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).
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 universal origin, 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 illuminating her very emptiness. The reaction of Indian audiences to readings by Lahiri 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 as a babysitter of American children.
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 relations remains in the grudging care of her cousin and his wife while attempting to find herself a husband and a cure for her ailments. While it remains consistent with Lahiri's overall theme of isolation, she says herself 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's presents a first person account of an Indian man arranging 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 in 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 idea 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.
About Jumpa Lahiri
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). Publishing her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, in 1999, Lahiri has become a quick international success and an award-winning author. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in 1967 in London but raised in South Kingstown, RI 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 and later her PhD in Renaissance studies. Following the PhD program, she did a two-year fellowship at Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center.
During completion of her doctorate thesis 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 publishing. 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 Louisville Review. The 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.
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). Jhumpa Lahiri continues work on a second book but said that she could not comment because 'it's only after [she] finishes something that [she] can actually describe it in words' (Aguiar 3).