Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri

Summary: A collection of short stories about Indians and Indian-Americans taking place primarily in India and New England.

Musings: I really enjoy literature about India; somehow I find the culture so different from my own and the feelings associated with it so rich. Lahiri uses her stories to explore a range of characters: women and men living in India, recently transplanted Indians in America, and 2nd generation children who grew up in the U.S. Although the individual characters vary, the stories, as a whole, present a picture of longing and loss. In the stories, people strive for some kind of human connection and frequently find the gap between them and others widening, rather than decreasing.

In the first story, "A Temporary Matter," newly married Shoba and Shukumar find themselves distant over the loss of their first child during childbirth. When their power is turned off for an hour every night as the power company does maintenance, Shoba and Shukumar find themselves forced to be together and gradually begin to reveal secrets. On the final night, Shoba reveals that she has found her own apartment and is moving out. As in many of the stories, Shoba and Shukumar have a strained, silent relationship. More is unsaid than said, and the gulf between them widens through lack of effort. All but one of the marriages in Lahiri's book is defined by cool distance. It was difficult, and scary, to see how isolated people who lived in the same house could be.

The Indian diaspora is also a common thread across the novel, particularly for the Indian wives who move, jobless, to America with their husbands with nothing to do but care for dingy apartments and cook. Although the husbands at least have work to give them purpose, the women are largely ignored, particularly in the American society that fails to understand Indian culture. Nonetheless, women form the backbone of the majority of the stories, and it is clearly their pain that shapes the tone of the stories.

Despite the sadness present in most of the stories, the last story, "The Third and Final Continent," ends on an upbeat note as a transplanted newlywed couple uses a small moment with a very old woman to bring them together in a strange country.

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