There are some extraordinary books that tell the stories of ordinary people, their trials and triumphs, but strike a deeper chord within you. Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ is one of them. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the year 2000, ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ is a collection of 9 short stories. Most of the stories have Indian immigrants living in the USA as their main characters. Each story is poignant in its own way. Here’s the list of stories with some spoiler-free plot descriptions:
- A Temporary Matter:
It is a story of a married couple Shukumar and Shoba living as strangers in the same house after a traumatic incident which has left them both shattered. They try to rekindle their love during scheduled power outages in the evenings for a week after a snow storm.
They reveal secrets that they had not told each other before.
- When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine:
Mr. Pirzada is a professor of Botany from Dhaka and is living in New England for his research. He has left his wife and children in East Pakistan and has not been able to contact them for months. A war has broken out between East and West Pakistan, as East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh) is demanding to become a free country.
Mr. Pirzada visits an Indian family frequently for dinner and brings little sweet treats for their daughter Lilia. Little Lilia observes the turmoil Mr. Pirzada is going through, and prays for him and his family every night.
- The Interpreter of Maladies:
Indian-American couple Mr. and Mrs. Das have come to India with their children to explore the heritage sites in the state of Odisha. Mr. Kapasi is a middle-aged driver and tour guide assigned to take the family around for sightseeing.
Mr. Kapasi is surprised to observe that Mr. and Mrs. Das acted more like elder siblings than parents to their children.
During a conversation, Mr. Kapasi reveals that one of his jobs is to interpret people’s ailments to a doctor as he knew many languages. Mrs. Das seems quite interested in Mr. Kapasi’s profession, which makes Mr. Kapasi more interested in her.
- The Real Durwan:
Boori Ma, a frail woman in her sixties, sweeps the stairs and guards the gates of an old house in Calcutta in exchange for a place to sleep.
She came to India after Partition as an immigrant, leaving behind everything she had owned in East Pakistan. She tells stories of her house, her properties, the riches she owned at the other side of the border. Nobody believes her stories, yet some people in the building try to help her.
Things take a new turn as one of the residents of the building installs a wash basin for common use.
It is a story of an American woman Miranda who is in a relationship with a married Indian man Dev.
She has an Indian friend Laxmi whose cousin is getting divorced as her husband has left her for another woman. While Miranda enjoys the thrills of her relationship, there is also a sense of guilt.
- Mrs. Sen’s:
An Indian woman recently settled in the USA with her husband, works as a caretaker of Eliot, an eleven-year-old boy who lives with his mother. Eliot’s mother works till late after his school is over. During that time Eliot observes his caretaker Mrs. Sen’s way of life.
He learns how she misses her own home in India and her immense obsession with eating fish.
- The Blessed House:
Twinkle and Sanjeev have bought a house in Hartford. While they explore the house, they keep discovering Christian religious artifacts left behind by the previous owners all around the house– little effigies, posters, paintings, snow globes.
While Twinkle insists on keeping them, Sanjeev is quite annoyed at the idea, as they are not Christians. Besides, Sanjeev dreads the embarrassment he might have to face when guests see those things displayed on the day of their house warming.
- The Treatment of Bibi Haldar:
Bibi Haldar is a woman of twenty-nine who has a mysterious illness. She has sudden seizures. Doctors have failed to treat her. She lives with her cousin and his wife and works for the shop owned by them.
The women in the neighbourhood care for her a lot. They suggest that a marriage might cure her. Bibi also fantasizes about her wedding. But her cousin declares that he cannot afford to have a wedding in the house. Besides, no one wants to marry her because of her illness.
- The Third and Final Continent:
The narrator is a man who left his home in India to study and earn abroad. He lives in London for some time, and then moves to America. He reminisces about the different places he had lived in.
He talks about a very old woman–the owner of the house where he had rented a room. He tells the reader about his marriage and shifting to a larger house when his wife arrives in America.
The lives of immigrant Indians abroad, experience of a mix of culture and the search for a sense of belonging have been recurrent themes in the stories. I loved Jhumpa Lahiri’s way of telling a story. Most of the stories have been told from a third person’s perspective. She skillfully makes you feel for the characters without being judgemental.
The psychology of each character has been portrayed wonderfully. Even if you haven’t faced situations similar to the characters, you can relate to their thoughts and feelings. Through her stories, Lahiri has touched the universality of human emotions.