Book Reviews

Jhumpa Lahiri: A Brilliant Story-Teller

The appearance of ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ on the literary horizon has been a fabulous treat. Jhumpa Lahiri’s specialty lies in her deft craft of short story writing. She’s simply outstanding when it comes to short stories. Crisp language, sudden psychological revelations, unexpected turns in the plot and above all, deep understanding of human nature mark her style in this book. 

The first story of the collection A Temporary Matter declares the arrival of a genuine storyteller. The plot is such that the truth unfolds itself slowly and gradually.
Shoba and Shukumar, a married couple, are American citizens of Indian origin. The tragedy of their life is that they lost their first and only child at the time of birth itself. Shoba has changed drastically after the incident. Her love for Shukumar and caring attitude towards home has died down.
Then a temporary matter comes up. A storm has damaged the electric lines of their locality. For five days they will have to suffer electricity cut, for one hour each evening. This temporary matter forces the couple to spend their time together. Shoba begins a 'confession game' between the two. She says that each evening in darkness they will confess one event of their lives to each other. Thus begins the journey of telling games. They tell each other of having drinks secretively, or cheating in the exams, secret passion for attractive poster women and men etc. All the while, the reader has a feeling that the collapsing relationship between the two has a chance after all. They are coming closer, but on the final day, there is the blast. Shoba declares that she has rented a separate house for herself. To this confession, Shukumar gives her greater pain by telling her that their child was actually a boy, and he had held the boy in his lap and had really hugged him for quite some time. This is particularly painful to Shoba as she never wanted to know these details. The story ends here.
It is a tragic tale of a broken relationship. The style of conveying facts is remarkable. On the psychological plane, the relationship between Shukumar and Shoba was based on the concept of parenting together; that of having children and grand-children and great-grand children.  There was little else between the two except this. Shoba is more reactionary of the two. While Shukumar remains more at home, Shoba cannot stand home any longer.
The living together is over for her. She does not want to give herself any time for thinking and resolving the crises; she takes the bold step of separation. We can say that a new Shoba is emerging when she declares, "I've been looking for an apartment and I've found one."
Psychologists say that separation is an extreme step which involves (a) recognizing the death of a relationship (b) accepting the emotions, which accompany it, and (c) understanding that as result of this step, a new and independent self can emerge. Here in this story, the wife seems to have completed this mental cycle alone. The man is still as keen to remain together. He is shocked; and that is the tragedy of it. The idea of separation sickened Shukumar; and that is the tragedy of it. "It sickened Shukumar, knowing that she had spent these past evenings preparing for a life without him.......This was what she'd been trying to tell him for that past four evenings. This was the point of game." 

The story is a reflection of the state of the institution of marriage today. The traditional Indian cannot help wondering as to what was the need to put the life-partner under such severe scrutiny. A tragedy is to be mourned, wept over, shared and borne. One tragedy should not lead to another. Inflicting pain on one’s partner is again a strange instinct. A much more relaxed and accepting attitude is required to make a marriage permanent. This couple may be of Indian origin but their attitudes are certainly not so. Ironically, the number of un-Indian Indians even in India is on the rise.    

