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Interpreter of Maladies Navigating between the Indian traditions they ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations In A Temporary Matter, published in The New Yorker, a young Indian American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that humans are so mismatched to the lives and people they choose for themselves A collection of short stories, navigating the intricate web of cultural clashes in India, UK and USA, moving back and forth in history, from the trauma of the Partition to the moon landing and beyond that, circling around families for twenty pages just to let go of them when the reader thinks the narrative starts to create a pattern of sense, this is a wonderful reading experience And bizarrely, the loosely connected short stories seem to match well in their description of misfits.Why do we live with people we don t feel belong to us, with people who try to suppress what we value as treasures rather than celebrating with us Why is a close relationship so often similar to an act of slow suffocation Can we blame it on the custom of arranged marriages, which appear in some of the stories Hardly, for the marriages that were founded on physical attraction generate the same issues Can we blame it on the institution of marriage itself Hardly, for the role of mistress is just as difficult to bear Can we make it a gender issue Hardly, for husbands are not exempt from the suffocation, even though they may have slightly freedom of movement Can we blame it on a specific culture Hardly, for humans are humans whether they live in deepest poverty in Calcutta or in brilliant luxury in a university town in New England.Funnily, the character who seemed to develop the most strength and inner happiness in the end was the sick young woman in India who was rejected by everyone, even her family, and who found herself pregnant and forced to raise a child on her own in disgrace.She was cured.Cured of her seizures, cured of the pressure to adapt to the expectations of others Cured of trying to be matched, she formed her own pattern.Brilliant stories, wonderfully human How s this for blurbs when the female author published this collection of short stories at age 32 in 1999, she won the Pulitzer Prize, the Pen Hemingway Award and the New Yorker s Debut Book of the Year Like the author s other collection of shorts that I have reviewed Unaccustomed Earth, 2008 these stories are about Bengali immigrants in the US from the Bengal area of India, around Kolkata formerly Calcutta There are about 250 million Bengalis in the subcontinent, about 2 3 making up the Muslim nation of Bangladesh and about 1 3, mostly Hindus, in West Bengal, a state in India But, with the exception of two stories, these folks are not urban slum dogs they are upper income folks with PhD s and MD s who grew up speaking English in India and who came to the USA to be doctors, professors and engineers in the high tech beltway bandit firms around Boston They live in Boston townhouses and upscale suburbs And there s a twist to saying these stories are about immigrants because most folks in these stories were fully assimilated into the global upper class before they even arrived in the USA.Here s a sample of what the nine stories are about In the title story, a man who is an interpreter of native Indian languages for a doctor is also a tour guide for visitors to India He tells this to a Bengali couple, with their kids, visiting from the states The wife, desperate for someone to confide in, thinks he is like a psychological counselor and pours out her secrets, shocking the tour guide In Mrs Sen s, an eleven year old boy learns the depth of the loneliness of a Bengali woman in Boston who desperately misses her native country and her large extended family back in India A Real Durwan is one of two stories set back in India, not in the USA A poverty stricken old woman, bent with age, has a job sweeping the stairwell in an apartment building She sleeps on a pile of rags below the mailboxes As improvements are made to the building the tenants decide they want a real concierge and toss her onto the street In Sexy, a young Bengali woman listens every day to her Bengali co worker aghast at the infidelity of her cousin s husband who has left his wife for a younger unmarried woman Although she and the co worker are best of friends, the Bengali woman can t tell her that she herself is having an affair with a married man.In This Blessed House, a young Bengali couple has just moved into a new home and they keep finding posters of Jesus behind closet doors, crosses, statues of Mary in the bushes and nativity scenes in nooks and corner Over her husband s objections, the wife collects these and displays them on the mantle We re not Christian, Sanjeev said Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle Sanjeev is an introverted engineer And it could just be that life of the party Twinkle, despite her poor housekeeping skills, could just be the complementary partner Sanjeev needs if he has sense to hold on to her The stories in the author s collection, Unaccustomed Earth, were very good but Maladies is excellent No wonder it won so many awards Map from In 2000 Jhumpa Lahiri became the first Indian American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies In these nine poignant stories, Lahiri relates the Indian immigrant experience, connecting the tales and creating one voice for them The stories shared a sadness of being separated from one s family by thousands of miles, yet also offered a glimmer of hope for their lives in India or the United States Not generally a reader of short stories, this year I read two powerful novels, Homegoing and The Book of Unknown Americans, which told one story in vignettes Unlike these two books, however, Maladies is nine separate stories which share one overarching theme The characters never meet even if they came from the same city in India to the same city in America, craving the company and friendship of other Indian Americans Lahiri does a masterful job of giving purpose to her protagonists even if in some cases we only get to know them for fifteen short pages As each story begins in a negative light and ends positively, the reader looks forward to each successive story in the collection Even though each story is brilliant in its own right, three stand out in creating an upbeat environment upon conclusion the keynote story The Interpreter of Maladies where Mrs Das comes to terms with herself as the story ends The Story of Bibi Haldar where the title character is ostracized and desires to marry above all else and the ending story The Third and Final Continent with an unnamed protagonist who looks back on his first days in America thirty years later All share the theme of Indians who find it easier to hang on their customs than assimilate, creating people proud of their culture yet longing for their old country This did not seem all too different to me than immigrants from other ethnicities and Lahiri does a superb job of making the Indian experience stand alone Lahiri was raised in suburban Boston in Rhode Island and appears to create her characters from childhood memories Whether it was two Indian girls going trick or treating or a newlywed couple grappling with whether to observe Hinduism or Christianity, the stories are written in a labor of love Each story is penned with the details of the color and texture of the women s saris to the brand of tea that the characters drank From reading the stories of of these immigrants, I felt empathy with their lives as second half twentieth century arrivals to America Jhumpa Lahiri has weaved together stories of sadness yet has her readers leave feeling positive about her characters Although short in length, each story is powerful from start to finish and has the readers desiring to know about the characters lives A collection worthy of the Pulitzer, I look forward to reading of Lahiri s work Interpreter of Maladies rates 5 bright stars. You know a book is good when someone asks you for a synopsis, or snippet, or impression, and all you can do is smile there, enveloped in some subtle magic that only you know about, kinda forget what it was all about altogether This happened with Interpreter of Maladies , a perfectly titled collection of short stories about Indian Americans in India or in the U.S Their ages experiences range from children to marrieds to 103 year olds, from tourism in the old world to the assimilation to a new one The first story makes me shiver just thinking about it I made my students read it as an example of the perfect short story the last one encapsulates the author s overall thesis perfectly It s all a masterpiece a true privilege to read.

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