Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Continuing my quest, I read The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, which have actually been sitting on my shelf for quite a while. Still, better late than never right? Haha. Anywho, I underestimated the power of these short stories, particularly in grabbing my whole attention. Why? Because short stories don’t have the span of pages for steady plot-building and character development.

Whether it’s set in America or in India, Lahiri’s characters exhibited to me what it felt like to be foreign in many ways imaginable, even in your own family. Immigrant life is told in the most real way possible by the diversity of characters and circumstances. However, these stories still transcend any cultural and ethnic aspects very similar to my previous read by Raymond Carver.

For example, the first short story, A Temporary Matter introduced me to the captivation that comes in normality. A young married couple is on the edge of crumbling as they play mind games as they mourn their child. And the funny thing is, the would only talk when the lights go out, unable to look at each other for they will only see what they have lost in each other’s eyes. There is unbearable tension between them when the lights were on, and you could feel the numerous cracks in the destruction of their marriage. From how little they spoke to each other, how he hesitates in showing her affection -but, only to look at her from what it feels like a mile away in their kitchen and think of how she used to be with her everyday quirks, how she cooks, and talks.

When the lights were off, strangely, it felt like everything was well again. They told each other secrets they wouldn’t normally tell, while sitting outside, surrounded by dimness of the night. Honestly, I felt every little bit of pain and uncertainty while rooting for some kind of resolution to their misery. But like I mentioned before, we are complicated beings, that pain sometimes has no quick-fixes but that’s how life is excruciatingly beautiful.

Then there’s a story about Eliot, who spends his after-school hours baby-sitted by Mrs. Sen, wife of a Mathematics lecturer who smothers her longing by eloquently cooking food that reminds her of nothing but home. At that, I have to mention that Lahiri masterfully pulls us into the secret thoughts of these individuals simply from their behavior and habits. Mrs. Sen only wanted to use a knife from “home” and prefers to cook a whole fish, thus requiring her to remind her butcher to keep the head. Furthermore, Mrs. Sen seemed to have adapted quite well to her life in America, but then we see the extent of cultural displacement when she refuses to do the one seemingly necessary skill that is driving. Why? Because once she learns to that, she will have successfully assimilated into American culture and no, no, she will not have that.

Thanks to Lahiri, fear and my previous conceptions on short stories are pretty much starting to shed. Each writer will have his or her own characteristics in capturing our hearts. Her simple diction and idyllic descriptions allowed me to visualize the setting so clearly. Such is the “emerald lasagna” that is used to describe wet seaweed sprawled out across the sand when I saw it through Eliot’s eyes. And the characters, my goodness, Lahiri was able to make me connect to them so deeply, and so attached that I would not be troubled to spend a whole entire day with them, even if it means sharing their pain and sadness. Because then I would relish in their happiness.

She took me to the darkest parts of ourselves, to the most vulnerable and impulsive in exhibiting just how imperfect we are. So, I was able to definitely see pieces of myself in her characters in all their melancholy. Yes, I wanted to shake some of them by the shoulder to snap them out of it, but Lahiri taught me to just let it be because through their melancholy, I was able to see what really matters.