The book is named after the story, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. Naturally it occupies an important place in the author's scheme of things. It is a unique tale about a man who is a travel guide as well as an interpreter of maladies who works in a doctor's clinic in Orissa. The doctor does not know the local language. When patients tell about their sickness in the local language, he translates the symptoms to the doctor who, in turn, prescribes medicines. The name of the travel guide and interpreter of maladies is Mr. Kapasi.
One day a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Das along with three kids, come to the Konark Temple. Mr. Kapasi takes the family for sightseeing. The family lives in America. They have come to India for a brief period. They suffer from inferiority complex about their Indian origin and try to look as much American as possible. The lady is totally engrossed in her make-up and personal care. The husband is busy in clicking his camera and reading his travel guidebook which tells interesting details about the place. The children are on their own, doing whatever they like. It’s a typical picture of an uprooted Indian family.
Mrs. Das is a disenchanted lady. She is also bored. She wants company and warm conversation. She soon finds Mr. Kapasi a good companion. Mr. Kapasi has never received so much attention from any lady; not even from his wife. Mrs. Das develops a deep interest in Mr. Kapasi's job as an interpreter of maladies. She even takes his address to send the photographs in which both of them are together. Mr. Kapasi's flights of fancies know no bounds. He is indeed very happy. At one point when Mr. Das and his kids are sight seeing, while Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das are alone in the car, Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi the secret of her life that she hates her husband and one of her sons is actually not Mr. Das' but someone else's.
This supposed intimate confession of Mrs. Das brings Mr. Kapasi down to earth. He knows that this lady is no different from thousands of women who live with their husbands without loving them. They do not have sensitivity. They may look pretty and attractive, but, in reality, they are hard and obtuse. After this, monkeys catch the son whose parentage was disclosed by Mrs. Das. However, Mr. Das frantically saves the boy who ironically is not his son. In the process, Mr. Kapasi's address chit flies out of Mrs. Das' bag. The supposed link between the two breaks and. Mr. Kapasi is relieved.
This is a 'great' story on many accounts. First of all, it underlines a fundamental psychological truth that fascination is based on false and momentary assumptions. The less we know a person, the more we are fascinated towards her/him. This is the reason why we pin up film and sports stars rather than our spouse. Love and regard are different from fascination. Respect for the partner can be developed over the years realizing that shortcomings are integral parts of every personality, including our own. Mr. Kapasi found Mrs. Das different from his wife because she paid attention to his trivial job. He thought that she was sensitive and understanding, but he realized in the end that Mrs. Das was perhaps more thick-skinned and uncaring for her husband than his wife was for him.
The second point on which this tale needs to be praised is the underlying satire on the craving of Indians to behave like Americans, to look like American and speak like Americans. Jhumpa drops a word here, a hint there and leaves the readers smiling at the foolishness of the Das couple. For example, she writes : 

  • "The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did, the children in stiff brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors."
  • "When he'd introduced himself, Mr. Kapasi had pressed his palm together in greeting, but Mr. Das squeezed hands like an American, so that Mr. Kapasi felt it in his elbow."
  • "He (Mr. Das) glanced up from his paperback tour book, which said "INDIA" in yellow letters and looked as if it had been published abroad."
  • "Oh Mina and I were both born in America," Mr. Das announced with an air of sudden confidence. "Born and raised."

This third remarkable point of this story is its symbolism. An interpreter of maladies not only knows the roots of problems, but is also able to interpret them. Mr. Kapasi only knows why Mrs. Das is bored and disenchanted, but he also knows much further. He interprets her condition as well. Just as a patient has to open up before an interpreter, Mrs. Das comes up with confession. At many points in the story, the suggestive attitude of author is apparent. The fact that Mrs. Das does not pay any attention to her kids speaks volumes. Again, the way Mr. Das is oblivious of the world and is lost in his guidebook and camera also reveals a lot.
Finally, in the end of the story we find the family united in semblance and a man madly caring for a boy whom he falsely knows to be his own son. The end is wrapped in symbolism and irony. This again is a story that unveils utter shallowness of a marriage. 

