Different Stories in Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies Essay
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a collection of short studies whose characters’ experiences translate to those of several immigrants across the globe. The details of the stories vary greatly; the reader learns of an Indian immigrant babysitting American children, a woman living in absolute poverty on the streets of Calcutta, and a Hindu couple stumbling across Christian trinkets in their new home. Despite the different settings and contexts, the stories are unified by imperfect characters struggling with problems that any reader can identify with, such as Lilia’s struggle with cultural collisions in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”. Through these characters’ problems, Lahiri explores many of the problems in her own life, specifically the dissatisfaction with the American Dream and American life that so many immigrants experience.The struggles of the characters in The Interpreter of Maladies caused me to question aspects of my own life, like what constitutes a healthy or normal relationship, and the correct manner of falling in love.
In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, the protagonist Lilia feels a disconnect between the cultural values she is taught at school and those that she is taught at home. While at school, Lilia is taught American History, and spends large portions of time exploring the American Revolution. To Lilia, this learning feels impersonal and repetitive. On the other hand, at home Lilia and her family keep up with the civil war in India. This war has special importance to her because her family is Indian, and because a Bengali man named Mr. Pirzada comes over each evening to watch the news and discuss the conflict. Mr. Pirzada’s family is in the war zone, which gives the war a sense of meaning and severity that is not present in the lessons about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Lilia develops an interest in the Indian civil war at home, but is told at school that this interest is illegitimate. This cultural disconnect is highlighted by Lahiri when Lilia is working on a school book report about the Mayflower, and is caught reading about Bengali culture by her teacher:
“‘Is this book a part of your report, Lilia?’
‘No, Mrs. Kenyon’
‘Then I see no reason to consult it… Do you?’” (33)
Lilia’s response to this question should have been that she did see a reason to consult the book. The conflict in India is relevant to her life, and she feels that it is important to be informed about life there. However, her American education is telling her that American history should take priority over all else. Distinctly different cultures pull Lilia in different directions, and unfortunately, this conflict does not reach a neat resolution by the end of the short story.
Through the Interpreter of Maladies, the reader is able to observe Lahiri’s struggle with the great expectations that so many have for life in America, and the problem of disappointment with the American Dream. The United States is often glorified as the land of opportunity, when anyone one can become rich through hard work. However, as almost anyone working several jobs and just scraping by knows, this is hardly the case. Many immigrants are disappointed by the harsh realities of life in the US, as opposed to the image of a perfect life that is so often propagated by Hollywood. This theme of disappointment arises in many of Lahiri’s short stories, such as “Interpreter of Maladies”, “Sexy”, “Mrs. Sen’s”, and “This Blessed House.” However, Lahiri most clearly displays this disappointment with the American Dream in “A Temporary Matter”.
In “A Temporary Matter”, the unraveling of the relationship between Shoba and Shukumar exposes their disappointment in American life. Initially, Shoba and Shukumar are happily married and are optimistic about their life together. However, this image of a perfect future begins to deteriorate when Shoba goes into labor while Shukumar is out of town, and the child does not survive. Each of the main characters react to this tragedy in different ways. Shukumar loses all motivation to get out of bed in the morning, and feels increasingly self-conscious about being in his sixth year of graduate school. Additionally, Shoba’s mother holds a grudge against Shukumar because he was not present when Shoba went into labor: “[Shoba’s mother] never talked to him about Shoba; once, when he mentioned the baby’s death, she looked up from her knitting, and said, ‘But you weren’t even there.’” (9). Shukumar’s self respect is gone, and he is presented to the reader as a man without a purpose. Inversely, Shoba becomes increasingly active, and distracts herself with her workload outside of the home. The relationship between Shoba and Shukumar suffers as a result of these differing coping methods. They stop eating meals together, have insignificant surface level conversations when forced to interact, and begin to act as if they are roommates rather than a married couple. Ultimately, the story concludes with Shoba saying that she has found a new apartment and is moving out. Clearly, Shukumar’s life in America is far from perfect. His expectation was to become successful, raise a family, and live happily ever after with his wife. Instead, he is struggling to make it through graduate school, has a wife that is leaving him, and he has tragically lost a child. Through this story, Lahiri acknowledges the imperfections that exist in an American society like they do in any other, and refutes the perfect American life that so many claim is achievable.
As a reader of Interpreter of Maladies, I was forced by Lahiri to reevaluate many assumptions that I have regarding relationships and love. Jhumpa Lahiri crafts all different types of relationships in her short stories, and these relationships often drive the plot. “A Temporary Matter”, “Interpreter of Maladies”, “Sexy”, “Mrs. Sen’s”, “This Blessed House”, and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” all feature unhealthy or failing relationships. The only story in the entire collection that features a happy and successful marriage is in “The Third and Final Continent”, between Mala and the narrator (who remains unnamed). This marriage was arranged by the narrator’s brother, which goes against the majority of what I have learned from American culture regarding relationships. As the reader, my problem was accepting that love can be something that is cultivated after marriage, rather than before it. In western culture, the accepted practice is for two people to get to know one another first, then fall in love, and to finally propose as a demonstration of absolute love and commitment. Of course, I had known that arranged marriages existed, but I had considered them to be foolish and impractical. In the final two pages of the book, when the narrator speaks of all of the happiness in his life with Mala, I am convinced otherwise. The problem for the reader is to accept the merits of an arranged marriage, despite the unfamiliarity of this type of relationship in American popular culture.
The problems of The Interpreter of Maladies, such as Lilia’s problem of cultural collision, Lahiri’s problem of disappointment with American life, and my problem, as a reader, with arranged marriages all stem from short stories that are unlike my day to day life. They involve people with drastically different backgrounds than my own, generally included themes of Indian culture that are not present in my life. Yet because of the problems used to bring these characters to life, their stories felt more familiar than foreign. The problems, such as troubled relationships, adjusting to a new place, and cultural disconnect felt like they could have been my own. The Interpreter of Maladies invokes empathy from the reader rather than just compassion because the problems that Lahiri illustrates strike the reader close to home, despite a setting that may be thousands of miles away.
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Interpreter of Maladies Essay Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a collection of short studies whose characters’ experiences translate to those of several immigrants across the globe. The details […]