Interpeter of Maladies is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, a collection of short stories for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1999, it offers a glimpse into the lives of Indians in exile as they try to navigate between two different worlds. Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Anton Pavlovič Chekhov, Lahiri’s concise writing takes common subjects and gives them depth. The author uses language as a precision tool: the tales are so short that every sentence has its purpose.
The nine stories dwell on many themes such as immigration and identity, but they are about being an outsider. Their protagonists are foreigner: from their own relationships or from others’, from their countries, from a drama unrolling in front of their eyes.
A mosaic of Indianness
Lahiri gives voices to a diverse group of people. Not all of her characters are Indians. As a matter of fact, the narrators of Sexy and Mrs. Sen are Americans. Not all of her stories are set in the United States either. Interpreter of Maladies, A Real Durwan and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar take place in India. The protagonists have a relationship with India, but they are not entirely defined by it.
The stories evoke the Indianness of the characters through details: how the food is cooked, the decorations of the houses, the way some female characters wear their saris. For some, it remains in the background. Others instead wrap themselves around it, as a way of not severing their connection to their home countries. Like brushstrokes in paintings, it makes the characters more vibrant, it adds texture, and ultimately it merges into a bigger picture. Thus, Interpreter of Maladies is not only about Indians in exile: it expresses themes that resonate universally such as relationships and finding one’s place.
All protagonists suffer some kind of maladies, although these are not illnesses of the body. Some suffer from matters of the heart, having trouble in their marriages or relationships, while others struggle to find their place in the world. The author becomes an interpreter of their woes, as she unveils their feeling of loneliness and isolation.
The act of writing also becomes a way for Lahiri to interpret her own maladies. Born in London in 1967, daughter of two Bengali immigrants and raised in the United States, she is no stranger to exile. As she said in an interview with The Guardian,
There was always ‘the other place’ and ‘the other language’ and ‘the other world’.
She recalls how she watched her parents hovering between two worlds, and herself being an outsider. Like Spanish poet and journalist Laura Casielles, Lahiri uses language to weave together these two different spaces. The act of writing becomes a way to expose sorrows but also to heal them. As she explains in another interview with Charlie Rose,
What drew me to try to write many of these stories was to try to make sense […], trying to weave these two worlds I grew up in together, in some combination that was orderly on the page in a way isn’t always in life.
Thus, Interpreter of Maladies opens with a story about a couple who become strangers in their own marriage, and ends with that of strangers learning to love each other in their new marriage, in a new country.
Lahiri’s book is about a specific Indian experience. Yet, it manages to reach a larger audience as it seeks to depict human interaction and communication. Although the author explains that she writes without the reader in mind, her narration leaves a place for them. None of the stories ends with a precise resolution: it is the reader that draws their own conclusion.