The title of the story, ‘This Blessed House’ is a deceptive title, as the house is not at all blessed. The story tells the hopeless beginning of marriage. How couples impose preconditions on their marriage, and spoil their relationship.
The plot of the story is very short. Twinkle and Sanjeev are married. They purchase a house and settle down. In that house, either by chance or otherwise, various symbols of Christianity are hidden at different places. Twinkle goes on finding a  statue of Christ here, a Cross there, a Mother Mary poster in another corner, the Trinity somewhere else. The whole thing fascinates her. For Sanjeev, the whole episode is irritating. He keeps on reminding Twinkle, not to go to the extremes. Sanjeev compromises. Even when they invite guests to celebrate their wedding, the party itself turns out to be a treasure hunt for Twinkle and others, Sanjeev is serving wine and picking up plates. He's alone, utterly lonely in the chaos. Again and again, he says, "We're not Christians". Finally the party is over. Twinkle keeps the bust of Christ at the place in the drawing room. Sanjeev sees a bitter life ahead, full of compromises. He sees that he has lost his freedom. And that is the end of the story.
Skillfully written, the story brings out the helplessness of Sanjeev very poignantly. The mentality of Twinkle is not quite understandable for the reader. Analysis of such fragmental and situational stories is not easy.
What to interpret? There are not many happenings. It is just the attitude of a newly-wed wife that is causing love-less-ness and restlessness in a newly formed home. It implies that marriage is basically a bargain. It takes away the freedom of an individual. In your own home, you have to bear things that you could never dream of enduring earlier.
Most of the stories of this collection represent futility of marriage. Discord, lack of understanding and warmth is the subject matter of many stories like Interpreter of Maladies, and A Temporary Matter etc, but if we are a bit adventurous and refer to psychological theories, we will find that religion and religious symbols form the bulk of our latent archetypes as discussed by Jung. Some of us are irresistibly drawn towards these symbols. The attraction is beyond our control. This attraction is a result of the stock of cultural/mythological archetypes we have inherited. 

Twinkle's case can be that of a person being compulsive about religious material. The Jungian theory says, "The religious and cultural symbolic manifestations of the wholeness [e.g., mandala, Christ] become an essential part of existence. They are the products of the process of transformation and embody man's basic urge to become conscious of himself and develop human awareness. These symbols are archetypal representations which are mediated by the unconscious before reaching consciousness as images and ideas; the latter always refer back to the original archetype which is the unconscious precondition of every human life." It is also a valid point of consideration as to why Jhumpa chose Christian symbols as the interfering force in the relationship. If mere discord was to be shown the cause could have been something else, but the selection of religious symbols certainly denotes the compulsive nature of Twinkle's desires. Perhaps the malady of Twinkle goes far deeper than it seems. 

Another story is named as ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’. Bibi Haldar is a patient of epilepsy. She has been given the wildest treatment, but her condition does not improve. She is not good looking. She is young. Her father has died. She is at the mercy of her brother and his wife. They use her to keep ledgers of their shop, but do not marry her off. She is craving to get married. She tells every lady of the multi flat apartment about her dreams and needs. She is quite social, but Haldar, the brother, is cruelly ruining her youth.
Slowly the situation worsens to such a point where Haldar's baby girl falls sick, his wife blames Bibi's inauspicious presence for the baby's sickness. Bibi is shown the door and she settles down at the bottom of the building in a store-cum-security room. Bibi sees no hope of getting married and becomes more and more silent and introvert. The public sympathy is in Bibi's favor. Haldar is forced to leave the apartment as no one purchases a single item from his shop, and he and his family are socially boycotted. Bibi keeps silent and roams around the apartment all by herself. After some  months, the ladies of the apartment come to know that Bibi is four moths pregnant. The ladies provide food to Bibi. At last her son is born. She opens a shop. With the co-operation of the residents of the apartment, her business runs well. Bibi is bringing up her son and running her shop. Nobody knows who is the father of the boy, but to the amazement of all, Bibi is now perfectly cured.
This is a tale of people of modest living, in whose lives humanness is more important that social traditions. The story is set in Bengal. The way people in the apartment respond to the life of Bibi Haldar decides the course of the story. On the psychological level, the changes in the Bibi's personality are interesting. According to Jung's principles "Introversion and extroversion can exist in the same individual manifesting their characteristics at different times and different levels of consciousness,"
As long as Bibi is hopeful of finding a groom, she is quite social and friendly, but once she knows that she is not going to get married, she becomes secretive. She goes against the social norms and that makes her silent. The very nature of human beings is such that those with personal designs will become aloof and quiet. This introversion and extroversion in Bibi's personality is a reflection of her state of mind.
The story also has many funny moments. Bibi has not been diagnosed properly. She is said to be suffering from some strange disease. The range of treatment she receives from swallowing raw duck's eggs beaten in milk to smelling of leather slippers is baffling. Marriage is just another prescription for Bibi's disease. Moreover, the way women in India are expected to behave is also narrated in a funny manner. How girls are taught to put on sari, embroider pillow covers, and are taken to the studio for a final photograph to be sent to the groom's side, how groom comes to see the girl with a grandparent, uncle or aunt is all described in detail. Finally, the story conveys the message that the circle of life would be completed, if not through social accepted norms, then other wise. Bibi needs a mate; Bibi needs a baby; Bibi is human.

