Receiving the Pulitzer Prize, according to first-time author Jhumpa Lahiri, was a complete surprise. However, to anyone who has read these meticulously crafted short stories, it's no surprise at all.
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, lovely from the cover on in, is redolent of India itself. Teeming with all manner of humanity, it is in turn frank and subtle, bold and understated. There is an immediacy to Lahiri's style that bridges any gulfs between the more structured traditions of Indian culture and the brashness of American life.
This debut collection opens with "A Temporary Matter," a sharply poignant tale in which the sheltering darkness of a Boston electrical outage encourages newfound intimacy in a grieving couple. Going from the intensely personal to the political, the next story deals with a young girl's perceptions of far-off Pakistan as its civil war bombards her home via television in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine."
"What I remember during those twelve days of the war was that my father no longer asked me to watch the news with them, and that Mr. Pirzada stopped bringing me candy, and that my mother refused to serve anything other than boiled eggs with rice for dinner. I remember some nights helping my mother spread a sheet and blankets on the couch so that Mr. Pirzada could sleep there, and high-pitched voices hollering in the middle of the night when my parents called our relatives in Calcutta to learn more details about the situation. Most of all 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."
Jhumpa Lahiri's finely tuned ear for irony is readily apparent throughout INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. Her ability to fuse this sense of irony with compassion for her characters is particularly adept in two stories: "A Real Durwan," where Boori Ma, sweeper of the stairwell and teller of tall tales, falls victim to the greed and envy of the apartment building dwellers; and "Sexy," where coincidence breeds introspection in a woman having an affair with a married man.
The effect of one's culture and the expectations it imposes, particularly on its female members, is deftly highlighted in "Mrs. Sen's," a tale of an immigrant whose fear of driving puts her in conflict with her university professor husband, and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," an almost frightening story burnished with a patina of absurdity. Bibi Haldar, a woman who "suffered from an ailment that baffled family, friends, priests, palmists, spinsters, gem therapists, prophets, and fools," is so much a victim of her culture that when "anticipation began to plague her with such ferocity...the thought of a husband, on which all her hopes were pinned, threatened at times to send her into another attack."
"This Blessed House" and "The Third and Final Continent," the stories, respectively, of a Hindu couple who discover gaudy Christian artifacts in their new home and of a Bengali bachelor whose new American landlady baffles him with her eccentricities, are particularly delightful while still provoking thought.
It is, however, with the title story --- chosen for both THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES and THE O. HENRY AWARD STORIES --- that Lahiri's penetrating knack for emotional nuance is at its glorious best. An Indian tourist guide begins to see himself differently when a female passenger, after hearing of his other job at a doctor's office, describes him as an "Interpreter of Maladies."
"Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job in such complimentary terms. To him it was a thankless occupation. He found nothing noble in interpreting people's maladies, assiduously translating the symptoms of so many swollen bones, countless cramps of bellies and bowels, spots on people's palms that changed color, shape, or size."
Looking at his profession from a new perspective leads Mr. Kapasi to recount various experiences to his captive audience of American tourists as they drive toward the Sun Temple at Konarak. During the long journey, Mr. Kapasi comes to believe that Mrs. Das and he are destined for a different relationship:
"She would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor's office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish. He would possess a picture of the two of them, eating fried onions under a magenta umbrella, which he would keep, he decided, safely tucked between the pages of his Russian grammar. As his mind raced, Mr. Kapasi experienced a mild and pleasant shock. It was similar to a feeling he used to experience long ago when, after months of translating with the aid of a dictionary, he would finally read a passage from a French novel, or an Italian sonnet, and understand the words, one after another, unencumbered by his own efforts. In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to believe that all was right with the world, that all struggles were rewarded, that all of life's mistakes made sense in the end. The promise that he would hear from Mrs. Das now filled him with the same belief."
"Interpreter of Maladies" takes us through the countryside of India, where heat and dust can seem languorous or onerous and where monkeys can change in an instant from magical creatures to ominous ones. Throughout this ride to Konarak, we are treated to the mental and emotional machinations of an under-appreciated man, starving for recognition and affection. As the trip becomes more arduous, the family in his vehicle becomes more querulous, and the self-doubt that blossomed into hope begins to droop under the weight of reality. This is a brilliant story, infused with wisdom and tinged with, but not burdened by, the brush of intelligent cynicism.
Jhumpa Lahiri is an exceptional Jhumpa Lahiri. With each story she draws believable characters in both ordinary and extraordinary situations, making the task seem sweetly effortless in the process. The range of her talent and imagination is broad but never loses focus in its execution. She has the unique ability to paint the worlds of both the immigrant and the native in miniature, allowing for immersion in detail while simultaneously placing them in a grand, sweeping perspective of universal truth.
As the protagonist of "The Third and Final Continent" so wisely notes: "Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES takes us beyond our own imaginations and we are all the better for it.
Reviewed by Jami Edwards on January 22, 2011