Interpreter of Maladies
By Jhumpa Lahiri
There is a certain set theory currently prevalent about the way Indian writers are supposed to write. Most of it centres on the two words 'magical realism'. Magical real-
ism, flagged off by Rushdie with a nod at Marquez runs through Red Earth & Pouring Rain, Shadow Lines and Hullabaloo in the Guava Tree. In fact, for a while, it seemed as if magical realism was the only style in which Indians were allowed to write. Then Arundhuti Roy came along and substituted prose for the realism bit but kept the magical; Vikram Seth changed his form with each new opus.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the latest Indian writer in the news. And while she might sound a little like the latest Indian flavour of the month, the the truth is that she writes a decep-
tively understated, unobtrusive prose. More than Roy's, it does form the 'skin that clothes her thoughts'. There is talk of her 'elegant' style but 'ironic might be a bet-
ter word. There is also another important departure from the Indian-Writing-in-English school or, as it has been called here, the Indo-Anglian school: Lahiri does not write 'Indian English', a fact that is probably due to her education and upbringing. Unlike the rest, Lahiri is London-born and Rhode Island-raised, which not only accounts for her style but also gives her writing a dif-
ferent slant, one that puts her closer to Bharati Mukherjee in its preoccupation with Indians stranded abroad and struggling to fit in.
All Indians when they die go to London or New York. That statement is truer now than it used to be twenty years ago when 'abroad' was the place you went to get your degree and the 'foreign returned' stamp without which your career and your existence in any of the major Indian cities was precarious. But despite having been born abroad, Lahiri has a strong sense of her roots. She is aware of the struggle that takes place when people try to replace an traditional way of life with a modern one in a country not one's own. As far as she is concerned, the more one tries to change, the more one remains the same. America gets in the way and the old relationships and old ways of life come under threat. The narrator in the story 'The Third and Final Continent' makes it a point to visit his son in the New World and speak to him in Bengali, 'things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die'. Indians are aliens in Lahiri's stories, people stranded in a country and a culture that is not their own but which demands conformity from them.
These stories are about encounters--between Americans or Indians and Americanised In-
dians in America and encounters between Indians and Indians in India. The title story, 'Interpreter of Maladies' is set in Puri and describes an encounter with an Indian tourist guide by an Indian couple who are en-route to the Sun Temple of Konarak. The couple are Bengalis who have left their roots behind, and their sons have never been to India before. The wife discovers that their guide, a Mr Kapasi, also acts as translator to the local doctor in his spare time and is convinced that he has the abil- ity to interpret maladies, i.e. diagnose the causes of illnesses. She eventually un-
burdens her soul to him in a time and place that until then had become totally alien to her.
Many of the stories take place in times of absence: absence from a spouse, from a place, or from a loved one. Mrs Sen needs to learn how to drive but cannot do it while her husband is present. Mr Pirzada, separ-
ated from his family in Dhaka, keeps his watch permanently fixed to Dhaka time. Miranda has an affair with an Indian man in the absence of his wife. In the absence of electricity a young couple struggle to come to grips with the loss of their baby and their failing marriage, confessing things to each other that they would never have done if the lights were on.
Lahiri does not paint pretty pictures. Nor does she promise great things to come, a magical revelation that transforms every-
thing and makes it right again. Her canvas is the details that make up the reality of every-day life. This is her first published collection, and it holds a promise of even more interesting explorations to come. It also perhaps signals the end of a literary fad, but as to that, who knows?
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quar-
terly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)