Image by IncMan/CC Licensed
Image by IncMan/CC Licensed

Growing up in America under the supervision of a mother who wanted to raise her children to be Indian, it is no surprise that Jhumpa Lahiri puts so large an emphasis on the “stories of Indians in what for them is a strange land” (Rothstein 1).  After publishing her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, in 1999, Lahiri became a quick international success and an award-winning author.  Jhumpa Lahiri was born in 1967 in London but raised in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, by her father, a librarian, and her mother, a teacher. The influence of frequent childhood visits to India and parents who are still a part of the Indian world despite their immigration to America thirty years ago shaped her book (People Weekly 138). Lahiri’s role as a writer developed in grade school when she began to “[write] 10-page ‘novels’ during recess with her friends” (Patel 80).  Later in her school years, Lahiri busied herself with the school newspaper. After graduating from Barnard College, Lahiri continued at Boston University to obtain her masters’ degrees in English, Comparative Literature, and Creative Writing.  She later obtained her doctoral degree in Renaissance Studies. Following the Ph.D. program, she completed a two-year fellowship at Province Town’s Fine Arts Work Center.

While completing her doctorate in 1997, she worked for Boston magazine as an intern and was given little trust “as a real writer” (Flynn 173). The joke seems to be on Boston magazine and any others who doubted her after the release of her first book, which began to receive awards almost immediately following publication. Among the first received in 1999 was the PEN/Hemingway award for the Best Fiction Debut of the Year. The title story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” was chosen for the O. Henry Award for best American short stories. Lahiri was a recipient of the TransAtlantic Review award from Henfield foundation and the fiction prize from the Louisville ReviewThe New Yorker has published three of her stories and named her as “one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40.”  The greatest tribute to her talent thus far has been the award for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  She is the first Indian woman to receive this award. That said, her 2003 novel The Namesake was made into a popular film and later, in 2008, she released her second book of short stories Unaccustomed Earth, which debuted at the top of the New York Best Seller List.

In January of 2001, Lahiri married the deputy editor of Time Latin America, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. The author arranged a traditional Bengali wedding in the Singhi Palace in Calcutta, a place she has never considered “a foreign city [since she] has been coming [there] since [she] was two years old” (“Oh Calcutta!” 1).   She is also a member of the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities appointed by Barack Obama.

Interpreter of Maladies

The stories of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book whisper and scream traces of India through the details of the characters who become fictional testaments to the “complex and conflicted world of Indian immigrants in the United States” (Rothstein 1).  The title for the book came to Lahiri years before she actually began to formulate it when she ran into “a friend who acted as a Russian liaison in a Boston doctor’s office” (Flynn 100). She says that the phrase “Interpreter of Maladies” was “the closest [she has] ever come to poetry” (Flynn 100). Her characters often exist simultaneously in two cultures: the American reality and the sphere of Indian tradition (Aguiar 2). (See Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity)

Interpreter of Maladies, 1999
Interpreter of Maladies, 1999

Jhumpa Lahiri says that her experiences in Calcutta “nourished [her] interest in seeing things from different points of view” (Patel 80).  Such ability is what allows Lahiri to write from the perspectives of such seemingly different characters. Her points of perspective range from a cab driver/tour guide in “Interpreter of Maladies” to that of an adult recounting her child-like fascination with a recurring visitor in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” Lahiri uses character details in order to make assertions about the sense of isolation that governs each story’s events.

“Mrs. Sen’s” speaks to the many isolated immigrant women of not just Indian descent, but of numerous origins through its poignant depiction of a woman trying to assimilate but unwilling to let go of the aspects of her life in India that “do not fit.”  In the United States, Mrs. Sen baby-sits in her home wearing the intricate saris brought carefully from India which have no remaining purpose. It is the trips to the fish market and letters from India that keep her feeling whole, while also illuminating her very emptiness. The reactions of Lahiri’s Indian audiences to her readings have been concerned with ideas of identity and representation, issues surely experienced by all immigrants trying to adapt to a new culture. Lahiri said in an interview with Newsweek that the main character in “Mrs. Sen’s” found its basis in her mother working as a babysitter for American families.

One particular story whose setting is not primarily a US Northeastern coastal city is “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.” An epileptic woman in Calcutta with few relatives remains in the grudging care of her cousin and his wife while attempting to find herself a husband and a cure for her ailments (See Arranged Marriages, Matchmakers and Dowries). While it remains consistent with Lahiri’s overall theme of isolation, she says that “the story is basically about the town’s involvement in Bibi’s search for a husband and her own sense of happiness” (Aguiar 2). Community solidifies the identity of Bibi Haldar because she has no real family. Through the communal device, Lahiri identifies the accentuated isolation of this character in her native city even when surrounded by the same people that have always surrounded her.

The final story of Lahiri’s first collection of nine, “The Third and Final Continent,” addresses the realities of arranged marriages and the long process of assimilation into American culture from an Indian perspective. Perhaps modeled upon aspects of her parents’ lives in the United States, Lahiri presents a first person account of an Indian man preparing for the arrival of his new bride as he lives under the roof of an aged American landlady. The vivid differences between his bachelor life in a room in this woman’s house and the journey that he takes while learning who his bride is boldly comments on the cultural differences and similarities between the two cultures. Senses of isolation and a coming together in order to survive are evident in both of these relationships. At the end of the story, Lahiri introduces the notion of loss of cultural identification through passing generations by mentioning the college aged child of the couple. They bring him home to “eat rice with his hands and speak Bengali” which are “things [they] sometimes worry he will no longer do after [they] die” (Lahiri 197). Lahiri presents a couple whose only remaining connection with the country of their origin has a definitive death with their own end because the assimilation of their son into American culture leaves no room for their own cultural orientation.

