Jhumpa Lahiri Interpreter of Maladies by M. Sreelatha

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Indian Sensibility in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Story Collection Interpreter of Maladies

By – M. Sreelatha

Published in Ashvamegh Issue XI, December 2015



Indian diasporic writing made its landmark entry with the writings of Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Sunetra Gupta, Rohinton Mistry, and Hari Kunzru who have all made their names while residing abroad. One of the important aspects of these writers is that they write predominantly the experiences of migration. They have given more poignancy to the exploration by dealing not only with a geographical dislocation but also a socio-cultural sensibility to their homeland. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the most eminent and accomplished writers of Indian Diaspora. She occupies a significant place in world literature. Her works deal with the themes of immigration, displacement, loss of identity, clash of cultures, emotional complexes, human relations and communication barriers. In the present paper, four short stories from the collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999) are considered for analysing her sensibility towards India and Indianness. The significance of the work as diasporic short story collection lies precisely in the author’s attempt to exploit the underlying tension when one lives between two worlds and two cultures.

Key Words: Diaspora, Cultural Roots, Identity, Home Land




The Indian diasporic writing in English has been evolved to literary fineness only in 1980’s and since then; it has witnessed world acclaims, global victory and international fame to a number of writers who gained not only the universal popularity and also bagged prestigious prizes and awards. Salman Rushdie, considered to be the harbinger of the postmodernist fiction, rejuvenated the Indian literature with his path breaking and sensational hit Midnight’s Children in 1981. Besides the strange trends in use of narrative techniques, the theme of migration, an offshoot of post-coloniality has produced new perspectives which have invigorated Indian literature with a touch of diaspora and became one of its most distinctive features. V.S. Naipaul, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Sunetra Gupta, Rohinton Mistry, and Hari Kunzru also voice through their novels with the experience of migration and struggle to deal with the boundaries. These new generation Indian English writers offered a challenging theoretical framework and a new perspective on the interpretation of Indian sensibility.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the works of eminent Indian diaspora writer Jhumpa Lahiri has brought unexpected and overwhelming changes in Western attitudes toward India and its culture. Her narrative style, simple language, creative fusion of Indian spirit in English and exploration of realities made her to earn an immense amount of critical acclamation in the literary realm. She was born in 1967 in London to Bengali parents and raised in Rhode Island, where her father worked as a librarian and her mother as a teacher. Despite having been born abroad, Lahiri has a strong sense of her roots. She has portrayed very pragmatically the agonies of non-resident Indians. She is aware of the struggle that takes place when people try to replace a traditional way of life with a modern one in a country not one’s own. Sahu rightly observes:

Jhumpa Lahiri concerns her writings with the consciousness of the need for regaining roots in the tradition of India and a rueful nostalgia towards that. Her quest for identity is a consciousness towards exile, the dynamic force working to bring about this quest is a point of active engagement between two cultures – Indian and Western. This collection is a ‘confessional piece’, speaking of the pattern of hope and disenchantment arising from the predicament of the writer placed between two traditions, neither of which she can wholly accept or renounce. Like all expatriates, it sounds as if the western culture forms a part of her intellectual and national make up whereas Indian culture is a part of her emotional make up. (50-51)

Lahiri feels fortunate that she was able to absorb the Indian culture in a natural way. She learned about her Bengali culture at an early age, traveling regularly to Kolkata spending considerable time with her extended family. The disinterest of her teachers and friends in the US about her frequent absence from school made her experiences in India more natural.

My parents never consciously sat down and told me things about India, they sort of correctly assumed that I would learn things just by the virtue of being their child. I think it has always been important to them to maintain strong social ties with Indians living abroad and visiting India. (Shankar)

The present study aims to bring out the significance of Indian diaspora with special reference to Lahiri’s effort to explore Indian traditions and culture in her works with respect to short stories “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” “Sexy,” “Mrs. Sen’s” and “The Third and the Final Continent” from the collection Interpreter of Maladies.

