For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved reading. When I was little, my Mom set up library trips for me and my sister every Thursday. I would check out an enormous stack of books, devour them in a few days, and wait impatiently for the week to roll by so that I could check out more. I have high standards both for what I write and what I read. (It sounds nicer to say it that way than, “I’m picky.”)
So when I say I’ve discovered one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read in my life, it’s high praise.
If you’re a writer, you need to read this book. If you’re a reader, you need to read this book. If you’ve never read a book before in your life, you need to read this book.
In her arrangement of creative fiction essays collected as a series of works in Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian culture and life, but her overall themes are very broad. She is able to write very specifically about various aspects of her own culture, but she also conveys world truths. This is especially seen in the fact that she frequently talks about relationship in her writings, especially marriage.
Marriage relationships are seen instantly in her first short story in the collection, entitled “A Temporary Matter.” Shoba and Shukumar are struggling after the still birth of their first child, a boy. Neither truly know how to cope with the situation; they retreat rather than attempting to comfort each other and attempt to grieve. As the story progresses, however, they begin to bond and rediscover their relationship. They start sharing secrets about themselves, and Shukumar especially begins to look forward to it every night, where before he had dreaded being alone with Shoba. After their electricity is repaired and they are no longer required to eat their dinner in the dark, Shoba confesses to Shukumar that she has found an apartment and is leaving him. The story ends (as so many of Lahiri’s do) with little resolution; they are simply weeping in each other’s arms. Although the story is distinctively Indian, conveyed by their names, the foods they eat, and the rice ceremony Shoba had been planning for their baby, the loss of a child is a universal pain, as is a struggling and then failed marriage.
The second story in which marriages are discussed is the title story in the collection, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Mr. Kapasi, a tour guide, becomes infatuated with Mrs. Das, does not have a healthy relationship with her husband or children. As he dwells more and more on Mrs. Das, he becomes discontent with the thought of his own wife. Towards the end of the story, Mrs. Das confesses to Mr. Kapasi that her son Bobby is not Mr. Das’s biological son. She tells him because she hopes that he, as a translator for a doctor, can help “cure” her, as well. He is unable to, she becomes angry with him, and the infatuation is over almost as quickly as it began. Unhappy marriages, as well as infidelity, are conveyed strongly in this story, more universal themes.
A third story involving relationships is “Sexy.” Miranda meets Dev, a married man, in a department store, and the two begin an affair. Miranda knows from the beginning that he is married, but chooses to pursue and continue the relationship, anyway. Dev is also not bothered by the fact that he is being unfaithful to his wife. This story is woven in the midst of another story; Miranda’s coworker Laxmi is attempting to counsel her cousin after her husband has been unfaithful. The story ends in disillusionment after Miranda learns the truth of what she is doing from Rohin, the little boy of Laxmi’s cousin. Affairs are again expressed in this story, a (tragically) common occurrence not only in the Indian culture, but also in the world as a whole.
Another story that conveys universal truths is the last in the collection: “The Third and Final Continent.” This story is flavored more heavily with Indian culture and references; the narrator (who is interestingly never named!) moves from India to Boston to begin his new job after an arranged marriage to a woman named Mala. He expresses neither unhappiness nor pleasure over his marriage; it is just his duty. The two have an awkward relationship, especially when she finally arrives in America. As the story progresses, however, things begin to change. For the first six days of their marriage, Mala would cry all through the night about missing her parents. This changes as the two of them become accustomed to each other, and eventually the shyness they feel is replaced by genuine care and love. Perhaps Lahiri makes an intentional choice in ending her collection of stories that ended with unhappy or unresolved marriages with one that is successful and wonderful.
Lahiri is able to express many different features of her culture, conveying important aspects and showing her pride for her heritage. She also writes on the universality of humanity as a whole, however. This enables people to be able to relate to the deeper truths behind the stories she writes, no matter their ethnicity. She is very skilled at having a successful balance between the two.
I was absolutely inspired. I’ll be returning for more, Ms. Lahiri.