Chance and Change in Laihiri's Stories :
On the whole, these stories are about transformation in human 'self' and situations. The change in the nature of the characters of a story and their lives is caused by seemingly unimportant factors. 

Reading these sublime and well-written tales, I was reminded of Jung's interpretation of synchronicity principle : "Jung's synchronicity principle encompasses the core of his explanation of the chance aspect of events. He defines synchronicity as coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events, which have the same or similar meaning".
Whether it is the chance incident of M. Kapasi meeting Mrs. Das, or the accidental demise of Shoba's baby or the sudden appearance of Christian paraphernalia in Sanjeev's house-all the stories draw their meanings in the casual and unplanned events of life. Life is a matter of chance. The morality and mentality of people are caused by chance events.
I also want to compare these stories with Chinese ancient book of wisdom ‘The I Ching or Book of Changes’. It is a book of hexagrams. These hexagrams signify themes of human situations. They represent the past (cause), present (reality) and future (hope) of human situations. "There are three predominant themes running through the I Ching. The first theme concerns the Tao, the universal law of change. Change is viewed as the transformation of one force (e.g. firm) into another (e.g. yielding), and the cycle of complexes of phenomena (e.g. day and night). The second theme is that of image. An image is an idea in the unseen world; thus, what happens in the visible world is only a reproduction of what happens in the world that cannot be perceived. The third theme is judgment. Judgment allows the possibility for making a decision about a course of action, as found in the image. This course of action may or may not be harmful, as the I Ching can indicate."
Jhumpa stores certainly revolve around the theme of change. They also represent the change of one force into change. Due to one chance event, many after-effects and repercussions follow, and, most importantly, these stories only suggest 'future'. Unseen mental energy solidifies itself into actions and events. These stories subtly indicate unseen realities. The forces that shape our lives are often not tangible and concrete. 

The end of these stories is not rigid or fixed. They only indicate what might follow. This is the appeal of these stories. They have the wholeness of life within them. The secrets of the web of human situation can be felt lying latent in the beautifully written pages of ‘Interpreter of Maladies - Stories of Bengal, Boston, and Beyond’

References :
(1) Lahiri, Jhumpa. 2000. Interpreter of Maladies-Stories of Bengal, Boston, and Beyond India: Harper Collins.
(2) Maston, Katinka. 1987. The Psychology Today-Omni Book of Personal Development. New York : William Morrow and Company, Inc.   


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 3657      Comments: 4

Comment Very excellent analysis.

Rajendra Prasada Reddy
02-Jul-2015 22:15 PM

Comment OMG! I never realised there was so much depth to such stories... I am into classics, a bit of psychology and philosophy, fiction,humour,many types of books.But the genre that has stumped me till date has been the short stories.They neither engage the reader emotionally, nor inspire her, nor have a clear storyline.. One is left wondering what the author wants to say.I used to shun all booker winners like the plague till now.

Now Thanks to you , it seems to make some sense.Looking forward to more reviews from you, Mam.


21-Feb-2013 04:20 AM

Comment It is really a wonderful explanation about the Author and her short stories.........
It helps many students as well as Readers.......................................
Thank u for such Analysis..

15-Sep-2012 03:54 AM

Comment Nice Write up, Prof Shubha ji.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
27-Mar-2012 14:56 PM

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