Interpreter of Maladies comprises of nine stories which are set in India, America and other places in the United States as the subtitle aptly says: the stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond. It is a testament to Lahiri’s versatility as a writer. For an American reader, these stories are at once subtle and informative filling cultural gaps with an invisible ease granted only to writers of foreign heritage and exceptional skill. There is an immediacy to Lahiri’s style that bridges any gulfs between the more structured traditions of Indian culture and the brashness of American life. The influence of Lahiri’s frequent visits to India and her parents who are still a part of Indian world despite their immigration to America shaped this collection. Lahiri has traveled extensively to India and has experienced the issues of diaspora. She feels strong ties to India, her parents’ homeland as well as the United States and England.

Against the back drop of culture clash, in the stories of her collection Interpreter of Maladies Lahiri illustrates how Indians overseas face dislodgement, but stick to their native culture endeavouring to incorporate themselves into their espoused home, and suffer strain over ethical and emotional issues. Their Indianness plays a derivative role, as she emphasizes, through their connections with Indians and other Americans. The tensions of Indians who have emigrated from their homeland, and who try to integrate themselves into their adopted homelands while adhering to their native culture fill the pages. Immigrants find it difficult to get on easily with the people in America in a strange backdrop and find themselves alienated. While explaining her own experience of exile, Lahiri said that like many immigrant off springs, she felt intense pressure to be two things: loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.

The four short stories “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” “Sexy,” “Mrs. Sen’s” and “The Third and the Final Continent” evoke a sense of compassionate understanding of Indian life. Well aware of the tumults and the changes of the times, Lahiri tries to uphold the beliefs and cultural values related to one’s sense of self-identity and their pride for the homeland.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is a political story which builds around a little girl’s hopes and fears on far-off situations such as the Pakistan Civil War and invasion of Dacca by Pakistani army and its consequences on the family of Mr. Pirzada. It discusses the differences between Pakistan and the United States, through the way a family lives and dines with Mr. Pirzada. Told from the point of view of a ten year old child, Lilia, this story refers to the time of war of East Pakistan (now called Bangladesh) for its autonomy.

Lilia gets used to Mr. Pirzada coming for dinner and she begins to refer to him as the Indian man. Lilia assumes that because Mr. Pirzada is outwardly similar to her parents in looks and speaks the same language-Bengali-he must be Indian. However, when she refers to Mr. Pirzada as Indian, her father quickly corrects and informs her that “… More importantly, Mr. Pirzada is no longer considered Indian … Not since partition. Our country was divided in 1947” (25). She feels flabbergasted to know that Mr. Pirzada is not of their country but some other country though he looks same as her parents. Lilia’s parents differ from Mr. Pirzada in religion and nationality, but they share physical and cultural similarities so Lilia is confused by her father’s assertion. It obviously makes no sense to Lilia who finds no cultural gap between Mr. Pirzada and her Indian parents. She cannot make out how Mr. Pirzada and her parents can really hail from two different countries when they seem to share same cultural habits:

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. Like my parents, Mr. Pizada 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. (25)

While Lilia sees her parents and Mr. Pirzada as united because of their skin colour, her father uses colour on a map to show that they are different: “‘As you see, Lilia, it is a different country, a different colour,’ my father said. Pakistan was yellow, not orange” (26). Here, ironically Lahiri uses colour as a way of both uniting some people and separating others based on the ways in which they identify themselves religiously and nationally. Pakistan is separate from India not because the people are inherently different as the similarity between Mr. Pirzada and Lilia’s parents shows, but because of religion, which is not always outwardly recognizable.

In this story, Lahiri skillfully shows the little girl’s inability to understand the idea that she, a Hindu Indian, and Mr. Pirzada, a Muslim from Bangladesh, are two separate kinds of people and are vastly different from each other. She treats national borders and conceptual boundaries as permeable fictions to be constantly transgressed. This story illuminates the intimacy between the familiar and the foreign.