Selected Reviews of Interpreter of Maladies

Salon Books: Charles Taylor

An interesting exploration of some thematic and stylistic elements of Lahiri’s first book. Taylor explores the author’s ability to “erase boundaries between character and audience” as it relates to her purposely simplistic stylistic mechanisms. By pointing out the fact that Lahiri’s characters are not at a loss for cultural identity but rather “relieved when they adjust to their new world and regretful at the separation from their original cultures,” Taylor names assimilation as a major theme. Finally, the review correctly highlights the imagery and abundant references to rich Indian food as a marked difference between the American culture to be embraced and the Indian culture that must be savored.

New York Times Book Review: “Subcontinental Drift”: Caleb Crain

Mainly focusing on the power of relationships and the personal connections of Lahiri’s diverse characters, Caleb Crain says that the author “breathes unpredictable life into [her pages leaving] the reader . . . wishing [they] could spend a whole novel with its characters” (Crain 12).  The review explores how characters like Twinkle in “This Blessed House” obtain something worthwhile out of relationships that are seemingly doomed to failure.  Crain concentrates on Lahiri’s presentation of the “force” of relationships rather than their “sentiment” as he asserts that not even religion is as powerful as Twinkle’s tears of protest. It is Lahiri’s ability to create characters with whom the audience can relate that makes the book magic. Lahiri uses character description in her stories in such a fashion that she is able to effectively and passively comment upon human relationships.

New York Times: “Liking America, but Longing for India”: Michiko Kakutani

Kakutani effectively draws upon not only the theme of cultural displacement, but also the disconnected feelings that exist within all of the relationships in every story. Presenting several examples from the Interpreter of Maladies illustrates the manners in which Lahiri’s characters struggle to relate to one another, themselves, and their changing positions in life. The themes of loss and isolation are evident in this review as Kakutani describes the methods through which Lahiri looks at people’s dualistically structured lives in two countries, primarily India and the United States. The review presents some criticism of the author’s use of coincidence as a crutch to explain occurrences in her characters’ lives, but explains that this small failing does not take away from her ability to present and handle her intricate web of characters.

The Village Voice: Megan O’Grady

Although brief, this review focuses on the details of the book as they relate to people who feel like foreigners “at home or abroad.”  O’Grady focuses on Lahiri’s ability to employ subtlety as a tactic for interpreting human relationships in order to avoid being overbearing or overly moralistic. She presents evidence for the feelings of disorientation associated with immigration through details that Lahiri again subtly employs in order to emphasize the cross-cultural differences that become telling factors in plot development. In the realm of relationships, O’Grady focuses on marriage as a recurrent domain in Lahiri’s stories, which is used to convey information about dislocation and isolation in a new culture or lifestyle.

Works Cited

  • Aguiar, Arun. “One on One With Jhumpa Lahiri.” 28 July 1999. Pifmagazine. 8 Oct. 2001. Web.
  • “Breakthroughs 2000: Jhumpa Lahiri, Author.” People Weekly 25Dec. 2000-1 Jan. 2001: 138.
  • Crain, Caleb. “Subcontinental Drift.” New York Times Book Review 104.28 (11 July 1999) : 11-12.
  • Donahue, Deirdre. “Painfully Beautiful Passages from India.” USA Today 12 Aug. 1999: 7D.
  • Flynn, Gillian. “Passage to India.” Entertainment Weekly (28 Apr/5 May, 2000): 100.
  • Flynn, Sean. “Women We Love: Jhumpa Lahiri.” Esquire Oct. 2000: 172-173.
  • Kafka, Phillipa. On the Outside Looking in(dian) : Indian Women Writers at Home and Abroad. New York : P. Lang, 2003.
  • Kakutani, Michiko. “Liking America, but Longing for India.” New York Times 6 Aug. 1999: E2: 48.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
  • Mani, Bakirathi. Aspiring to Home : South Asians in America. Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, 2012.
  • O’Grady, Megan. “Interpreter of Maladies.” The Village Voice 44.24 (1999) : 104.
  • “Oh Calcutta! The ONLY Place to Wed.” Asiaweek 26 Jan. 2001: 1.
  • Patel, Vibhuti. “The Maladies of Belonging.” Newsweek 20 Sep.1999: 80.
  • News report. 11 April 2000. 8 Oct. 2001. Web.
  • Rothstein, Mervyn. “India’s Post-Rushdie Generation.” New York Times 3 July 2000: E1.
  • Roy, Nilanjana S. A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food. New York : Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Shankar, lavina Dhingra and Floyd Cheung. Naming Jhumpa Lahiri : Canons and Controversies. Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books, 2012.
  • Steinberg, Sybil S. “Interpreter of Maladies.” Publishers Weekly (19 Apr. 1999): 59-60.
  • Taylor, Charles. “Interpreter of Maladies.” Salon Books. 27 July 1999. Web.
  • Varvogli, Aliki. Travel and Dislocation in Contemporary American Fiction. New York : Routledge, 2011.

Related Links

Essay by Author

Author: Katherine Wcislo Fall 2001
Last Updated: May 2017

Write A Comment