INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri

jhumpaThis fine short story collection won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, an award given to literary works which give an insight into the culture and history of the USA. This should alert readers to the fact that, while the roots of the author and her nine elegant tales may lie in India, the chief focus is  American.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London of Bengali parents and grew up in Rhode Island. Although she has relatively little first hand experience of her mother and father’s homeland,the lineage gives her the perspective of an outsider and a strong empathy with, and profound sympathy for, Indian customs. In particular she has a rich understanding of what it means to view cultural habits from, as it were, an alien point of view.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

The final story in this collection, The Third And Final Continent, is my favourite because of the skilful way in which it condenses elements of culture shock without resorting to sensationalism. Indeed, such is the measured and understated tone of the narrative voice that it achieves a quality of restrained dignity not unlike that found in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is the story of a man whose work and studies have taken him from India, to London and finally to Massachusetts and ends with the reflection that “As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination”. He integrates successfully in his adopted country yet there’s never any question of denying his background. The manner in which he learns to love the Indian woman chosen to be his wife is pragmatic yet touching. In its quiet way it affirms the somewhat unfashionable position that arranged marriages can be as happy and fulfilling as those based on love.

Other couples in these stories don’t always fare as happily. A Temporary Matter is a heartbreaking story of Shukaumar and Shoba failing to come to terms with the death of a newborn. This Blessed House is more comic yet also full as pathos as it presents the gulf between a married couple as they take residence in a new home full of Christian artifacts.

The title story centres on a lonely tour guide in India employed by a wealthy couple and their two children who were born and bred in America but come, one imagines, to learn something of their heritage. The guide, Mr Kapasi, takes a shine to the mother, Mrs Das, but is uneasy when she confides a guilty secret about her marriage; a confession that marks them as strangers when he nurses a fantasy that they could make a deeper, even a romantic, connection.

In Lahiri’s deceptively simple stories, social and philosophical differences are only bridgeable when there is a willingness and recognition on both sides that these represent interesting  dilemmas rather than aspects of an insurmountable cultural divide.

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