“It was only then, raising my water glass in his name, that I knew what it meant to miss someone who was so many miles and hours away, just as he had missed his wife and daughters for so many months.”
Published in 1999, Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. Winner of both the PEN/Hemingway Award and the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I picked up a copy several years ago. It promptly took up residence on the pile of books by my bed and stayed there. Had friends not recommended it as part of my endeavor to read and write a review of thirty books in 2018, it would probably still be on the pile of good intentions.
I am in awe of those who write short stories, in part because I struggle with the form. A good short story has to let the reader get to know and care about the characters in only a few pages. All the challenges that go along with writing a novel are exacerbated by the short form, so I admire those who do it well. But the impact of a short story is not the same for me as that of a well-written novel. I enjoy reading short stories in the moment, but I am not as invested in the characters. Such a brief look into their lives leaves me feeling as if I am a nosy and not necessarily good-intentioned neighbor. It’s a bit disconcerting.
But Lahiri is a gifted writer. Her gentle voice unobtrusively guides the narrative, allowing the reader to quietly enter into the lives of her characters. Her stories allow us a glimpse into traditional Indian culture. Curries are made for dinner, married women apply a vermillion-colored cosmetic powder to the part of their hair and arranged marriages are commonplace. We get a sense of India’s caste system and tumultuous political history. The majority of her stories focus on the lives of Indians living in America as immigrants, expatriates and first-generation Americans. But the themes of community, belonging, identity and loss are universal.
In “A Temporary Matter,” the first story in the collection, Shukumar and Shoba move around each other as ghosts in their home following the stillbirth of their first child. Grief, guilt and misplaced anger deepens the estrangement that follows loss. When the electricity is cut for several nights in a row, they are forced to interact with one another. As they start to share their secrets, it seems as if they might reconcile. But on the last day of the power outages, their confessions are intended to inflict pain. The dissolution of their marriage is complete.
As Shukumar clears away the dinner plates, he gazes out the window to see their neighbors, a seemingly happy couple, walking arm in arm. When the room suddenly goes dark, he snaps out of his trance. Shoba had turned off the lights. Husband and wife sat again at the table where they had shared so many confessions and “wept together, for the things they now knew.”
“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is a complex and rich story about belonging, loneliness, war, identity and America’s often rigid and tone-deaf public school system.
Lilia is a ten-year-old girl born in America to Indian parents who, in an effort to make new friends, “would trail their fingers . . . through the columns of the university directory, circling surnames familiar to their part of the world.” It is in this way that they came to know Mr. Pirzada, who dined with Lilia’s family several times a week and always brought her candy.
Mr. Pirzada was living in New England for a year on a research grant from the Pakistani Government. His wife and seven daughters stayed in Dacca. When Lilia mistakenly refers to Mr. Pirzada as Indian, her father corrects her and shows her a map of India and points to Dacca in East Pakistan. Lilia struggles with the distinction:
As Lilia continues to watch the evening news with her parents and Mr. Pirzada, she starts to understand the political turmoil that engulfs both India and Pakistan. Over time, Mr. Pirzada shares some of his fears and concern for the safety of his family. At her school library, Lilia attempts to learn more about Pakistan but is scolded for reading material not relevant to the current assignment. In desperation, Lilia turns to magical thinking:
When the discord in Pakistan turns into war, Lilia notes that her father no longer invites her to watch the evening news, Mr. Pirzada stops bringing her sweets, and her mother serves only boiled eggs and rice for dinner. For twelve days in December, the house is subdued. “Most of all,” says Lilia, “I remember the three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence and a single fear.”
In the last story of the collection, “The Third and Final Continent,” a man reminisces about this journey from India to London and finally to the United States. He recalls living at the YMCA, renting a room in the home of a woman who was 103 when man first stepped foot on the moon, and his first months settling into an arranged marriage. He and his wife, whom he barely knew when they married, have now shared a lifetime together. Their son is studying at Harvard and on the brink of embarking on his own journey. He marvels, as we all do, at the path his life has taken:
Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of beautifully crafted stories. But as is so often the case with collections, I’m afraid the whole detracts from the power and grace of the individual parts. Perhaps short story collections are best enjoyed slowly, over the course of time, instead of treated as an integrated whole.
Interpreter of Maladies, a compilation of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Company, in 1999.
This book review is presented as part of my personal challenge to read and write a thoughtful review of at least 30 books in 2018. To learn more about this challenge, the books I have selected, and my imperfect rating system, click here.