Book Reviews

Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies

Emotional Trauma in the Lives of Mrs. Sen and Sobha

This article is written jointly with Dr. Archana, Associate Professor, BBDGEI, Lucknow, U.P.

Jhumpa Lahiri with the publication of her debut collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, which won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2000, shot into prominence. The nine stories in the collection constitute - the universe of nine planets. In critical perspective it is regarded, as another milestone after Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. No doubt, Indian writing from Raja Rao to Jhumpa Lahiri is long road - arduous, but exciting and exhilarating. 
Although not all the stories in Interpreter of Maladies are set in America, all of them deal with the characters in Diaspora of one sort or another. Very few essential characters in the book live in their original homeland, and, if they do, their first generation of their family is born into a Western culture. Thus, most of the characters in Interpreter of Maladies must cope with living in the Diaspora in some sense. The following questions look at the ways in which Lahiri deals with the issue of Diaspora and its effects on identity and character.

Lahiri often toys with the reversal of the gender roles, especially as they relate to husband - and - wife roles within marriage. Whereas in India, a strict set of guidelines dictates how husbands and wives act both publicly and privately, in America such guidelines are not as clear-cut and, often times, are thrown out altogether. Lahiri’s married characters often deal with confusion of marriage roles in relation to cooking, working outside the home, and bearing children. According to Lahiri’s generalizations of Indian marital culture, women are solely responsible for cooking and doing household chores, as well as being completely domesticated with the arrival of the children. Men are, according to such guidelines, responsible for working and providing their families with a monitory income.

Many of Lahiri’s characters, specifically the ones in Diaspora, must cope with new and sometimes shockingly different gender stereotypes and roles in their new homelands. Generation gaps, culture shock upon moving away from the “homelands” and questions of sexuality play their roles in Lahiri’s interpretations of gender and what it means to Indians in Diaspora. The following questions seek to analyze Lahiri’s motives and methods when it comes to discussing gender and sexuality in term of Diaspora.

The focus of my study are the two women; Shoba from the first story ‘A Temporary Matter’ and Mrs. Sen from the story ‘Mrs. Sen’s.’

In ‘A Temporary Matter’, a young couple, whose marriage is at an impasse, receives a notice from the Power Company that their neighborhood will be without power one hour each evening, at eight, for the next five days. Shoba, is an editor who has recently thrown herself into her work as an editor (who does her proof-reading work with an “Array of coloured pencils”, which are noted in a number of instances (5, 8) Instead of eating dinner together, Shoba avoids, her husband’s Shukumar as much as possible, “ watching game shows or proof-reading files” (8). It is noteworthy that both Shoba and Shukumar “ have become experts are avoiding each other “ (4).

On the first evening of power cut, they dined together in candlelight, their first meal together in months. He makes every possible arrangement to please his wife, by putting embroided mats and special wine glasses. It’s here through Shukumar we realize that they had a baby, who’d died at birth. Prior to this incident Shoba was a very organized and a capable women. She paid bill on time, (She) “used to put her coat on the hanger, her, sneakers in the closet...But now she treated the house as if it were a hotel.”(7) And was always prepared for surprises. Now she was distracted, her clothes left lying around the house. Their responses to the grief (of losing their child) are opposite : as Shoba stays away, working late, burying herself in work even at home, Shukumar becomes a hermit, and cannot focus on his work at all, “ when he heard her approach he would put away his novel and begin typing sentences” (8). During dinner, Shoba proposes a game she used to play with her cousins during power-cuts in India, in which each person takes a turn sharing something with the others. She suggests they tell each other something they’ve never told before. She tells Shukumar that she’d looked in his address book when they were first dating, to see if he’d written her in. Shukumar revealed he forgot to tip the waiter on their first date, and went there the other day to tip him. What ensues is a series of disclosures exchanged between Shukumar and Shoba during the dark hours, revealing - “the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves.” (18)

Although Shukumar doesn’t fancy the game at first, but later on he begin to look forward to their meals and this exchange of untold secrets with anticipation. “Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again.” (19)

Shukumar becomes hopeful, seeing this as the beginning of the restoration of their relationship. On the fourth night they made love. But Shukumar has misunderstood the point of Shoba’s game. For during this time, when he thinks they are growing closer, when it seems they might survive their grief after all, Shukumar learns through Shoba’s final admission that she has been planning to move out. She returns home on the fifth night to announce, she has signed a lease. “All this time she’d been looking for an apartment, testing the water pressure, asking a Realtor if heat and hot water were included in the rent. It sickened Shukumar, knowing that she had spent these past evenings preparing for a life without him. He was relieved and yet he was sickened “ (21).

Shukumar reveals that Shoba’s one consolation was that they did not know the sex of their baby. She believed in keeping that information a mystery, lessened the blow somehow, the only thing she’d ever wanted to remain a surprise. However, unbeknownst to Shoba, Shukumar had held their baby in the hospital before the doctor took it away, and he knew it had been a boy. Realizing they’ve reached an impasse, Shukumar makes this his final confession to Shoba.

