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Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”A Reflection of Contemporary Society

Mrs. Renuka Devi Jena* Abstract Literature is a reflection of the changing cultural, psychological and social thought process of modern society. Post modern literature reflects the inner conflicts and existential crisis as a result of changing cultural values. Political and economic changes affect the psychology of the people and literature is influenced by such changes. My paper will critically analyse the characters of the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. She is an Indian American writer, her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri uses literature as a vehicle to transmit cultural identities, each of her stories in the collection presents a new cultural perspective of the Indian immigrant. Her speciality lies in her extraordinary craft of short story writing her psychological revelations and deep understanding of human nature.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The collection is mainly concerned with the existential challenges of isolation and desolation of postcolonial situation, of the lives of Indians and Indian-Americans whose hyphenated Indian identity has led them to be caught between the Indian traditions that they have left behind and a totally different western culture that they have to adopt. The characters of the short stories face cultural dilemma, they are perplexed, disconcerted and confused, sentimental and homesick and show resistance also to the discourse of power in various forms. However the dissatisfaction becomes less intense in the second generation of characters, who adapt to the culture of the adopted country. Lahiri is a second-generation immigrant who feels just as much at home in her parents’ homeland as she does in her own, yet sometimes the feeling of alienation, belonging nowhere exists. The migrant has become one of the symbolic figures of the contemporary society world. It is through fiction contemporary writers attempt to voice the immigrant’s issues and concerns.

Jhumpa Lahiri very efficiently brings out the crisis of dual identity. Department of English. to investigate human nature. Jhumpa Lahiri’s writings are more about the existential angst of the individual. The loneliness. loneliness. be it Shoba. In this respect. Mrs. the sense of alienation. *The writer is an Associate Professor. Lahiri also emphasises through her characters. difficult relationships. whereas six are set in America. irrespective of religion or region and the inner conflicts of her characters. the encounter between the East and the West and probes the problems generated by the encounter between the self and the Other. three are set in India. Mrs. Stories have in common certain themes and motifs. The writer resists the stereotypes of Indian-ness. ‘maladies’ that are of concern and thus gives us an understanding of the people in general. Das. B.Sen or Boorima that there are other individual issues that causes anxiety and distress to people. Mr. Rajasthan. the universal experience of Indian diaspora. focusing on the lives of first or second generation Americans of Indian origin.M. displacement.Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories seems is an in depth study of visible and invisible frontiers that the characters must transgress in order to find their real self.Ruia Girls’ College. more importantly. such as exile. she is interested in portraying the quintessence of the individual consciousness and in the self as the converging point of various cultural forces. into the condition of the troubled modern self and. and problems about communication. are common experiences of people especially those . She is a PHD Research Scholar of JJT University. Out of the nine stories. Pirzada. a deep sense of remorse and emotional isolation that some of her fictional characters of Jhumpa Lahiri go through.

They no longer speak to each other and have lost all lines of communication. It went from a strong marriage. and he had held the boy in his lap and had really hugged him for quite some time. In her state of disappointment and self pity. Due to some maintenance job in their residential area. or have done which they have never shared before.who for various reasons are forced to live away from their own country. Letting out the pent up . whose marriage is failing due to the loss of their child at birth. A contrast is shown in the couple's relationship before and after they lose of the baby. The story is about an Indian couple living in America. This is particularly painful to Shoba as she never wanted to know these details. Shoba using game to tell her husband about her decision to leave him. she did not care if her marriage fell apart. Shoba’s crisis was her inability to deal with her anger and frustration of losing the baby for whose arrival she had planned elaborately. full of love. the electricity is cut for an hour in the evenings. she declares that she has rented a separate house for herself and it breaks Shukumar’s heart. To this confession. to a weak marriage where Shukumar and Shoba (the Indian couple) become "experts at avoiding each other" (4). In the first evening Shoba comes up with the idea of a game in which each partner will tell something that they feel. she delves deep into the psychological depths of her characters and reveals their inner world. It is only when Shukumar confesses his knowledge of the baby’s sex that she finally relents the hold she kept on her emotions and sees the truth that the loss of the baby has affected Shukumar as deeply as her. Shukumar gives her greater pain by telling her that their child was actually a boy. The story "A Temporary Matter" deals with the pain of losing a child and the subsequent emotional problems pertaining to the couple’s relationship and divorce. Jhumpa Lahiri’s endeavour to interpret the maladies of the mind that people suffer from and the unique manner in which she makes them realize their own flaws reflects her remarkable insight.

