The Pulitzer Prize winning debut work of Jhumpa Lahiri, which is a collection of 9 short stories explores the lives, characters and events revolving around Indians and Indian Americans in a way never explored before. The stories are global in flavour yet with a local aroma.
The various themes of the stories include language and communication; how the characters balance their huge cultural background moving between Indian/Bengali and American culture. The stories dealing with marriages show how the families often look fulfilling from the outside, in an American suburb, but after a close look what one sees are the failed marriages, with the “misguided aims of ‘American dream'”. The identity of self, and the self with regard to the family, is questioned in some, and dreams, plans and hopes take unexpected turns when they come across the society, economy, and politics.
There is a story about a couple who recently lost their baby and are on the verge of a broken marriage.
Another story talks about a mentally challenged lady with an unpredicted pregnancy.
One more story talks about an old Bangladeshi immigrant lady thrown out of her shelter, yet again.
The whole collection somehow seems to be under the spell of melancholy and in its way celebrates the otherness or the foreignness attributed to the characters. The problems and the dilemmas faced by the characters which might seem unique to them only, can be empathized by all eventually.
My paper will explore these characters and bring out the known differences and the unknown similarities between the world of Lahiri and the real world.
One of the greatest humanistic ideas long since the early 19th century is World Literature. For a long time it was corresponded to the literature of Europe and the idea had a shift when there vehement criticism and demand for including global south or non-western literature by decentring the Western canon.
The term world literature was first coined by Goethe as Weltliteratur in 1872. Rene Welek writes “the term world literature… suggests a historical scheme of the evolution of national literature in which they will fuse and ultimately meet into a great synthesis.
World literature for Goethe was an opportunity, not for the imposition of cultural hegemony by one nation over others, but rather a greater understanding of one’s neighbours and of oneself that would foster harmony and lead to reducing conflict. (Lawall, “Introduction” 13)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies with the sub-title “stories from Bengal,Boston and Beyond” dwells on the difficulties faced by immigrants in a foreign land. It vidvidly describes the yearning for a homeland and the identity crisis that follows.
Lahiri, who was herself an immigrant, could accurately feel the need of family bonds that keep people tied to their homelands.
“She has undergone the trauma of failing to find her identity in a world where she could never have a sense of belongingness and so tries to fall back upon the treasured memories of what Rushdie calls “Imaginary Homeland” which with its vibrant colours and versatility gave life to her starving existence and stimulated her very being.”
Thus the nine stories in this collection caters to various emotions and gasping pain rising from cultural clashes ,which then gets directed to various other dilemmas. The maladies that Lahiri tries to interpret in her stories constitutes of agony of separation from home, upheaval and a sense of isolation and the distress of living in a faraway land estranged from family, suffered by the thousands of Indians who try without any success to balance between home and abroad. Her characters portray universal experiences.
In the story Mrs Sen’s, a young Indian housewife, who is dealing with the fact of staying away from her homeland, is shown to be babysitting the 11 year old Eliot. Eliot comes to Mrs Sen’s place after school as Mrs.Sen does not know how to drive and is in the process of acquiring a driving licence.
Mrs.Sen, in her early 30’s is shown as character that has still not shed away from the memories of her home land and still craves for everything that she left ,back there. She can be alluded to another character from The Namesake by Lahiri, i.e. Ashima, who too felt like a fish out of water, when she immigrated to America after her marriage.
Lahiri’s characters often constitute of young docile Bengali housewives who are recently transported to an alien land and a new culture, which deprives them of the familial love and the warmth provided by their roots. And this is true for most third world country’s immigrants and their spouses of the later part of 20th century. The first generation immigrants, who went abroad to test their luck had their spouses transplanted in a land far away from home. And thus life was a constant struggle between east and west for them.
In this particular story, Mrs. Sen’s restlessness and longing for home is too evident in her conversations. She realizes how different Eliot’s childhood is from what she had back in Kolkata. How Eliot never misses his mother in the afternoons those he spends with Mrs, Sen and how Eliot’s mother is independent unlike her who is dependent on Mr. Sen.
