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In Interpreter of Maladies, the story of Mrs. Sen highlights the effects of cultural displacement on the characters.
In the story, Elliot is an eleven year old boy whose mother has hired Mrs. Sen to watch Eliot after school. Eliot soon notices that Mrs. Sen is often distracted; more often than not, her thoughts seem to take her back to her beloved, native India.
Cultural displacement is made apparent through Lahiri's major themes: marital difficulties exacerbated by the immigrant experience, cultural shock which augments the torment of loneliness, refusal to assimilate to a foreign culture, self-imposed confinement as a means to endure grief, and regression of attitudes as a tool for self-comfort.
Marital difficulties: Mrs. Sen experiences discord in her marriage due to her reluctance to learn how to drive. She experiences great suffering in stepping beyond her comfort zone; in India, she would not have had to learn how to drive. She relates to Eliot's mother that they (Mr. Sen and herself) had a driver in India.
Cultural Shock: Mrs. Sen is shocked by the individualism inherent in American society, especially in the hardy New England culture. She tells Eliot that in India, all anyone would have to do to get neighbors to show up at one's doorstep would be to shout, or express grief or joy of any kind. Neighbors would invariably show up in droves to help, or to make arrangements to assuage any grief or pain. Eliot tells her that in America, screaming would just bring neighborly complaints about noise level. In many respects, Eliot is just as lonely as Mrs. Sen. His mother must work and his father does not live with the family.
Refusal to assimilate: Mrs. Sen aims to hold on to her Indian identity by not assimilating. She does not relish the idea of driving, she wears saris religiously, and she laments that the New England winter will bring fewer fish to the dining table. She wears the Indian vermillion scarlet powder of a married Indian bride each day. She tells Eliot that it is similar to a western wedding ring.
Self-imposed confinement: Mrs. Sen shutters herself at home in late fall. She does not fix sweets for Eliot's mother when she comes to pick Eliot up, nor does she indulge in any of the normal activities Eliot is used to seeing her participate in. As she listens to a cassette tape of familiar voices, she confides to Eliot that her grandfather has died over the weekend.
Regression of attitudes: Mrs. Sen makes young Eliot her confidant. She senses his loneliness and admits that she is ashamed of her attitudes when she thinks of how a young boy like him must miss his own mother. She realizes that she is not the only one who suffers. Both Mrs. Sen and Eliot suffer the effects of displacement. According to the story, American culture often necessitates the chasm of separation between mother and child, just as immigrants like Mrs. Sen are separated from familiar surroundings and native cultural constructs. Eliot and Mrs. Sen understand each other; both feel like children who are powerless to decide their present happiness and future contentment.
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