An ordinary tale told in a manner that will keep the reader hooked is the tell-tale sign of an author with the ability to connect to the masses. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, does exactly that. The sombre collection of nine short stories tells the ordinary lives of ordinary people, almost all of whom are Indian immigrants in America. Lahiri offers an ode to their bifurcated lives, their fighting of never-ending every day battles, and how they are caught in the throes of immigration pangs.
Published in 1999, Interpreter of Maladies won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway/PEN Award in 2000. A number of the short stories appeared in The New Yorker. Characterizations are key to the success of any short story collection, and this book is no different. The nuanced characterization makes the narratives intimate and the stories relatable to, a quality that is appealing to people irrespective of their origins. A couple dealing with the loss of a child, a ten year old who munches on savouries while saying her prayers, a cab driver who becomes a confidante for an Indian-American couple, a young American woman caught in a lustful affair with an Indian married man; Lahiri’s characters could have been from anywhere in the world. America (except in two stories), however, plays a very important role in the background. When talking about her ancestral city, Calcutta, she describes derelict structures and shady, narrow lanes and by-lanes. While doing so, she neither sounds apologetic nor venerative, an endearing quality of her free flowing narratives.
Jhumpa Lahiri is an author of Indian origin who was born in London and raised in New York City. The reader can see glimpses of the writer in several of the characters she has written. The charming characters vocalize the feelings, fears and confusions of immigrants as they move between cultural and national borders. They are nothing out of the ordinary, but nonetheless they are infused with certain discerning characteristics, and all of them feature in scenarios wherein the writer provides unexpected twists and idiosyncratic insights into human affections and emotions.
Food is an important element in Lahiri’s short tales. Her stories are filled with the flavors and textures of Indian cooking. Miranda, in ‘Sexy’, describes the Indian savoury, Samosa, while at an Indian grocery store. “He was eating a samosa, dipping it into some dark brown sauce on a paper plate. Below the glass counter at his waist were trays of more plump samosas, and what looked like pale, diamond-shaped pieces of fudge covered with foil, and some bright orange pastries floating in syrup.” In ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’, the war between Bangladesh and Pakistan and similar food habits help form a lasting friendship between a Bangladeshi man and an Indian family in America, “Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands…Mr. Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea.” Furthermore, both ‘A Temporary Matter’ and ‘Mrs. Sen’s’ are filled with inventories of produce, a whole host of ingredients and descriptions of recipes.
Striking and relatable characters and elegant prose, with an ardour of empathy are the high points of this collection, which makes for an excellent read on those nostalgic evenings. As the narrator in the last story quips, “There are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.” With this line, Lahiri summarises the universal experience of anyone who has experienced the feeling of being a foreigner, whether in a different country or in one’s own family.