Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Strangers in a Strange Land
Jhumpa Lahiri has achieved literary success and even an adaptation from page-to screen for her novel, The Namesake. Still, it's worth noting that it all started with this 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. The nine stories in this volume are remarkable in the way they capture character, create tension, and reveal, in seven of the nine, the immigrant experience in America, even though the characters themselves may not be first generation immigrants, but rather members of the 1.5 generation.
Steeped in Indian, specifically Bengali, culture despite having been born in the U.S., Shoba and Shukumar, the primary characters in A Temporary Matter, are a married couple living apart in the same house until the lights go out. The electric company's enforced nightly power outage brings these characters together in the dark to reveal secrets. No need for a spoiler alert if you know this much, but be assured that by the end of the story you will have that moment where you judge one character and then the other and then have to find a middle ground as we do in our own lives.
Every story, except for the two set in India, presents the reader with sets of binaries, cultural or social contrasts that may or may not get resolved on the page but always continue to resonate in the reader's mind. In Sexy, we see the obliviousness of a young woman who is living in the midst of the same dicey circumstances that a co-worker describes daily, though she has no clue until the very end that she may be culpable. In Mr. Prizada Comes to Dine, Lahiri takes to task America's deliberate closed-mindedness about other cultures and in This Blessed House we see the conflict between free-spiritedness and deliberateness, the literature lover and the engineer, as played out against the background of a new marriage.
The title story, Interpreter of Maladies, investigates the two cultures side by side as American-born Indians return as tourists to India with their offspring. The lack of connection between the two cultures is apparent through the eyes of their tour guide, or interpreter, as is the romanticizing of "the other" on both sides.
Throughout the volume, the language is evocative and lovely, with vivid characterizations emerging through both action and dialogue. But it is in the final story, The Third and Final Continent, written in the first-person voice of a onetime Bengali bachelor who has traversed the world from India to London to Cambridge, Massachusetts, that we see the ineffably moving journey of evolving from immigrant to inhabitant. In fact, every story in this slim volume is guaranteed to resonate for long after you've turned the last page.