‘Interpretation of Maladies’ by Jhumpa Lahiri
The process of analysis for this English Extended Essay on “Interpretation of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri was definitely a journey where in I discovered and learnt a lot. When I was assigned this project, initially I was a little apprehensive about how to execute this extended essay. My teacher gave me a good briefing about the entire process which I had to follow for the execution of this analysis.
I began by reading the novel in its entirety several times. Every time I read the different stories in this novel, it was like going on a new literary journey altogether. The realistic presentation of the characters by the author brought in life to them and at a point I no longer felt that I was a mere reader but transcended into the stories with the characters and played a mute spectator.
Post having sufficient understanding of each story, I made note of the thematic aspects of each story, the stage setting and how this helped in portrayal of the mindset of each characters. I employed literary analytical aspects of thematic analysis, language analysis, stage setting analysis to give an in-depth analysis of the novel “Interpretation of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri.
In the concluding part of this extended essay, I wound up by indicating the effect of the stories on the readers and why the readers could relate to each character as this is an important aspect of story narration and effective engagement of the reader.
The Interpreter of Maladies reflects the trauma of self-transformation through immigration which ends up being an attempt in futility as resultantly there is a series of broken identities that form “multiple anchorages.” Lahiri’s stories present the futile diasporic struggle to keep hold of culture as primary characters that of her stories create new lives in foreign cultures. Relationships, language, rituals, and religion all help these characters maintain their culture in new surroundings even as they build a “hybrid realization” as Asian Americans. But the lack of harmony and happiness ultimately makes the attempt a futile experience.
Interpretation of Maladies brings to the forefront many complex issues with identity confronted by the Diaspora community. The book has the tales and experiences of first and second generation immigrants who are Indians, as well as a few tales comprising involving ideas of otherness among Indian communities. The stories focus around the complexities of several relationships, communication and a feeling of a loss of identity for individuals in diaspora. Despite where the tale takes place, the major players struggle with the similar feelings of exile and the struggle between the dual worlds by which they feel torn apart. The stories essentially deal with the always shifting lines between gender, sexuality, and social status within a diaspora. Whether the player in the tale is a homeless woman belonging to India or an Indian male pupil in the United States, all the characters show the effects of displacement in a diaspora.
The characters in her stories dwell with a sense of dissatisfaction on account of their personal lives and experiences. The settings, narration, the mindsets of the characters and the interaction characters have with each other assist the readers in comprehending their plight and the futility of the situation.
Findings and Analysis:
Interpreter of Maladies:
Jhumpa’s thematic presentation of futility in the Interpreter of Maladies is somewhat subtle yet effective. The setting is just about perfect with the character placement effectively facilitating the futility in their relationships and aspirations. The Central characters in this tale are Mr. and Mrs. Das and the tour guide Mr. Kapasi. The writer through the interactions of the Das couple with their children Tina, Bobby and Ronny present to us the fact that their relationship with their children lack perfection and to a great extent seems futile as the children do not seem to obey their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Das seem more of sibling to their children than their parents as they are constantly squabbling among themselves. Mrs. Das is evidently not interested in the relationship which seems futile to her and the very fact that she describes Mr. Kapasi’s job as an interpreter of maladies as a romantic one leads Mr. Kapasi to fantasize about her which eventually turns out to be a futile exercise. An aspect which does not fail to draw attention of the reader is the instance when the Das couple are engaged in an argument as to who would take Tina to the bathroom is indicative of each one desire to shun responsibility. Here, a sense of futility is existent in the parental relationship the couple share towards their children.
Jhumpa has utilized the lack of communication as an aspect to present the futility of the relationship all the characters are dwelling in. Mr. Das is presented as a character always buried in his guide book while Mrs. Das hides her inner self behind her sunglasses. Mr. Kapasi is trapped in a loveless futile marriage spending lonely nights drinking tea by himself.
The futility of the relationship the Das family is in is very evident in the action of Mrs Das especially when she fails to offer puffed rice which she was gorging on by herself. The element of family sharing a meal fails to be present. This action of Mrs. Das indicates indifference and an underlying sense of hostility towards her spouse and children. The relationships they share is thus understood as being a futile relationship.
Mr Kapasi reveals the futility of his existence as he is working as an interpreter feels that his job is a failure as he is a scholar of many languages. The dissatisfaction he experiences in the job of an interpreter leads to a sense of futility within him. Futility is further expressed by the character when he states that the job of an interpreter was taken to pay of medical bills of his son who had contracted thyroid. His son’s death made his sacrifice of sorts a futile effort.
