Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I was indifferent when I read Lahiri’s The Namesake, but I really liked this book. Possibly she’s better at short fiction—I note her new book is short fiction again.
The stories focus on Indian-Americans, primarily those like the author who are second generation, who have become Americans in ways their parents have not. In the title story, the main character is a taxi driver/tour guide, trained as a linguist and translater whose other job is interpreting for a physician who doesn’t speak all the languages of India. The patients tell him their symptoms and stories and he translates for the doctor. In the story he’s taking an Indian American family to see some monuments. They are visiting parents and feel compelled, by custom rather than personal interest in their origins or in the monuments themselves, to see the sights. The family is well dressed and presumably economically successfully. The boys have braces on their teeth—something which seems unfamiliar to the interpreter of maladies. The parents bicker; the children fuss—they’re relatively unattractive as people, almost the stereotype of Americans abroad—herded through ancient monuments they knew nothing about, carrying their ubiquitous cameras and plastic bottles of water. They ARE Americans of course and the fact that they have Indian parents seems to count much less than their lives “back home” in New Jersey. Meanwhile the interpreter of maladies fanaticizes that Mrs. Das will fall in love with him and enable him to be magically lifted out of his hum drum and difficult world into hers.
In another story a little girl speculates on the visitor to her home who stayed a year. It was in the 1950ies and he’s on a research grant from his country, but from the part of Pakistan that was at war and then broke off to become Bangladesh. He worries about his family in Dacca with whom he’s lost contact. He’s in a difficult position, on a grant from a country he no longer belongs to. Lilia, the girl, reports his behavior without understanding the political situation. In another story I liked a lot, an eleven-year-old boy goes to a babysitter’s after school. Mrs. Sen is an Indian woman who’s not really accommodated herself to New York—she can’t drive, despite lots of lessons—and calls her husband at work when she needs something though he tries hard to make her more self sufficient. But she and Elliot, the boy, who lives with a divorced and dispirited mother, form a significant bond and when Elliot is taken away after Mrs. Sen finally drives to the fish market with him and has a minor accident, both lose out to the more conventional ones—Mrs. Sen’s husband and Elliot’s mother.
In most of the stories at least one character seems out of step and Lahiri zeroes in with a great deal of feeling and absolutely no sentimentality.