hybridity and multiculturalism rather than politics.Pirzada is no longer considered Indian’. from Dacca.’ Jhumpa Lahiri concentrates on the nostalgia for one’s homeland in the character of Mr. which was a part of Pakistan. The narrator was completely taken aback by her father’s words.feelings certainly acts like a catalyst in some ways. Pirzada Came to Dine. more importantly. This is more applicable in the case of Lila.Pirzada as their guest. The Indian family’s desperation to invite someone from their homeland. her perception.Pirzada becomes a man of no-nation. a second generation migrant. their selecting “discovered” Mr.Pirzada. the narrator and. They . Lila is a child so the story is narrated from the point of view of the child. ‘Mr. Pirzada regularly visits his Bengali friend’s house to dine and to listen to the news about the Bangladesh war. She is more concerned with the issues of identity and intercultural communication. looked more or less the same. now the capital of Bangladesh. Mr. The story makes an explicit reference to the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971 but Jhumpa Lahiri is not concerned with politics. is an existential tension that problematises the very liberal and democratic claim of hybridity.Pirzada. which percolates across the subconscious of all the immigrants. her awareness and her consciousness in understanding of the difference between the self and the other across the visible and the invisible frontiers. Mr. Lila’s observation is intriguing when she says ‘It made no sense to me. The positioning of Pirzada actually comes close to this in-between space creating sadness from a sense of absence. their sense of community in the company of Mr. The marital discord is thus skilfully shown to be a temporary matter just as the interruption in electric power supply has been. laughed at the same jokes. After the war Mr.Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language. In ‘When Mr.

but the traumatic events of Partition have reduced her to the present pitiable creature in Calcutta. ‘where they are at’ and ‘where they are going’. at the mercy of ‘other’ inhabitants of the building. She is a sixty-year-old woman. She claims of a rich past. .ate pickled mangoes with their meals. Her experience of exile has left her stranded and estranged with the claustrophobic trauma of memories and she continues to mourn the riches of her past when compared to the insufficiency of the present. between ‘where they’re from’. the protagonist of ‘A Real Durwan’. reducing her to sleep on discarded newspapers spread over a hard floor and she does not even get a glass of tea or any food from the apartment owners. and. Suffering from pangs of hunger Boorima had already lost not only her country of origin but her family and all her possessions. ate rice every night for supper with their hands. deported to Calcutta as a result of the Partition. She is like the migrants who “are constantly negotiating their positions between nations. in her old age. She tries to escape from the hardships of the present by reminiscing about the past life. having belonged to an affluent zamindaar family of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). a refugee in Calcutta from East Pakistan . a time comes when her old bedding gets wet and turns into useless pulp. Boori Ma’s rejection by the residents of the building highlights her alienation as she once again ends up being a refugee–homeless and displaced– who painfully continues to be at odds with changed times. Boori Ma’s exaggerated stories of her past are a momentary release from the traumatic and claustrophobic existence in the present. whose problems of adaptability to a new culture are brought to the fore. in the process creating identities that serve as momentary points of suture that stabilize the flow .25 Pirzada’s case is more or less similar to BooriMa. ……’p. She works hard throughout the day in an apartment building full of middle to lower-middle class families.

after his school time every day. Her ethnic identity haunts her incessantly.The story of ‘Mrs. which arises when an expatriate does not grow out of the phase of nostalgia. Mrs. it at least makes her face the trauma and possibly release herself from the vicious cycle of escape and avoidance through being more open to the realm of the Other – what is definitely going to prove useful in crafting and negotiating her new diasporic identity and in encouraging her to embrace her new life in America. Sen an elderly Indian immigrant . Lahiri shows that in any relationship the two partners must have enough patience to tolerate each other’s differences. Alienation refers to the state of exclusion. The story deals with her constant struggle to adapt to the new American cultural space and built up her new identity. an eleven-year-old boy. is about the Mrs. Her first attempt to cross the boundaries fails but. her ethnic identity. she cannot negotiate a new space or a new identity because expatriation for her is a state of mind. her final act of taking the courage to drive in order to be independent from a seemingly busy patriarchal figure of a husband who is not always there to help can be regarded as a revolutionary act. she needs to open up herself to the culture of the Other represented symbolically by the car towards which she initially shows great fear – a fear much associated with the encounter between the Self or Other culture. Through describing Twinkle’s taste for . no matter how traumatic the experience is. where the couple must develop mutual love and respect.Sen has learnt that in order to survive in her new surroundings. enjoys buying fish and having fish to assert her idea of homeland.wife of an academic. However. who looks after Eliot. This is even more so in an arranged marriage. She steadfastly conducts her special Indian-cooking practices. Sen’. Aware of her differences.

