Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Snigdha Koirala
Editing by Avani Udgaonkar

Art by The Ink Wave

I first came across Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies while in search of more female South Asian voices in literature. And since first reading her collection, my relationship with her work has developed into one of communion – one of personal and emotional resonance. Lahiri explores the lives of Indian immigrants, attempting to bridge the gap between two places that are simultaneously foreign and familiar – places that are of belonging and of isolation. And given my own history of such attempts (having been born in Nepal, raised in Canada, and now living in Scotland), it didn’t take long for my aforementioned communion to develop with Lahiri’s stories.   

Interpreter of Maladies was my introduction to South Asian diasporic fiction. Before reading Lahiri’s work, my reading list (both personal and academic) consisted of the likes of Austen, Shelley, and Fitzgerald – Romantic and Modernist writers whose works, either implicitly or explicitly, marked white characters as default against racialized ‘Others’. As such, over time, this resulted in an unsettling disconnection between myself and the fiction I was reading. But a new literary world opened up for me after reading Interpreter of Maladies. Like many South Asian writers exploring diaspora, Lahiri’s characters’ South Asian culture is a backdrop to their stories. It appears in the everyday: their food, their clothes, and perhaps most prominently, in their names.

Similar to my own, their names are unfamiliar and foreign on the Western tongue – certainly not ones you’d find in my former readings lists, but ones you’d have to learn to enunciate slowly and repeat twice for people to remember. Lahiri, however, uses them as though no other names could possibly be in their places: Bibi Haldar is a young woman isolated and ostracized because of an undiagnosed ailment in “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”; Mr. Pirzada is a sophisticatedly dressed botanist, who has had to leave his wife and daughters behind in Dacca in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”; Shoba and Shukumar are a young couple at the end of a marriage in “A Temporary Matter”. The use of their names acted as a form of solace for me: for someone whose name is often questioned, often creates pause and confusion, this is important. Because when your name appears to pose difficulty for others, it often feels like a part of your identity itself does as well. As such, reading Lahiri for the first time provided solace for the part of my identity connected to my name, the part of my identity connected to my own cultural roots – in other words, it provided communion.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Interpreter of Maladies – and the reason for it to be incorporated into a university curriculum –  is its resistance to the ‘single story’. In a 2009 TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche explains that the ‘single story’ – the reduction of complex groups and individuals to caricatures with one dimensional narratives – results in an ‘incomplete’ portrayal of who they are, and ultimately diminishes their humanity (n.p.). Interpreter of Maladies, however, explores a variety of narratives. While some of Lahiri’s characters move to the United States in pursuit of economic growth (“The Third and Final Continent”), others are deported to Calcutta after the Partition of India (“A Real Durwan”); while the older generation works to maintain their connection to what was once home, the younger generation finds itself, in many ways, oblivious to said home (“When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine”); while a husband finds ways to engage himself at his workplace, a wife feels confined within her home (“Mrs. Sen”). Such diversity of narratives resists a monolithic portrayal of South Asian diaspora, and instead showcases the ways in which gender, place, and age inform the diasporic experience.

In his infamous book, Orientalism, Edward Said explains that the West has perceived ‘the East’ as “a place of romance [and] exotic beings”, and ultimately of inferiority (1) – the West has developed a ‘single story’ of ‘the East’. Said suggests that this ‘single story’ is often incited and sustained by Western scholars and writers. The Orientalist trope makes recurrent appearances in the works of Kipling, Eliot, and Byron, to name a few. These writers, and the many others Said discusses in his book, have been canonized in English Literature – have been coveted as writers worth studying and discussing within and out of universities. But coveting writers who propagate the ‘single story’ of a given group normalizes the ‘single story’– it normalizes the one-dimensional narratives and caricatures themselves. Interpreter of Maladies pushes past this: the characters coming from South Asia in Lahiri’s collection are not exotic figures, but rather, three-dimensional human beings. Her collection challenges the ‘single story’ so often found in literature. And to keep from falling into the dangers of said ‘single story’, her book is one that should be incorporated into a university curriculum.

In academia, Interpreter of Maladies has been discussed throughout post colonial and diaspora studies. Indeed, within a university curriculum, Lahiri’s text can be studied in classes related to these fields, but what this does is it places the text into elective courses: courses which attract those already aware of and interested in post colonial and diaspora theory and literature – in other words, those already aware of the ‘single story’ within the canon. To illuminate the existence and the danger of the ‘single story’, books like Interpreter of Maladies need to be incorporated into required classes. For instance, in The University of Edinburgh, the first year of an undergraduate English Literature program begins its first half by teaching literature on the basis of genre, and its second half on the basis of historical periods. The first half of the course, which lends itself to more flexibility in its reading list, can incorporate authors like Lahiri. Of course, for such an inclusion, the very definition of English Literature must be challenged: it can no longer be thought of as or give prestige solely to literature written by English writers, but rather literature written in the English language – literature written by writers from across the world, who use the English language as a communicative tool to narrate their stories. Because in order to resist the ‘single story’, voices from more than one place, more than one niche must be heard. And perhaps when more stories are heard, more opportunities for communion can emerge.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda N. “The danger of a single story.”. TED, Oct. 2009. Lecture.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Mariner Books, 1999.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. 3rd ed., Penguin Books, 2003.

About the author:

Snigdha Koirala is a second year English Language and Literature at The University of Edinburgh. Like many, she has often found books a source of solace. But the lack of inclusion of South Asian women in academia and literature has created a sense of intellectual anxiety within her own reading and writing. In the years to come, she hopes to reconcile this, as we push to liberate our university curriculum from the ‘pale, male, and stale’, and work towards a more inclusive field.

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