Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Map of India
Map of India. Image from Wikimedia.

Jhumpa Lahiri has provided an engaging, beautifully written set of 9 stories focused on characters of South Asian Indian descent, mostly living in the US, but bearing the cultural heritage of India. In the namesake story, the Das family is visiting parents who have returned to India following retirement from the US workforce. As a part of their visit to India, the Das family decides to take a side trip to visit the famous Sun Temple in Eastern India. Mr. Kapasi, the Indian guide driving the family to see the Temple, after listening to the families caustic dialogue in the opening scenes, reflects to himself that “Mr. and Mrs. Das behave like an older brother and sister, not parents” to their three children. For me, the early recognition that Mr. and Mrs. Das are not fully evolved as parents is the major theme of this particular short story, one that sets the reader up to try to understand how this young couple became this way.

Indeed, we can readily agree with Mr. Kapasi's insight based on the family dialogue, but I do think that the irritation felt by Mrs. Das at having to ride 3 hours, one way, in summer heat on a bumpy road in a non-air conditioned car is somewhat justified. (I made the same visit to the Sun Temple during a business trip to India and, although the Temple is well worth a visit, the long ride there in Indian summer heat can test one's endurance.)

Sun Temple
Sun Temple, India. Image from Wikimedia.

We eventually find out that Mrs. Das has a secret. She reveals to Mr. Kapasi, “I feel terrible urges…to throw things away. One day I had the urge to throw everything I own out the window, the television, the children, everything. Don't you think it's unhealthy?” But Mr. Kapasi, our truth-teller and guide, assures us as readers, that the secret is trivial (you'll need to read Maladies to discover the secret). We are directed to search for understandings that are more fundamental.

Following the thread of the story presented by the author, the Indian cultural practice of arranged marriages appears most relevant. Both Mr. Kapasi and the Dases were married following this practice. Mr. Kapasi, of course, lives in India and it is quite natural that his marriage was arranged by his parents. The Dases were effectively married in the same fashion. As Mrs. Das states in reflection, “I think it was a setup” referring to the free rein given her and her eventual husband by their parents sitting downstairs, as the youngsters played upstairs. As we have seen, Mrs. Das admits her unhappiness, and Mr. Kapasi similarly admits, to himself, the same disappointment.

Although one other story highlights a seemingly ill-fated couple from an arranged marriage, Lahiri's stories as a whole should not be read as a protest against this cultural practice. The final story in this slim volume demonstrates how successful arranged marriages can be: the story ends with the couple, now older, comfortably living near Boston and their son attending Harvard. Rather, the focus on the different ways of marriage is used to point out the differences in cultural practices — India as compared with the US. Two other stories that take place wholly in India, including elements of poverty and superstition, confirm the vast differences in living conditions between the two countries. Undoubtedly, immigrants from India as well as other countries are challenged as they seek success in the US while adapting to very different cultural practices and life experiences.

Map of Chicago 1857
Map of Chicago, 1857. Image from Wikimedia.

The extent of that challenge, at least in terms of the number of people affected in our local area, is not insignificant. According to the 2000 census, some 1.5 million people, or nearly 20 percent of the Chicago metropolitan population, are immigrants. Their importance to the local economy is underlined by the fact that nearly the entire growth in labor force in the 1990s can be attributed to immigration. During that time, the workforce in the 6-county area increased by 270,000, of which 250,000 were immigrants. Lahiri's stories give voice to an important question that, at least at some level, must be addressed by all immigrants — whether to integrate into the dominant culture or to live a life closer to one's native culture. And beyond that, there is the more subtle question of the less conscious effects of one's native culture.

I confess that I have spent considerable time in South Asia including India, and I'm sure that has contributed to my enjoyment of the book. But regardless of one's background, all can relate to the stories, even those that take place wholly in India, because they are interesting, humorous and deal with universal maladies.

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