“A Temporary Matter” is the most moving of the nine tales in Lahiri’s collection. It is so tenderly written till the end. The trauma Shoba was going through was far less, as Shukumar saved her from the final blow but now it’s all over and they share the emotional turmoil, which they both were going through separately “Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for the things they now knew.” (22) Shoba in the end gets Shukumar’s love for which she so much longed and so did Shukumar.
But on the contrary Mrs. Sen in the story titled “ Mrs. Sen’s “ is left helpless and in a state of emotional topsy-turvy. A common thread running through Lahiris’ collection of stories is experience of being “foreign”. Her characters are long for meaningful connection, but what they find is rarely they expected. Those trying to adapt to an unfamiliar world don’t always succeed. Some are homesick (like Mrs. Sen) and many are misunderstood (like Shoba).

‘Mrs. Sen’s ‘ speaks to the many isolated immigrant women of not just Indian descent, but of universal origin, through its poignant depiction of a woman trying to assimilate but unwilling to let go off the aspects of her life in India that ‘ do not fit ‘ in her surrounding.

The narrator of ‘Mrs. Sen’s ‘ is 11-year-old Eliot, and Mrs. Sen is his after-school baby sitter. Eliot’s mother was originally looking for someone to come and stay with Eliot until she returned home from work each day. But Mrs. Sen, who recently moved with her Professor husband from India to the small New England town, cannot drive. Mrs. Sen actually doesn’t need to work, what she is looking for is a way to fill up her lonely afternoons. Eliot’s mother is skeptical at first. They go to the Sen’s home for an interview, and Eliot can’t help noticing the strangeness of the apartment : how shoes are lined up on a small book case by the front door, and the TV and the phone covered with pieces of fabric. Both husband and wife wore flip - flops. Mrs. Sen was dressed in an elegant sari. “… It was his mother, Eliot has thought, in her cuffed, beige shorts and her rope - soled shoes, which looked odd.” (113). Eliot quickly becomes aware of Mrs. Sen’s loneliness, her bewilderment in a strange new culture. She alarms him by asking: “Eliot, if I began screaming right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come? At house ‘ in India ‘, she explains, “ ... just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with the arrangements “. (116) she spends a good part of the afternoon chopping vegetables for the elaborate meals she prepares for herself and her husband. She tells Eliot that she brought the huge blade she uses from India. Whenever there is a large celebration, “... My mother sends out word in the evening for all the neighborhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they set in an enormous circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night.” (115)

When Eliot returns from his school, he finds Mrs. Sen waiting there. She keeps on practicing how to drive. But she is not allowed to drive the car on the main roads without her husband. Through Eliot we witness Mrs. Sen’s true nature. He discovers that she lives for two thing that make her happy, letters from home and a whole fresh fish. Since she can’t drive Mrs. Sen must rely on her husband to take her to the fish market, but he is busy and resentful of her persistent requests. She asks Eliot “Tell me, Eliot, Is it too much to ask?” Before he could answer, she took him by the hand ... She flung open the drawers of the bureau and the door of the closet, filled with saris of every imaginable texture and shade ... She sifted through the drawers, letting saris spill over the edges. “When have I ever worn this one? And this? And this? ... ‘“Send pictures, ‘they write ‘ send pictures of your new life ‘ what pictures can I send ? “ (125). Everyone thinks she lives like a queen, in India but nobody knows about the loneliness Mrs. Sen has to go through. Ultimately, she meets with an accident while driving, while Eliot is with her. His mother takes him away and decides that he no more needs the baby sitter.

Both these stories don’t have grand passions and tumultuous relationships, or dramatic plots. Instead, they exquisitely detail the thoughts of one individual about a period of his or her life, for example, a woman who is running away from her own husband or a child who goes to an immigrant woman’s house each day after school, and sees her deal with home sickness, loneliness and isolation. Jhumpa Lahiri with each story draws believable characters in both ordinary and extra ordinary situations, making the task seem sweetly effortless in the process. The range of her talent and imagination is broad but never loses focus in its execution. She has the unique ability to paint the worlds of both the immigrant and the native in miniature, allowing for immersion in detail while simultaneously placing them in a grand, sweeping perspective of universal truth.

It would probably prove impossible to interpret all the maladies affecting the characters of Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short-stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies, but it seems that most, if not all the characters in this collection of short-stories experience and underlying malady that of being an outsider. They’re the outsiders in their personal relationships, the outsiders in a new society, outsiders crumbling under emotional pressure and more often than not, they’re average people who feel like outsiders because of their discontent with their lives. There’s a pureness to Lahiri’s writing, an ability to convey a message of humanity through lyrical prose. Although the stories involves characters of Indian origin, rare and ethnicity seem almost irrelevant in the light of what Lahiri has painted with these stories. The issues affecting the characters transcend cultural barriers and with a mere shift of his imagination, the reader can place just about anyone in the context of the stories.

Notes and References
Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri Jhumpa, HarperColins Publishers India, 1999,pp. 5- 8.

All the references made in the paper are cited from the only text referred above, with page nos. in the parenthesis.


More by :  Prof. Dr. Ram Sharma

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