is one of them. Here’s what the back cover has to say:

Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this stunning debut collection unerringly charts the emotional journeys of characters seeking love beyond the barriers of nations and generations.

And I very much agree with that summary. In the opening story, A Temporary Matter, we meet Shoba and Shukumar, a married couple moving in different directions after the stillborn death of their first child. The titular temporary matter refers to a series of scheduled brown-outs while linemen work on electrical cables in their Boston neighborhood, but could just as easily refer to their marriage and their feelings for each other. The story is mostly told from Shukumar’s point of view, and is filled with his reminiscences of the time before Shoba’s pregnancy, and how his feelings for her have changed.

She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad. If she found a skirt or a purse she liked she bought two. She kept the bonuses from her job in a separate bank account in her name. It hadn’t bothered him. His own mother had fallen to pieces when his father died, abandoning the house he grew up in and moving back to Calcutta, leaving Shukumar to settle it all. He liked that Shoba was different. It astonished him, her capacity to think ahead. When she used to do the shopping, the pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil, depending on whether they were cooking Italian or Indian. There were endless boxes of pasta in all shapes and colors, zippered sacks of basmati rice, whole sides of lambs and goats from the Muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags. Every other Saturday they wound through the maze of stalls Shukumar eventually knew by heart. He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one. She didn’t mind being jostled, even when she was pregnant. She was tall, and broad-shouldered, with hips that her obstetrician assured her were made for childbearing. During the drive back home, as the car curved along the Charles, they invariably marveled at how much food they’d bought.

It never went to waste. When friends dropped by, Shoba would throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes. Her labeled mason jars lined the shelves of the kitchen, in endless sealed pyramids, enough, they’d agreed, to last for their grandchildren to taste.

But now…

They’d eaten it all by now. Shukumar had been going through their supplies steadily, preparing meals for the two of them, measuring out cupfuls of rice, defrosting bags of meat day after day. He combed through her cookbooks every afternoon, following her penciled instructions to use two teaspoons of ground coriander seeds instead of one, or red lentils instead of yellow. Each of the recipes were dated, telling the first time they had eaten the dish together. April 2, cauliflower with fennel. January 14, chicken with almonds and sultanas. He had no memory of eating those meals, and yet there they were, recorded in her neat proofreader’s hand. Shukumar enjoyed cooking now. It was the one thing that made him feel productive. If it weren’t for him, he knew, Shoba would eat a bowl of cereal for her dinner.

Tonight, with no lights, they would have to eat together. For months now they’d served themselves from the stove, and he’d taken his plate into the study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand.

At some point in the evening she visited him. When he heard her approach he would put away his novel and begin typing sentences. She would rest her hands on his shoulders and stare with him into the blue glow of the computer screen. “Don’t work too hard,” she would say after a minute or two, and head off to bed. It was the one time in the day she sought him out, and yet he’d come to dread it. He knew it was something she forced herself to do. She would look around the walls of the room, which they had decorated together last summer with a border of marching ducks and rabbits playing trumpets and drums. By the end of August there was a cherry crib under the window, and a white changing table with mint-green knobs, and a rocking chair with checkered cushions. Shukumar has disassembled it all before bringing Shoba back from the hospital, scraping off the rabbits and ducks with a spatula. For some reason the room did not haunt him the way it haunted Shoba. In January, when he stopped working at his carrel in the library, he set up his desk there deliberately, partly because the room soothed him, and partly because it was a place Shoba avoided.

There’s lots of that in this story. A couple warm and alive in the past, cold and nearing death in the now. It’s powerful stuff, full of sorrow and regret, but not saccharine or overly sentimental. It’s so well done, in fact, that part of me wishes that Lahiri has not used tragedy as it catalyst (although her emotional ending depends upon it) but had simply told the story of two people falling out of love with one another. Doesn’t it sometimes just happen that way?

Another story about falling out of love is The Interpreter of Maladies, which features Mr. Kapasi, a part-time tour guide and part-time interpreter at a doctor’s clinic, as a man busy falling out of love with his wife, and busy falling in love with the wife in the tourist family that he is taking to the Sun Temple at Konarak. Her name is Mrs. Das, and when she asks him for his address so that she can send him copies of the photos they have taken with him in them, he begins to fantasize.

The paper curled as Mr. Kapasi wrote his address in clear, careful letters. She would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor’s office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish. He would possess a picture of the two of them, eating fried onions under a magenta umbrella, which he would keep, he decided, safely tucked between the pages of his Russian grammar. As his mind raced, Mr. Kapasi experienced a mild and pleasant shock. It was similar to a feeling he used to experience long ago when, after months of translating with the aid of a dictionary, he would finally read a passage from a French novel, or an Italian sonnet, and understand the words, one after another, unencumbered by his own efforts. In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to believe that all was right with the world, that all struggles were rewarded, that all of life’s mistakes made sense in the end. The promise that he would hear from Mrs. Das now filled him with the same belief.

It is so much what loneliness drives us to, creating futures in our minds that will never be, but whose appeal is their ability to assuage some of that loneliness in the present. The falling out of love in The Interpreter of Maladies, both by Mr. Kapasi and, as it turns out, by Mrs. Das, who is also disillusioned by the life that has been built around her, is much more ordinary than it is in A Temporary Matter, not prompted by any kind of tragedy, but guarded, in both cases, by secrets that neither can reveal to the others in their lives.

