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Book Review: The Interpreter of Maladies

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Some books pop out and grab the reader all at once. Others take longer and then sneak up on you. This is one of the those.

I read it a year or so ago not expecting much from a woman’s book of short stories about India and Indians. But it had been a gift to my wife from her mother. She brought it back from New York to our jungle outpost in Mexico, where books in English can be rare. So I tried it. Tentatively at first and slowly. Its’ pace and its surprises made themselves felt.

It is definitely not a jump-in-your-face collection. It is a group of slice of life stories and characterizations of both Indians in India and Indians in America. The stories take place in that traditional culture and in New England. There is a clash of culures. These are people who both are and are not comfortable in their place or culture and are feeling their way through life with doubts and fears.

Each story of a place and person flows along with the pace of life and then ends quietly. Only later does the epiphany (when they are successful) strike. Suddenly a piece of the puzzle of what life is like for all of us and for these people lost in and between cultures becomes more real and more illuminated. This is the moment of pleasure which short stories aim to give and often don’t.

The writer, herself of Indian descent but born in London, raised in Rhode Island is living in New York City. We feel her most in those stories like “Sexy” where the protagonist is someone more American than Indian who is confronted with the specter of the India of her ancestors, the alien nature of its’ gods and foods and thinking.

Note my reference to food. These stories abound with the tastes and textures of Indian cookery They are the nature of the culture itself . Miranda, the “other woman” who narrates “Sexy” stops in an Indian grocery in Central Square, Boston.

“Can I help you?” the man standing at the cash register asked. 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.

Miranda is having an affair with a man who knows his Indian culture and, suddenly she wants to know something about it, too.

Apart from Laxmi and Dev, the only Indians whom Miranda had known were a family in the neighborhood where she’ grown up… One year, all the neighborhood children were invited to the birthday party of the Dixit girl. Miranda remembered a heavy aroma of incense and onions in the house, and a pile of shoes heaped by the front door. But most of all she remembered a piece of fabric, about the size of a pillowcase, which hung from a wooden dowel at the bottom of the stairs. It was a painting of a naked woman with a red face shaped like a knight’s shield. She had enormous white eyes that tilted toward her temples, and mere dots for pupils. Two circles, with the same dots at their centers, indicated her breasts. In one hand she brandished a dagger. With one foot she crushed a struggling man on the ground… She stuck her tongue out at Miranda…

She was told that this was “the goddess Kali” and was invited to cake. Miranda at 9 years old is terrified to eat the cake and to “walk on the same side of the street as the Dixit’s house…” In the “now” of the story she is shamed by her recollection of the alien qualities of other Indians who are not so totally American as is she. She, too, feels like a foreigner in her own country. It is a common thread in the stories. People feel themselves as foreign. It is a feeling I know living as an American expatriate in Mexico. I felt it growing up in Florida when Florida was the South with a capital “S”. I was a cracker, born and bred there; but, still, I was an alien.

In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” we smell more foods and meet Mr. Pirzada, who is more foreign than the family of the narrator. He comes to her parents’ home for dinners in 1971 to watch the TV as his home (where his family remained while he studied) in Dacca is under siege during the partitioning of Pakistan. She is intrigued by him because he is foreign to her American eyes. Her family straddle the fence of cultures. They complain that “The supermarket did not carry mustard oil, doctors did not make house calls, neighbors never dropped by without an invitation…”

She is confused by the distinctions and clashes of Partition.

It made no sense to me. 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.

In the end he returns to Dacca. Nothing has happened and everything has happened – war and meals and friendships, beginnings and endings. The little girl who treasured his little gifts of candies learns the feelings of loss. Perhaps we do, too. It is not an exciting story and then that epiphany comes and you are lifted and taught and learn and that is a pleasure like, perhaps, pickled mangoes.

In the title story, “Interpreter of Maladies” we are confronted with the life of an Indian man in India looking at the family of Americans of Indian descent who come to see the sights and visit the parents who retired to India. “‘Mina and I were both born in America,’ Mr. Das announced with an air of sudden confidence. ‘Born and raised.'” Our “interpreter” is their driver and guide, Mr. Kapasi. After a time we learn that he also works for a doctor who does not speak Gujarati and has a lot of Gujarati patients. Mr. Kapasi translates their medical or emotional complaints.

Mrs. Das and we are thrown into this mirrored reality of translations on translations of words and of feelings that make our lives so complex and the lives of immigrants so difficult. Mr. Kapasi is entranced by Mrs. Das and the future of having a real American with whom to correspond. She is entranced by what she sees as his ability to translate the signs of illness or unhappiness into words that heal. We are set up for both a clash of cultures and of realities. When it is over we are left with a little epiphany, a snapshot held in his eye of the reality of people from another place and another life.

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Photo of mime in New Orleans by Beringer-Dratch.

Jhumpa Lahiri is the teller of tales and the interpreter of maladies. She writes of the feelings, the fears, the confusions of the immigrant experience. Today, with Blogcritics and the nation embroiled in a clash of isolationist desires, border skirmishes, and increased intolerance in the country; Lahiri is a witness to the feelings of the immigrant and of the assimilated strangers in our midst.

The forces of intolerance, racism and prejudice are crying for walls from sea to shining sea and for an end to immigration because the country is “full” and so many immigrants don’t speak English. The current climate is conducive to more than the normal amount of xenophobia and violence. This is the time to think of the traditions of immigration and the contributions made by those whose lives became part of the American tradition.

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