Mr. Kapasi’s fantasy ride commences with Mrs. Das. It becomes very evident to Mr. Kapasi that the Das Couple’s relationship lacks charm and harmony and is futile. He begins to fantasize about Mrs. Das when she admires his job as that of an interpreter. His fantasy leads to a peak when he and Mrs. Das are conversing while staring at the nudity depicted in the form of temple carvings. The sensuality of the situation is well created by the writer by placing her characters in a setting which is erotic leading to temptation but futile desires.
He decided to begin with the most obvious question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked,
“Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”
This quote appears towards the end of the story where Mrs. Das reveals the fact that Bobby is the son of a friend of Mr. Das whom she was intimate with while her husband was away. Mr. Kapasi questions her about her feeling and Mr. Kapasi makes one final interpretation. Mr. Kapasi feels that Mrs. Das desires absolution and not questioning, relief and not reflection. She and Mr. Kapasi are both lonely but the fact that they have differences keeps them apart thus making the possibility of a relationship futile.
Revelation leads to futility. The revelation made by Mrs Das about the legitimacy of her child to Mr. Kapasi was the blow which tarnishes the fantasy of Mr. Kapasi. For a short spell of time, Mr. Kapasi was on an imaginative trip which proved baseless and futile as he failed to accept the person who he was daydreaming about to have a scandalous past as such.
The revelation of Mrs. Das proves her infidelity further shattering the image of the Das family proving the fact that the relationship is more of an arrangement than a bonding of love.
The writer has aptly used setting to bring all her vital characters in the scene and weaving a storyline in a natural way facilitating the flow of human emotions at their various moment of interaction. The writer crafts every character in a natural and believable manner leading us to realize the fact that there are several relationships where people are bound together for the sake of fulfilling an arrangement commenced to fulfill a certain purpose but the lack of depth and gravity of the relationship proves the relationship to be a futile on as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Das and their relationship, Mr. Kapasi and his profession as an interpreter and a tour guide and his fascination for Mrs. Das which later on sours as he learns about her “real” self.
With regards to being in India, Mr. and Mrs. Das fail to connect with the country India as their home but have a tourists’ perspective which is very evident when Mr. Das snaps away a picture of the starving peasant instead of helping him. When Bobby is need of help when surrounded by monkeys, Mr. Das is excited about the picture he clicks instead of immediately helping the boy. This indicates a lack of understanding and connection with each other and the country they are in which they understand as being home. Thus the trip too can be safely understood as being an exercise in futility.
The camera of Mr. Das is symbolically employed by the writer to present the fact that Mr. Das view the world through his camera and in not in direct touch with reality. The camera proves to be an obstruction and proves to be a futile aspect blocking Mr. Das’s chance to view the real world devoid his camera.
“Interpreter of Maladies” is a story with a setting and dialogues which may not be larger than life but is as close and real as life could be though the writer presents her work as a fictionalized account of her imagination and creativity.
A Temporary Matter:
In this tale, the writer in all clarity wishes to point out that lack of trust and deceit in a relationship makes the existence of that relationship futile. The futility of the relationship of Shukumar and Shoba is visible to the reader as the play the game wherein they reveal to each other their secrets. We the readers learn that the element of deception is predominant and this causes the relationship to be extremely strained and leads to a point of deterioration and a point of no return. The couple indulges in lying to each other and the lies have been with selfish motives in mind. They avoid bring in discomfort to each other and their selves by indulging in not speaking the truth. They have lied to each other, and the lies have been selfish ones-told not to spare the other’s feelings but to allow the person telling the lie to escape some discomfort or sacrifice. The sanctity of their marriage to a good extent is at stake and to a large extent they do not seem to care about this fact. The sweater incident reveals to the reader that they lie about petty issues. Shukumar had returned the sweater to get some money which he could use in order to get drunk to the core.
The couple drifting apart commenced after the loss of their baby and the began to care less for each other and this is revealed by the fact that they have been lying unceremoniously. They no longer connect with each other emotionally and this indicates the fading of their relationship. When Shoba displays the fact that their sorrow was on account of a deceptive game, she is following a pattern which is established. All through the week of electricity cuts, Shoba can be seen attempting to reach out Shukumar. But in truth, she is working out her final separation from Shukumar.
During the same time frame, the game that seems to be putting them together also displays a past filled with lies. Matters have hardly been as they seemed between these two individuals. To add to this, readers understand early in the tale that Shoba has always been the person to plan way ahead and that she maintains a separate bank account. Readers are left to think as to whether the pattern of deception will end or increase beyond repair.
