Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

“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.”

What a beautiful collection of stories! This is the first short story collection I have ever read from cover to cover and it made me fall in love with the genre. I like short stories because they are often denser narratives (especially emotionally) than what could likely be sustained throughout an entire novel. In this collection, brevity is key; each story can easily be read in one setting. But, while compact, the stories in this collection are expansive glimpses into lives that always left me wanting more.

Lahiri’s use of short stories to explore the experience of migration is striking for its ability to depict the complexities of this experience much more accurately than could be portrayed in a novel with a single storyline. Each of these stories is a complex and moving account of a different immigrant experience. The thread that stood out as holding this collection together is an underlying criticism of the notion of the “American Dream” and the happy, model immigrant seeking a happier life in this world. In each of these stories, we see individuals struggling in one way or another to fit into this idealized version of immigration. To me these stories suggest that, maybe, the universal immigrant experience isn’t one of working hard and being rewarded with a better life, but one of struggling for a better life that is always slightly out of reach.

My favourite aspect of this collection is the characters. In each story, Lahiri brought her characters alive and I fell in love with every one of them. From young Lilia and her older neighbour Mr. Pirzada, whose presence leads to her education about her own family’s past in Calcutta, to husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba who are struggling in the aftermath of a miscarriage, to Boori Ma, a durwan (doorwoman) in Calcutta who is blamed and exiled by her neighbours for a crime she did not commit, to the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” and Mrs. Croft, his 103-year-old landlord, to young Eliot and his nanny Mrs. Sen – each of these stories moved me with the beautiful characterizations of individuals of all ages and from all walks of life. The small and often unlikely intimacies shared by these characters was touching throughout the collection.

This collection of stories also gave me a window into a history of which I know almost nothing. One of my favourite things about reading is that it never fails to show me how little I know about the world around me. In almost everything I read, I frequently have to look up references and inevitably learn about the story’s era, politics, geography and so on. This was especially true in Interpreter of Maladies, which continually introduced aspects of Indian history (the Partition of India in 1947 or the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, for example) of which I had never heard.  As someone who has been relatively isolated from this history, it was very interesting to get to know more about this history and to see the ways it affected and continues to affect individuals both in India and around the world.

Overall, this is a collection of stories that is sophisticated while still remaining accessible. Told with poignant and poetic prose, Lahiri gives us a glimpse into the lives of individuals in whom we can all see ourselves, no matter where we come from. More than anything else, Interpreter of Maladies tells the universal story of individuals struggling to form and maintain meaningful connections with our homelands and families while still striving to achieve greater and more beautiful lives than our parents and grandparents ever imagined possible.

 

Stories: 9/10

Writing: 9/10

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