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Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’: Stories of Expatriate Experience

By Ramlal Agarwal

Jhumpa Lahiri, born of Bengali parents in England and brought up in America, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her debut collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, has also won the New Yorker Prize for Best First Book, the PEN/ Hemingway Award, a National Humanities Medal in 2015, shortlisted for Los Angeles Times Award and was hailed by reviewers across the board as a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.

The collection’s piece de resistance is its title story. The word ‘interpreter’ evokes the roles of philosophers, or doctors, psychologists or poets or critics, etc. However, Lahiri’s Mr. Kapasi is none of the above but a translator. He translates the maladies of Gujarati patients to a doctor who does not understand Gujarati. Moreover, he is also a Secondary school teacher besides being a tourist guide.

While taking the Das family on a tour to Konark, he is drawn towards Mrs. Das. He tells her that he is an interpreter. This impresses Mrs. Das and she begins to show interest in him. She romanticizes that Mr. Kapasi turns incomprehensible into comprehensible and finds an opportunity to reveal a secret that was pricking her conscience and nagging her all the time, in the hope that Mr. Kapasi would suggest a resolution of her problem.

On the way back, they halt at a tea stall where they are surrounded by monkeys. Though the children, Ronny and Tina, are thrilled by them but are also scared of them, Bobby begins to play with them. Mr. Kapasi says that Bobby seems to be a very brave boy but Mrs. Das says that he is not Mr. Das’s son. Mr. Kapasi becomes curious and wants to know how it was. So, Mrs. Das tells him that Mr. Das invited a Panjabi friend in America to stay with him for a few days. One day, when they were together, the man touched her inappropriately to which she did not object. Immediately the man seized her and made love, and Bobby was conceived. Nobody knew the secret, but she wanted to know what she must do. Mr. Kapasi is baffled and unable to suggest a way out. When pressed, he asks her whether she felt pain or guilt. Mrs. Das glares at him and is about to say something but is withheld by some consideration. She opens her car and takes out a bag of puffed rice, some of which slips through her fingers and the monkeys start following her. Bobby too is attacked by them. Somehow Mr. Das rescues him and they head for the hotel. Mr. Kapasi realizes that he has become non-existent for the Das family. The story conveys very effectively that what appears is not what is real. It seems that the Das family is happily settled in that prosperous country, though it simmers with discord and unhappiness. Mr. Kapasi thinks that he has the attention of Mrs. Das but is sadly deceived.

However, another story “When Mr. Pirzada came to Dine” has an altogether different message to convey. Like the title story, it also deals with an Indian couple comfortably settled in Boston. Mr. Pirzada, a Pakistani from East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, gets a scholarship to study the foliage in New England. His scholarship being very meagre, he manages his stay frugally. Lilia’s father invites him for dinner, and they become friends and watch news of their countries. Mr. Pirzada brings Lilia toffies and one day he brings a plastic bag filled with cinnamon hearts, which Lilia keeps in her bedroom. Mr. Pirzada tells the family that he has seven daughters and is concerned about their safety because of raging civil war and war between India and Pakistan. He tells them that he has stopped getting letters from home. This upsets Lilia. Before going to bed, she starts eating a chocolate, allows it to soften in the mouth and prays for the safety of the girls. She does not rinse the mouth for fear that it would wash out the prayer. Lilia’s father, mother and Mr. Pirzada get around the phone as if they are not three but one. When Mr. Pirzada returns home, Lilia’s father becomes anxious about his and his daughter’s safety. He is relieved, when, at long last, he receives a letter from Mr. Pirzada that he and his daughters are safe. Lilia breathes a sigh of relief and throws away the box of cinnamon hearts, as there is no longer any need to offer prayers. This story is in sharp contrast with the title story in which the characters are restless, agitated and unstable. In this story, they stick together notwithstanding the differences of race, religion and nationality.

Another story “The Last and Final Continent” is free from tensions. It is a story of survival and fulfilment. It narrates the journey of a man, who after initial hardships, finds love, affection and a comfortable home of his own.

The stories in this collection are a kaleidoscope of sharply different themes and traits. However, they are strung together by a common thread of American experience of Indians in America. This is also the theme Bharati Mukherjee and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are fascinated with. However, these writers deal with it in their own unique style. Bharati Mukherjee’s heroine finds it difficult to deal with the violence implicit in the highly dynamic society of America. She is unable to cope with the violent death of her husband and love-affairs of her children and she longs for the placid and stable relationships in Indian society. Ruth Jhabvala depicts the cultural differences of the Americans and Indians and how they grate on their nerves. Lahiri’s The Namesake deals with characters who take their expatriate experience in their stride and opt for a multinational, multicultural world, without borders. In her short stories, she steers clear of cultural confrontation. She deals with characters and situations where there is no confrontation, though she points out the cultural differences without a comment. Jhumpa Lahiri’s insights add to our understanding of globalization.

(Published first by : Café Dissensus Everyday, 2021)

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