Interpreter of Maladies
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Winner: Pulitzer Prize, Literary Fiction, 2000; Hemingway Foundation PEN Award, 2000; New Yorker’s Best Debut, 1999; Oprah’s Top Ten
Original Publication: 1999
Genre: Short Stories
I first sought this book because recently, I worked with a woman from India who was very culturally traditional, and I wanted to learn a little more about her. She was part of an arranged marriage, dressed traditionally, was Hindu, and was a recent immigrant to the United States. This collection of nine short stories are about people from India (mostly couples), who find themselves in the United States and are trying to reconcile the “modern world” with their traditional values and habits. I recall my pregnant friend trying to decide whether or not to buy her baby a crib. It would have been for appearance’s sake only – for the first two years of life in her family, a baby sleeps with its mother. She was used to sharing each room in the house equally with everyone else, and her husband worried that if the baby did not grow up with his own room, his friends at school would tease him. The things they talked about as a married couple were so far removed from the things I talked about with my husband that I was fascinated.
The book is beautifully written, but for me, was easy to put down – while I usually read books in a few sittings, this one sat partially read on my shelf for several months, and I picked it up now and again. The short story format works well in this sense – it is not a book which you feel you have to complete.
As I read about each couple, I saw my friend in the characters. My favorite of the stories was “This Blessed House”, where the man finds a home and brings his wife over from India, and while she is beautiful, he is annoyed by her energy and naivete, and he realizes that he doesn’t know her at all. The major annoyance lies in the fact that their house appears to have been previously owned by devout Christians, who have hidden tacky chotchkes and other Christian-themed paraphernalia all over the house. Twinkle (the wife) treats it like a treasure hunt and is delighted by the cracking statues of Jesus, crosses, and candles and displays them all on the mantle. Her husband is horrified and demands that she remove them – they are Hindu, after all, not Christian. What would their friends think? “Yes, I know,” Twinkle replies. “Good little Hindus.”
In the titular story, an unhappy couple travels to India with their three children and their tour guide is the local “Interpreter of Maladies”, that is, he is the only person in town who speaks both the local language and English, and so his job is to translate people’s ailments to the English-speaking doctor.
In “The Third and Final Continent”, a man rents a room from a 103-year old woman until he can afford to bring his newly acquired wife from India. Upon his nightly return to the house, the old woman remarks “Did you know that there’s an American flag on the moon? Isn’t that splendid?” Ever-polite, the man replies “Yes, madame.” “No,” the woman demands, “Say it was splendid!” “Splendid!” he exclaims.
Each story is a unique look at a culture with which I was previously wholly unfamiliar. It’s fascinating, heartbreaking, and funny all at once. I’m pleased to have read it, although if I hadn’t had the catalyst of my Indian friend, I may not have picked it up.
Bother if: You are a fan of cultural anthropology or are interested in how immigrants from other countries reconcile the American culture with their own, or you’re a short story fan.
Don’t bother if: You have no interest in the above. While it is beautifully done and there is nothing overtly wrong with it; for me, I had to commit myself to being interested in the subject matter.