Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I read this collection of short stories for part of my young adult book club. As such, I’ll be looking at it primarily for its use in the classroom. The stories are primarily about relationships or characters seeking better lives. They span America and India (and some other locations). First, a brief overview of each story:

“A Temporary Matter”
A young couple, still hurting from the stillbirth of their first child, is given notice that the electric company will have to turn off their power for an hour each evening as part of scheduled repairs. The couple is forced to interact in the darkness as opposed to ignoring each other, as they have grown accustomed to do since the tragedy.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”
Told from a child’s point of view, this story focuses on a man named Mr. Pirzada, from Pakistan. Living in the US after the Pakistani civil war, the man is reeling after losing contact with his wife and daughters. He brings candy for the speaker during his frequent visits, which seems like his way of lessening his guilt for the absence of his own daughters. The story highlights the differences in cultures, the universality of the human condition, and the way people react to stress and tragedy.

“Interpreter of Maladies”
In this story, a tour guide named Mr. Kapasi takes a family, Mr. and Mrs. Das and their children, on a tour of the Sun Temple at Konarak. He notices the family doesn’t seem to care about each other, especially Mrs. Das, and he begins to have hope for some type of long-term/long-distance interaction with her… or possibly more.

“A Real Durwan”
Boori Ma is in her sixties and takes care of an apartment complex. She always tells stories about her old life, and the stories seem embellished, to help her reconcile her current condition. Though she seems miserable, things start looking up when one of the residents installs a sink for everyone to share, and the other residents catch the fever to improve the place. But perhaps they are allowing themselves a bit too much freedom and abandoning the caution that had kept them safe.

The story follows an affair between a young woman and a married man. This is the first story that caught my eye as possibly inappropriate for high school students depending on the audience. The language mentioned that he “entered her,” which could possibly be disturbing for some readers. And yet the story does have literary merit as it plays with the definition of “sexy” and includes a second story as a foil to the affair.

“Mrs. Sen’s”
This story follows a woman who feels isolated after her husband took a professorship in the United States. She does not know how to drive, and he tries to teach her as a way of giving her some independence. At the same time, she takes on a babysitting job for extra income. Yet everything she does seems to clash with the American culture she is so uncomfortable with.

“This Blessed House”
After knowing each other for only months, a young couple marries. They find several tacky Christian items in their new house (salt and pepper shaker, a giant poster, etc.), which the wife is thrilled about and displays on the mantle. The husband reminds her that they are not Christian. The artifacts become a point of contention, and it is revealed that the husband feels distanced from his marriage and seems to prefer solitude.

“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”
Bibi Haldar has a history of seizures, and no one has been able to diagnose a cause or prescribe an effective remedy—until she is told that marriage is the only cure. Because of her reputation, no one wants to marry her. Spoiler: she is finally cured when she becomes pregnant from an undisclosed man and spends the rest of her days as a single mother and business owner. This tale read almost like a fairy tale to me.

“The Third and Final Continent”
In this story, set in 1969, a man travels from India to England, then to America, to start his life. He is married in India via an arranged marriage. While waiting for his wife’s paperwork to clear, he rents a room from a 103-year-old woman. In a rarity for this anthology, he and his wife grow to love each other and live a happy life.

In some ways, the story in this collection start to feel repetitive in the motif of a passionless love—and with the sense that it is nearly impossible to find a real love. There is a sense that characters are each self-absorbed and never truly communicate their thoughts/feelings/desires/goals to each other. Several are together simply because they have been together for so many years.

I do think the stories are valuable for studying cultural differences and assumptions. They would be ideal for looking at women’s studies, for instance. As a teacher, I would be more tempted to choose one or two short stories to read in isolation, though I could see an AP Lit class using the entire collection.

The characters do feel real enough—even though they are only short stories, the characters all feel that they have depth and could become the subject of an entire novel if the author felt so compelled. The only story I would try to avoid is “Sexy” because it’s about an affair and has the most blatant mention of sex, but some populations would be fine with this. Nothing was explicit.

Living/teaching in a relatively privileged county, I can see these stories being used to highlight element of life students may not have had to encounter—loss, the search for love and purpose, falling into a life without having truly thought about one’s identity or goals, the way we treat outcasts, whether we have sympathy for others and whether our experiences help improve our ability to sympathize.

As a teacher, I would probably have my students choose one character from a story and do additional research in a character profile, examining what makes this character tick and possibly connection to characters from other works of literature and even the student’s own life.

Some cautions for high school: depictions of sex, drinking, smoking, extramarital affairs.

Underrepresented populations: Indian

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