Interpreter of Maladies is the debut short story collection from Jhumpa Lahiri. Published in 1999, Ms. Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Interpreter of Maladies – which is a pretty incredible accomplishment for your first published work.
A collection of nine short stories, a few really stood out for me. The opening story, A Temporary Matter, follows a young married couple. They are alerted that each evening for approximately one hour, they will be without electricity as the city works to repair some downed lines after a snow storm. They aren’t thrilled, mostly because it means that each of them will have to forfeit their normal dinner time routine and eat together, instead of at their computers in separate rooms. You can feel their tension and nervousness at being together and talking to each other, and through flashbacks, we know that their marriage wasn’t always so distant, but a result of their heartbreak over a recent stillborn birth. Every night that they are without power, they eat dinner by candlelight and each reveals one thing that they’ve never told the other – one cheated on an exam in college, the other said they had to work late and instead went to happy hour with their mother. Each little secret revealed brings them closer together. By bridging the distance between them, in the end, they are able to tell each other their hard truths, in the light. I enjoyed this story for the truth of it – how we love people but that love doesn’t always keep us from hurting them, or being hurt by them.
The title story shows us the Das family, on a trip to India, and their tour guide Mr. Kapasi. The Das family seems pretty typical of a family on vacation, 3 kids running amok and parents that are generally oblivious. As they drive to their tour stop, we learn that Mr. Kapasi also works during the week at a doctor’s office as a translator. Mrs. Das points out that his position holds a great amount of power, he interprets the maladies of the patients for the doctor; without him, they would not be able to receive help for their ailments. “Romantic”, Mrs. Das calls it. From that moment on, Mrs. Das is engaged in the car ride and wants to include Mr. Kapasi in their day. Mr. Kapasi starts to fall a little in love with her – she admired his job and called it romantic, after all! Once the family reaches their stop, Mrs. Das decides to stay behind with Mr. Kapasi who is internally swooning. Mrs. Das reveals a secret that has haunted her for 8 years, one that Mr. Kapasi doesn’t expect. You see, he is the interpreter of maladies, only to him, can Mrs. Das reveal her true pain. To me, Interpreter of Maladies is a perfect illustration of how our ideas of people, of who they truly are, are so seldom complete or accurate.
My favorite story might be the one titled Sexy. In Sexy, we meet a young woman who is having an affair with a married man. They meet at a department store and Miranda is immediately drawn to Dev. While Dev’s wife is away in India, they go out on dates and show each other their favorite parts of the city. They visit a musuem where the acoustics make it so that you can stand at opposite ends of the room and hear the other person whisper. Here, Dev tells Miranda that she is sexy – she has never been called sexy. She buys a dress, high heels, seamed stockings – everything, she says, a proper mistress needs. But Dev’s wife is back and the only thing they have time for is sex, every Sunday and only on Sundays when Dev is able to make it into the city by telling his wife he is going in for a run. Of course, Miranda understands that the relationship isn’t going anywhere, that the dress and the heels, they won’t ever make it out on the town. One day, she is babysitting the son of a friend and he finds his way into her closet where he sees her pretty dress, and as 7-year olds are wont to do, demands that she puts it on. She does, and gigglingly, her young friend tells her that she is sexy. Startled, she asks him, “What does sexy mean?”. And, in the most truthful and gut-wrenching definition he tells her “It means when you love someone you don’t know.” Okay yeah Jhumpa, I hear ya.
Pulitzer Prize winners are kind of like Oscar winners for me, I never really seem to understand the hype. Which is sort of how I felt about Interpreter of Maladies as a whole. I enjoyed the stories and I thought that the characters were well-drawn and honest in terms of just seeming really human, but I was never blown away. I didn’t read a line or a story and just sit there stunned, soaking in the beauty and truth of the writing. Obviously, well-drawn and honest characters are more difficult to craft I think in short stories because, well I mean, they’re shorter so there is less time for development. So that is definitely something that I admired about Lahiri’s writing.
Would I Read It Again? Ehh, probably not. I liked this collection of short stories but I didn’t fall in love with it in the way that I’d want to read it over and over again. That said, it was definitely worth the initial read.