Jhumpa Lahiri

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The publication of Salman Rushdie’s Booker McConnell Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children (1980), generated an enormous Western interest in and appetite for contemporary Indian writing, albeit chiefly fiction written in English by writers living outside India. In Britain, the new generation of Indian writers is large and varied. In the United States, where the Indian population is proportionately much smaller and less visible, the kinds of Indian writing favored by publishers and readers are in general limited to the exotic and the poignant. Much to her credit, Lahiri has avoided exploiting the former while investing the latter with an emotional depth made all the more effective by a restrained, Chekhovian style that is worlds away from both the Rabelaisian extravagance of Rushdie and the mere cleverness of his many imitators.

Lahiri’s roots, in fact, predate Rushdie, extending back to another transplanted Bengali writer, Bharati Mukherjee, whose early stories also concern the complexities of the Indian immigrant experience. In dealing with the lives of the Americanized offspring of that earlier immigrant generation, Lahiri is interested less in the clash of cultures than in the commonplace disasters that slowly erode the fragile foundations of her characters’ everyday lives. It is for this new generation of young, well-educated Indian Americans that Lahiri’s stories provide a shock of recognition not unlike Hanif Kureishi’s films and fictions have in Britain and Philip Roth’s early fiction did for young American Jews in the 1950’s, the sense that “someone understands us!” The cultural displacement that Lahiri’s characters experience so acutely has wider implications, however, insofar as it serves as an “index of a more existential sense of dislocation.”

Interpreter of Maladies

The title story of Lahiri’s debut collection offers an excellent introduction to her highly accomplished but unassuming art. At first glance “Interpreter of Maladies” looks like a case of yet another Indian writer exploiting a distant homeland to satisfy the American appetite for the foreign and faraway. The story does not exploit, however; it explores. Its Indian setting acts as a necessary backdrop for a complex portrayal of that sense of disappointment and displacement central to Lahiri’s vision. A young, thoroughly Americanized Indian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Das, both born in the United States, pay a visit to the Sun Temple in Konarak, under the watchful eye of their guide and driver, Mr. Kapasi, from whose perspective, but not in whose voice, the story is told. Thus, it is the couple, not the country, that appears strange to Mr. Kapasi, who takes note of, and quiet exception to, a family that acts as if “they were all siblings.” Although appalled by their effusive, even excessive informality, Mr. Kapasi also finds himself attracted, especially as they take pains to include him in their little circle and even more when Mrs. Das pays him an unexpected compliment, saying how important his regular, weekday job is, interpreting patients’ maladies for a doctor.

Lahiri quickly sketches Mr. Kapasi’s life as a series of disappointments. Having once dreamed of becoming a scholar of languages, he has had to settle for much less: first, as a teacher of English at a local grammar school, and then, in order to pay his dead son’s medical bills, as an interpreter of maladies and weekend tour guide. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Das’s compliment goes to his head. Her promise to send him a copy of the group photo that her husband has just taken leads this otherwise hopeless husband of an embittered wife to fantasize a chaste but satisfying epistolary relationship with the attractive, twenty-eight-year-old Mrs. Das. It is an imaginary airmail affair of the heart that appears at once touching and ridiculous, especially as played against the backdrop of the temple’s erotic friezes. However, when Mrs. Das, whose own marriage is...

(The entire section is 1,674 words.)