The next story in the collection, “Sexy,” is a story of a non-Indian’s curiosity to know the culture and traditions of India. It describes the interactions of Miranda, twenty two year old Midwestern woman, with other South Asian Americans, namely her Indian American co-worker Laxmi and the Dixit family, whom she knew as a child. Throughout the story Miranda observes Indians for what they contribute to her understanding of what it means to be Indian. Dev, her Indian boy friend explains Miranda about his home town by pointing to a map. “ … At first Miranda thought it was a religion. But then he pointed it out to her, a place in India called Bengal, in a map printed in an issue of The Economist” (84).

Continuing in her quest to discover more about India, Miranda “walked all the way to Central Square, to an Indian restaurant, and ordered a plate of tandoori chicken. As she ate she tried to memorize phrases printed at the bottom of the menu, for things like ‘delicious’ and ‘water’ and ‘check, please’” (96). She also studies the Bengali alphabet at the foreign language section of a nearby bookstore, even going “so far as to try to transcribe the Indian part of her name, ‘Mira,’ into her Filofax” (97).

Lahiri takes an opportunity to treat the sentiments and beliefs of the country positively. She projects the antiqueness of Indian culture by bringing out the quintessence of a multicultural nation

“Mrs. Sen’s” is a story which has immigrant experience, emotional exile, identity crisis and alienation as core themes. The title of the story, “Mrs. Sen’s” suggests that it is about Mrs.Sen, an Indian woman who immigrates to the United States with her Indian husband. It is a poignant tale about the loneliness of a woman and her loneliness is depicted through the manner in which she waits for the letters, plays a cassette of people talking in her language and nostalgic accounts of Calcutta life. In this story Mrs. Sen can be seen as an expatriate, as she tries to find a balance between adapting to American culture yet upholding her Indian roots. Throughout the story, Mrs. Sen is struggling to maintain her own culture in a different place. Her modes of resisting total inclusion are shown in the way she longs for a warm, selfless community while preserving her modesty and continuing to practice daily Indian rituals. This becomes a barrier that prevents her from adapting to American culture as she establishes herself as an Indian woman; a detached outsider who will never allow herself to be fully absorbed in an American way of life.

The story begins after Mrs. Sen arrives in America still wearing her elaborately coloured sari and red decoration above her eyebrows on her forehead. As she talks to the mother of the boy, Eliot that she is about to start babysitting in a brand new place and culture, she mentions how she has left so much behind in India when she migrated to America. Eliot’s mother acknowledges that Mrs. Sen’s physical self is the only thing that does not remain in India. “The mention of the word [India] seemed to release something in her. She neatened the border of her sari where it rose diagonally above her chest…. ‘Everything is there’”(113). This quote completely expresses Mrs. Sen’s feelings by saying that everything belonging to her and her identity is still in her home, India, while her body is the only thing that was removed and placed in America. As she hears the word India, and feels the sensation of a strong emotion releasing within her which shows that a country is not simply a piece of geography. For Mrs. Sen, it is clear that the association of India with her identity is more with the customs, values and ideas that make up the nation itself; these elements of India are what help create her identity, not India as merely a physical piece of land.

As she neatens the border of her sari, she is touching a garment that allows her to feel close to the modesty she holds as an Indian woman. However, the behaviour can also be seen as a way of Mrs. Sen comforting her insecurities about leaving her home culture behind as she moves to America by physically touching something on her body that reminds her of her Indian traditions. This portrays her as an expatriate because she will not allow herself to assimilate in her new host society, America, continuing to consciously associate herself completely with India, with the traditions of the nation seeming almost to be inside her.

Along the path to self-discovery, Mrs. Sen attempts to balance her life between two significantly contrasting cultures. As an Indian woman in an American community she struggles to define herself with an appropriate role that combines her Indian culture with the American way.

Interpreter of Maladies is a riveting mosaic of uprooted characters at different stages of success in their adaptation to the American life, with all its triumphs and failures. The last story in this collection, “The Third and the Final Continent” is one where the transplantation is successful. It presents alienation and a gradual initiation of a Bengali gentleman. The central character left Calcutta in 1964 with a certificate in commerce, sailed on an Italian cargo vessel, pursues his higher education in Britain and then his job takes him to America. Adapting to the ways of three continents, the man succeeds in retaining his original cultural identity. Even in America “the smell of steamed rice marks a home as different from an apartment.” A dish of chicken made with fresh garlic on the stove “makes a sumptuous meal.” Not only food but the eating habits also become dear as it induces a sense of belonging. Eating with hands gives pleasure as no spoon or fork does.