The story. which is not after all an empty space but contains within it elements of culture – the here and there Christian artifacts the couple discover upon arrival. As Sanjeev’s character shows. a movement into America. The story ends with her and the other party guests discovering a large bust of Jesus Christ in the attic. As “a more recent immigrant” then. a stage behind Twinkle . Sanjeev.Christian artefacts. not Christian. Sen or even for the first-generation male immigrants like Twinkle’s own husband. "This Blessed House". Although the object disgusts him. Jhumpa Lahiri uses the house moving metaphorically. he obediently carries it downstairs. she is simply an American of Indian origin. Sen is a manifestation of liminality and is. Belonging to different generations of immigrants. While Twinkle is delighted by these objects and wants to display them everywhere. Sanjeev and Twinkle seem to be at different stages of their transformative identities and therefore their different attitudes towards the findings of biblical artifacts. This very temporal difference and variation in exposure to the culture of the Other makes Twinkle to be an embodiment of hybridity – a stage which is yet to come for the first-generation female immigrants like Mrs. Lahiri implies that Sanjeev also must develop a more tolerant attitude toward his new culture if he is to adapt successfully. Sanjeev is uncomfortable with them and reminds her that they are Hindu. It is this dynamic positive hybridity present in Twinkle that makes her survival definite and gives her a superiority and charm over other female characters whose confrontation with the Other either involves them in cycles of escape or at worst in a total Otherness. therefore. is a about a newly married couple who move into a house only to find out that the house is special and a blessed one. the immigrant experience is often painful and the adjustments frequently overwhelming. who has come to America as a college student and his parents still live in Calcutta. Sanjeev like Mrs. Twinkle’s parents have long lived in California and she belongs to the second-generation immigrants. .

”p. and while numerous possible treatments have been suggested.157 This action can either be interpreted as Sanjeev giving into Twinkle and accepting her eccentricities. giving birth to a son. in her own homeland. is about the plight and anxiety of the female subaltern as it follows the aftermaths of the globalization process in the life of a native Indian woman who is a victim of both destitution and homelessness. Bibi’s neighbours. or as a final. The twist though comes at the end of the story when Bibi. Twinkle’s success in negotiating a hybrid identity is the hopeful future for all those whose present experience of the culture of Other is that of threat and confusion. “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”. T he hybrid identity of those like Twinkle is formed gradually. Bibi’s identity-crisis comes to surface when she wants to negotiate a new identity by embracing these gender codes of . So we can say that there is still time and hope of survival for those like Sanjeev and Mrs. and followed her. gets pregnant and. grudging act of compliance in a marriage that he is reconsidering. Interestingly then. none has proved to be useful. are much more eager than her own so-called relatives to offer help.“Sanjeev pressed the massive silver face to his ribs. careful not to let the feather hat slip. Bibi longs for a normal life in which she can have a husband and bear children. Sen to pass through the threshold of liminality into the hybrid space. a group of philanthropic caring Indian housewives of the same building where Bibi is living as a marginalized sick inhabitant. who has led a life of solitude and isolation on the roof of the building. is finally yet curiously cured. Bibi has long suffered from a strange unknown ailment. but is more or less exposed to the Othering process. it only a matter of time and the amount of exposure to the culture of the Other. Bibi Haldar is a woman living in India.

As portrayed in Miranda’s fascination with Indian culture upon meeting Dev. Mr and Mrs. The story centres upon interpretation and its power. The birth of a son cures Bibi Haldar of a mysterious disease in spite of being deprived of marriage. Mr. The ‘Interpreter Of Maladies’ is the title of a particular story in the collection causing it to have multiple meanings within the text. Das looks for understanding from him. to learn more about India and Indian culture. His work enables correct diagnosis and treatment by understanding the pains and troubles of patients—effectively. in any possible way. Deprivation of fulfillment of certain desires makes misfits of some people. Miranda. The relationship between the English girl Miranda and the Indian Dev dies a quiet death when Miranda realizes that she cannot expect more than physical fulfilment from Dev. he enables the saving of lives . who gets involved in an affair with a married Indian man named Dev. Miranda. Mrs.Within the story he is giving a tour to a family. In this story Lahiri has chiseled out a character so delicately that the final revelation hardly jolts the reader. seeking absolution for the secret of her . Das and their three children.the Other. who in the beginning of the story knows quite a little about the Other Indian culture. This Self/Other confrontation then posits Miranda’s identity on the verge of an open-ness to the Other. The interpreter. native Self covertly takes an interest in knowing and locating the immigrant Other. ‘Sexy’ tells the story of a young woman. The story is about sexual relationship between Dev and Miranda and the hopelessness of extra-marital affair. is soon intrigued by the thrill of exploring the Other – a sense of thrill which causes her to visit an Indian grocery or go to an Indian restaurant or to try. Kapasi’s occupation is to interpret patients’ ailments in a hospital where little Guajarati is spoken. Rather it fills him with a greater understanding of the workings of human psyche.

