A while ago, I watched and loved "The Namesake," a film about an immigrant family from India making their way in the United States. Recently I decided to check out a work from the author who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn't read The Namesake, but rather Lahiri's debut book, Interpreter of Maladies. Published nearly a decade ago, it's a collection of nine short stories chronicling the experiences and ordeals of Indian and Indian American characters making sense of their lives in the world (and in many cases, worlds) they inhabit.
The stories touch upon topics as varied as intercultural misunderstandings, politics, precarious marriages and relationships, the adjustment to life in a strange and faraway land, and the gaps that develop between first and second generation immigrants. The collection will undoubtedly speak to individuals who are familiar with or who possess an Indian heritage, but a remarkable aspect of Lahiri's short story collection is the universal quality in its storytelling and characters. Interpreter of Maladies details the struggles and triumphs of truly all immigrants and their families, making this not only an important work of Indian American literature, but immigrant literature in its own right.
Lahiri's eloquent, graceful prose makes the pages of this 200-page work turn quite quickly. In the collection's leadoff story, "A Temporary Matter," it takes a weeklong electrical outage for a married Indian couple to reveal themselves to one another, growing closer and rekindling their former passion (or do they?) The title story of Interpreter of Maladies finds a multilingual medical interpreter and tour guide who's unable to find the words to express either the ailings in his guest's heart or those of his own. Lahiri ends her book on a touching, reaffirming note with the two closing stories, both of which I consider among my personal favorites from this work. The first is "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," which deals with the solidarity of a group of women who refuse to give up on a sickly, younger woman many people have written off as cursed, crazy, and undesirable. The final storyis the nostalgia-tinged, even heartwarming "The Third and Final Continent," whose narrator recounts his first experiences upon coming to the United States and his unlikely relationship with his elderly landlady. The plot of this story, particularly as it concludes, reminds me a little of "The Namesake," and we can see a common thread running through the author's work.
There's a certain finesse with which Lahiri writes. Many of the stories' most delectable moments come in the words unspoken, the things left unsaid, and the actions not taken. Judging by its overwhelmingly positive critical reviews and the fact it earned its author a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000, Interpreter of Maladies will most likely be a collection that readers will savor in their literary journeys.