Interpreter of Maladies is the debut book of Jhumpa Lahiri which won her a Pulitzer. Published in 1999 the book is a collection of 9 short stories about Immigrants and their struggles as they are required to embrace a new world. Most of the stories are about the 1st and 2nd generation Indian-Americans and both their struggle to fit in.
True to her style she weaves beautiful tales of love and longing. If A Temporary Matter sees Shobha and Shukumar struggle to come to terms with how their marriage has changed over the years, a Real Durwan sees Boori Ma struggling to forget about her glorious pre-partition past. If A Blessed House is about Sanjeev’s insecurity about his religious roots as he sees his wife decorating the house with Biblical Paraphernalia, the Third and Final Continent is about is about the protagonist’s efforts to willingly adapt to the American culture. As is evident in her other books too, Lahiri’s portrayal of the Indian diaspora and their struggle in striking a balance between adapting to an alien culture while trying to remain rooted to their own, is very real. On the flip side however, the fact, that her themes are recurring, does take away the novelty and somewhere you get the feeling that you have read this before [though this is her first book, I read it after reading her next two]
The strength of her writing is however in the details ‘Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her chest…I wondered if she could see the red dye still vivid on Mala’s feet, all but obscured by the bottom edge of the sari…’she breathes life into her characters with such vivid descriptions. When I read this, I felt I knew Mala so well, I could feel what she must be going through in a country far away from home amongst a people very different from herself. However she never goes overboard with her descriptions. I have at times read books, where the author’s descriptions are so lengthy that I find myself unable to conjure up a scene.
In the story Mrs. Sen, Lahiri’s elaborate descriptions of Mrs. Sen’s regime of cutting vegetables or buying fish is enough to convey her longing for her homeland ‘She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds…At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients’. And this is what she does best, evoking pathos without dwelling on the sadness or the pain.
Do I recommend this book? If you haven’t read Lahiri yet, yes of course, you must. Her storytelling is beautiful; simple, balanced and evocative. In case you have already her other books [I am referring to The Namesake and The Lowland, I am yet to read In Other words], then you might find it a little repetitive, but then if you are a Lahiri fan like me, you would read it anyway!