The narrator gradually overcomes the growing sense of alienation and loneliness and learns the ways of the new world. He patiently and painstakingly develops a taste not only for American cornflakes but for American life as well, and while doing so he remains firmly grounded in his culture. Although he remains in the United States, he does not let himself lose his Indian identity. He longs for the Bengali culture in which he was born and brought up. He speaks in his native tongue to his wife, eating the typically Bengali dishes with his hands. The narrator would go to Cambridge to visit his son and “bring him home for a weekend, so that he can eat rice with us with his hands, and speak in Bengali, things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die” (197). This is perhaps the displaced anxiety on Lahiri’s part for her own fear of her missing all the links to her Bengali culture after her parents’ death.

Interpreter of Maladies with the subtitle “Stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond” projects the problems of the immigrants under the alien sky. In this collection of short stories, six of the nine stories are set in America but they still belong to their home community. These people are caught between the strict traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling New World they must encounter everyday. The remaining three stories are set in India. Interpreter of Maladies is a document of cultural multiplex which is shown through Lahiri’s descriptions of the cultural mélange especially the South Asian experience and her experiences of three continents.

These short stories offer a variety of experiences that are both familiar and alien-all concern Indian protagonists living either on Indian soil or in the United States. They suffer from alienation and are afflicted with a sense of exile. They lack the sense of belonging and are motivated to achieve communication in their new surroundings. Lahiri’s stories in this collection centre around the quest for identity. They are told against a wide canvass reflecting myriad hues in Indian Sensibility.

Lahiri’s stories are focused on Indian society, its cultural values and sensibilities. In varying degrees, Lahiri explores “Indianness” in all her stories, wherever they are set. They are imbued with the sensual details of Indian culture. Though they do not present a consistent picture of India, they do bring out the distinctive features of India, Indians and Indianness. She creates the characters in such a way that they accommodate and absorb the foreign culture without losing the consciousness of being Indian. Lahiri offers glimpses of India in general and of middle class Bengali family in particular the Bengali community, their tradition, customs, cultural beliefs and social set-up.

Commenting on Jhumpa Lahiri’s works, Kirkus Review says, “India is an inescapable presence in this strong first collection’s nine polished and resonant tales … Lahiri, who was born in London and grew up in Rhode Island, offers stories that stress the complex mechanics of adjustment to new circumstances, relationships, and cultures …. Detailed portrayals of young marriages dominate tales like that of an Indian emigrant’s oddly fulfilling relationship with his landlady. The stories were moving and authoritative pictures of culture shock and displaced identity.”




Works Cited:

Kirkus Review.” Editorial Reviews. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/ productdescription/039592720X/ref=dp_proddesc_0?ie=UTF8&n=283155&s=books> Web.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and beyond. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1999. Print

(All the quotes cited are from the same edition.)

Sahu, Nandini. “The Nostalgic Note in their Flute – A Reading of Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri.” Indian Writings in English. eds. Binod Mishra and Sanjay Kumar. Delhi: Alantic Publishers, 2006. 46-55. Print.

Shankar, R. R. “A Writer Free to Write All Day.” Rediff News 23 Aug.1999. 22 June.2009< http://www.rediff.com /news/1999/aug/23us2.htm> Web.




 Introduction to the Author:


M Sreelatha on Jhumpa Lahiri
M Sreelatha

Sreelatha is a Ph. D Scholar from Kakatiya University, Warangal. She is presently working as Lecturer in English, Dr.BRA Government Polytechnic, Karimnagar, Telangana, India. She has teaching experience of more than 20 years. The researcher is a recipient of Gold Medal for securing the highest marks in Post Graduation (English Literature). She is also awarded as the Best Lecturer by the State Government of Andhra Pradesh in recognition of her service in teaching in the year 1999.

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