adultery. Lahiri is able to deepen the connection between her narratives. she endows him with a sort of priestly power. Kapasi’s question makes her furious and she walks away in a huff. We gain a sense of identity through family. Bobby. this is a difficult endeavour. Kapasi. her secret. not of her guilt. although Lahiri’s work may be interpreted as essentially focusing on the problems of immigrants but she lays emphasis on communication problems of individuals. something for which both Mr. . Das or is it guilt? Mr. For the culturally displaced. She is whipped into action and gets her son . Lahiri explores the idea that identity. Kapasi and Mrs. He admits. Through this story. Interpretation also becomes a means of communication and connection. Das confides that one of their sons is not her husband’s child and asks Mr. however. In confessing to Mr. Kapasi for his help with this malady. But its effect is more far-reaching than expected. expecting her confession to draw out forgiveness and consolation. Both feel a disconnect from their spouses and their families. She is no longer the brooding and disinterested woman we first met. that he is only an interpreter of languages. Mrs. When she tells Mr. is something that must be sought. especially for immigrants. Das yearn. he says: Is it really pain you feel Mrs. unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. Yet. It is not so much the visible frontiers that the writer seems to be obsessed with as the invisible ones that do tend to keep people apart. Kapasi that she feels relieved of the pain that she was subjected to for seven long years by disclosing the secret that shrouded the birth of her second son. Obviously she is relieved of her burden of guilt for the first time in seven years. society and culture. Lahiri in this story deals with one of her major themes – that of disjunction between cultures.

he is bewildered by her age and her repetitious phrases while admiring her strength in surviving for so long. He attempts to keep his cultural identity intact by keeping the most trivial of Indian traditions alive. as the consumption of beef is sacrilegious according to his Hindu beliefs.” hinting at the reason why the protagonist is met with a general sense of acceptance. Although he has adapted to the British way of life as a student. his cultural conflict is manifest in his refusal to eat ‘hamburgers or hot dogs’ . constantly pulled in opposite directions between Indian culture and the need to assimilate in America. Croft makes a point of commenting on the protagonist’s sari-wrapped wife. The obstacles and hardships that the protagonist must overcome are much more tangible. Mrs Croft. his wife Mala is able to maintain her identity because she takes on the role of a traditional Indian wife. His search for identity is further strained by his arranged marriage. and finally immigrates to North America. In the . or boarding in a cramped YMCA. calling her “a perfect lady”.The speaker in ‘ The Third and Final Continent’ searches for his identity across continents. more or less en route to his new job in America. The speaker is burdened with a fragmented sense of identity. and his admiration for her ability to accept the inevitable. such as eating ‘egg curry’. In America. Mrs. such as learning to stomach a diet of cornflakes and bananas. In contrast to his relationship with his own mother. travels to Europe to study. to a woman he has never met. He is born in Asia. whose rejection of life had further exacerbated the speaker’s sense of emotional isolation. it is not a true cultural integration as he lived with other Bengali bachelors like himself. through his fondness for Mrs Croft. In this story Jhumpa Lahiri portrays a relatively positive story of the Indian-American experience. When the narrator meets his centenarian landlady. Croft’s daughter Helen also remarks that Cambridge is “a very international city. In contrast with the speaker.

It is something to be felt and understood. most of which she repeats daily to the young tenant but the narrator knows her loneliness and develops fondness for her. Text and Context. Mrs. of individual’s anxieties and torment and of the individual inevitably caught between different cultures and yet belonging in neither of them. despite being hundred and three. Mishra. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- References Lahiri Jhumpa (2005). . The bond between the landlady Mrs. Shimla. Harper Collins Publishers India. ‘The Third and the Final Continent’ contain moving pictures of life. It grows after being told by her only daughter that she made a living for herself and for her daughter by teaching the piano for forty years which resulted in swollen knuckles. Vijay (2000).ending on a cultural tone of social acceptance and tolerance. edited by Harish Trivedi and Meenakshi Mukherjee. in Interrogating Post-Colonialism: Theory. The Calcutta boy reminds us of many Indians who by trial and tribulation settle abroad for a better life. He is also reminded of his own mother who refused to participate in life after the death of her husband. Lahiri suggests that the experience of adapting to American society is ultimately achievable. ‘New lamps for Old: Diasporas Migrancy Border’. Croft and the Bengali youth is beyond explanation. In conclusion we can say that the collection of stories in Interpreter of Maladies attempt to offer an interpretation of the maladies of the contemporary society. The old lady is well aware of people and can read them as one would a book. Croft never spoke more than a few words at a time. Interpreter Of Maladies.

C. Sandhya (2005).Shukla. Multiculturalism. (2005). India Abroad. Watson. .W. New Delhi: Orient Longman. New Delhi: Viva Books.