Another story worth mentioning is Mrs. Sen’s, where Eliot is a boy and Mrs. Sen is the woman who watches him between the hours that school lets out and the time his single mother gets off of work. The story is told primarily from Eliot’s point of view, but it is very much Mrs. Sen’s story, and Mrs. Sen is a lonely woman who misses her family and the life she once had in India.

Another day she played a cassette of people talking in her language--a farewell present, she told Eliot, that her family had made for her. As the succession of voices laughed and said their bit, Mrs. Sen identified each speaker. “My third uncle, my cousin, my father, my grandfather.” One speaker sang a song. Another recited a poem. The final voice on the tape belonged to Mrs. Sen’s mother. It was quieter and sounded more serious than the others. There was a pause between each sentence, and during this pause Mrs. Sen translated for Eliot: “The price of goat rose two rupees. The mangoes at the market are not very sweet. College Street is flooded.” She turned off the tape. “There are things that happened the day I left India.” The next day she played the same cassette all over again.

Most of Mrs. Sen’s sorrow is not directly perceived by Eliot, who is a lonely boy himself, without a father, without friends, and without, evidently, much emotion. He is a keen observer of the actions going on around him, but none of the emotions. We, the reader, however, see the emotion, and our sympathy for Mrs. Sen is nicely juxtaposed against Eliot’s lack thereof.

In the end, Mrs. Sen, who is learning to drive, has a minor traffic accident with Eliot in the car, and Eliot’s mother decides to terminate the arrangement.

From then on his mother gave him a key, which he wore on a string around his neck. He was to call the neighbors in case of an emergency, and to let himself into the beach house after school. The first day, just as he was taking off his coat, the phone rang. It was his mother calling from her office. “You’re a big boy now, Eliot,” she told him. “You okay?” Eliot looked out the kitchen window, at gray waves receding from the shore, and said he was fine.

He is fine. But are we?

And finally, there is The Third and Final Continent, the story that perhaps best captures the longing that displaced people feel for their homes and the long and strange process that is creating new familiarity out of the strangeness of unfamiliar surroundings.

Our nameless narrator is a young man from India, who was educated in England, and now lives in Boston, working at a library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His new bride--from an arranged marriage--will join him there in six weeks, and in the meantime, he rents a room from an elderly American woman, Mrs. Croft. The year is 1969.

She slapped the space beside her on the bench with one hand, and told me to sit down. For a moment she was silent. Then she intoned, as if she alone possessed this knowledge:

“There is an American flag on the moon!”

“Yes, madame.” Until then I had not thought very much about the moon shot. It was in the newspaper, of course, article upon article. The astronauts had landed on the shores of the Sea of Tranquility, I had read, traveling farther than anyone in the history of civilization. For a few hours they explored the moon’s surface. They gathered rocks in their pockets, described their surroundings (a magnificent desolation, according to one astronaut), spoke by phone to the president, and planted a flag in lunar soil. The voyage was hailed as man’s most awesome achievement. I had see full-page photographs in the Globe, of the astronauts in their inflated costumes, and read about what certain people in Boston has been doing at the exact moment the astronauts landed, on a Sunday afternoon. A man said that he was operating a swan boat with a radio pressed to his ear; a woman had been baking rolls for her grandchildren.

The woman bellowed, “A flag on the moon, boy! I heard it on the radio! Isn’t that splendid?”

“Yes, madame.”

But she was not satisfied with my reply. Instead she commanded, “Say, ‘splendid’!”

I was both baffled and somewhat insulted by the request. It reminded me of the way I was taught multiplication tables as a child, repeated after the master, sitting cross-legged, without shoes or pencils, on the floor of my one-room Tollygunge school. It also reminded me of my wedding, when I had repeated endless Sanskrit verses after the priest, verses I barely understood, which joined me to my wife. I said nothing.

“Say ‘splendid’!” the woman bellowed once again.

“Splendid,” I murmured.

It is comical, but it also says something powerful about how America--this third and final continent of our narrator’s journey--acts in the presence of those foreign to it.

Throughout the story, the narrator slowly adjusts to life in Boston, and when his wife, Mala, arrives, they are very much strangers living in the same house. But, in her unreformed model of the India of his boyhood, he is able to see both the distance he has traveled, and the journey that she will take to join him.

Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her chest, and, for the first time since her arrival, I felt sympathy. I remembered my first days in London, learning how to take the Tube to Russell Square, riding an escalator for the first time, being unable to understand that when the man cried “piper” it meant “paper,” being unable to decipher, for a whole year, that conductor said “mind the gap” as the train pulled away from each station. Like me, Mala had traveled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her.

They do grow to love each other, and their lives in America, and when, at the end of the story, the narrator is reflecting on his journey, especially in contrast to the fears and challenges his maturing son now faces, Lahiri returns to the moon shot to well summarize the strange and almost ubiquitous displacement that is now commonplace in our modern world.

In my son’s eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world. In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected. But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong. Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

It speaks powerfully to me, a man far less traveled, but who, like this narrator, marvels at how what is most remarkable is treated as most ordinary.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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