Taken aback by the community notions in the Boston neighbourhood, Mrs Sen fondly recalls her childhood and the neighbours during the wedding seasons ,when all the women in the neighbourhood used to gather at one place with their blades to chop huge amount of vegetables ,meant for the feast, together amongst all night chattering and gossiping . She could never cope with the fact that she was emotionally alone in this huge place, where people led individual lives without bothering about the lives of their neighbours. And due to all those difference in culture Mrs.Sen could never accept her apartment in Boston as home; rather she still referred India as home.
“”At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighbourhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements.”
By then Eliot understood that when Mrs. Sen said home, she meant India, not the apartment where she sat chopping vegetables.”
Even for Eliot it was a culture shock as he had never experience such intimate community bonds. On hearing Mrs. Sen’s experiences he thinks about a party in his locality where they were not invited and his mother called them up to ask them to lower the noise.
“They might call you,” Eliot said eventually to Mrs. Sen. “But they might complain that you were making too much noise.”
Food becomes an essential symbolism for home. She associates authentic Bengali dishes with the memories of her homeland. The memories of her past linger in her mind every now and then.
Other than the arrival of letter from her family, fresh fish from seaside was the only delight Mrs.Sen felt in Boston.
The Third and the Final Continent , the concluding story of the collection talks about the experiences of a Bengali man who has emigrated from Kolkata to London to Boston, and the process of his settling down to make America his home.
The protagonist gets a decent job in MIT as a librarian the very day the Americans land on the Moon. And the conservative ,Victorian owner of his lodging made him utter ‘spendid’ every time he sat near her ,commemorating the success of the Americans. There can be seen a contrast between the shabby condition of the poor Indian librarian surviving solely on milk and cornflakes and the super successful natives, reaching out to the moon.
Mala, the young wife of the newly wed protagonist arrives from Kolkata a few months later. She encounters her first cultural clash when she loses her appetite on the flight to Boston, hearing about the oxtail soup being served as food.
The protagonist takes his sweet time to acquaint himself to the American lifestyle without forgetting his own culture.
He observes huge differences in the way of living of the native, taking Mrs.Croft as an example, who was independent and full of mental strength even after losing her spouse. Whereas his own mother could not deal with the loss of her husband.
Gradually Mala too begins to adapt to the new lifestyle, giving up her docile nature and her frequent tears for her parents back in India.
This couple in the story, with time acquire the ways of dealing with the cultural differences and meanwhile try to balance their identity clashes. They strive in their own way , succeed in maintaining a small Bengali Community away from India by socialising with other immigrant Bengali families, visit India in frequent intervals to bring along more drawstring pyjamas, Darjeeling tea and lots of memories.
The protagonist in the above mentioned stories , Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and the Final Continent are inspired by the mother and father of the author of the book respectively, as told by Lahiri herself. Lahiri’s father was a librarian himself and her mother struggled in her initial days to adjust with her new life, similar to the case of Mrs.Sen
This shows that they can be anyone, any immigrant irrespective of country, culture or caste and creed. The characters maybe different in each case, but the flood of emotions they experience is almost similar in all cases.
Lahiri’s stories take the readers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, where they can empathize with the characters as the writer displays true nature of human behaviour. While reading , the readers undergo the same tragedies, feel the pangs of nostalgia and the feelings are aggravated by Indian foods, flavour and spices, which act as treasure troves of memories back in abroad.
In spite of all struggles Lahiri’s characters keep living and adapting them every day with the changes in their lives alluding to the saying that whatever might happen but the show must go on.
The last leg of the book, i.e. The Third and the Final Continent aptly describes the mood of the book, when the protagonist in his old age describes America as his homeland. And he tells his son
“..that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, and each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of maladies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.
Godfree, Tori E. “Food and Dining in Jhumpa Lahiri’s” Interpreter of Maladies”.” Inquiries Journal 2, no. 04 (2010).
Fowlkes, Irene. “Celebrating Culinary Culture: Food Rituals in Contemporary American Short Story Writing.” (2007).
Reddy, P. Bayapa, ed. Aspects of Contemporary World Literature. Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2008.