The story indicates a shift decisively towards a happy finale when, on the fifth evening, the writer declares, “They had survived a difficult time.” Shoba’s silent behavior that particular evening has been disrupted as the calm after a storm. But that understanding is as misleading as Shoba’s pattern of conduct has been. We, the readers, like the character of Shukumar, have been given complex signals and only understand at the end which set of aspects was reliable.
The stage setting adds to the realm of this tale. To depict futility of the relationship of the protagonists, the writer places the Bradford couple as neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Bradford are neighbors of Shoba and Shukumar. Shoba and Shukumar often witness them strolling by, holding arm in arm, on their path to the bookshop on the second night of the power cut or failure. The Bradfords appear to be a happily married pair and as such make provision of a contrast to the main lead pair i.e. Shoba and Shukumar. The writer specifically mentions that the Bradfords kept a card of sympathy as a goodwill gesture in Shoba and Shukumar’s mailbox when their baby was lost.
The light and dark stage setting present a realistic scenario where the reader can identify with the inner feeling of the characters. As the primary characters have their conflicts within their selves and with each other, the lightning assists in quick identification of their inert feeling. Here the writer, I opine has very meticulously employed the element of light and darkness to reveal the thought, apprehensions and turmoil of the characters making the presentation of the entire story line noteworthy.
“You went to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your mother, and I figured it would be a long call. I wanted to know if you’d promoted me from the margins of your newspaper.”
Instead of looking for clues about her future husband or finding something of earth-shattering importance, she looks to see if she is making up the little details of Shukumar’s life. Again, it is clear that the little things mask the greater realities.
Alienation further triggers of futility of the relationship. Shoba and Shukumar’s grief has led them to withdraw from each other. Until the nightly power outages began, they avoided each other. Shoba leaves for work early each morning, returns late, and often brings home extra work to occupy her evenings and weekends. When Shoba is home, Shukumar retreats to his computer and pretends to work on his dissertation. He has put the computer in the room that was to be the nursery because he knows that Shoba avoids that room. She comes in briefly each evening to tell him goodnight. He resents even this brief interaction, which Shoba initiates only out of a sense of obligation.
Shoba and Shukumar do not attempt to comfort or support each other. Each withdraws from the relationship, and they endure their grief as if they were two strangers living in a boardinghouse.
An important aspect to be noted about this story is the fact that the writer’s tone in presentation of this tale of grief, tragedy and deception is in totality neutral. This neutral tone is essentially employed to by the writer as the writer, I believe desires the readers form their own individual perspectives of each character and decide who and why they wish to empathize with. This style of presentation makes provision for an unbiased formation of a point of view on the part of the reader facilitated primarily by the writer. Many a times, writer tend to shadow their narrative with their personal and judgmental opinion which I believe that the writer here has refrained from doing so making this an exemplary work of art.
Mrs. Sen, the titular character of Lahiri’s story demonstrates the power that physical objects have over the human experience. This aspect is employed by the writer to display a sense of futility in the thoughts and existence of the titular character. During the entire story, Mrs. Sen is preoccupied with the presence or lack of material objects that she once had. Physically though Mrs. Sen is there where she is but mentally or rather emotionally she seems to be dwelling in another world, a world of the past. Whether it is fish from her native Calcutta or her special vegetable cutting blade, she has the tendency to cling to the material possessions that she is accustomed to, while firmly rejecting new experiences such as canned fish or even something as mundane as driving a car.
“‘At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements”
This moment illustrates that Mrs. Sen is referring to her neighborhood at home as a much more closely-knit community than that of the area where Eliot lives. Here she uses a slightly superior attitude when referring to her culture as opposed to Eliot’s, which helps her remain confident about staying true to her Indian roots while she physically lives in a different place.
Lack of the ability of the central character of Mrs. Sen to transcend successfully and accept her new world presents the futility of the situation. Mrs. Sen being homesick is certainly understandable given her meaningless social life, her reflective nostalgic feeling deepens the situation to such an extent that she fails to relate to the individuals she meets in America and the eventually end up as no barrier to her acclimation. The person selling fish at the market fails to immediately address her as Mrs. Sen but he surely reserves special fish for her. The man of the law does not book her but just asks her questions after her car accident does not indict her. The writer presents all characters in the story as people who make life easy for her and facilitate the process of her settling down comfortable in America. But Inspite of all this, Mrs. Sen fails to settle in to any degree, drapes herself always in saris, serving to the mother of Eliot, Indian canapÃ©s and putting aside completely the prospect of learning to drive. By conducting her life differently through recollected tales imprinted on her her saris, and her aerograms which are grainy, Mrs. Sen deliberately stays away from any kind of assimilation through the empowerment of material objects and what they mean to her.
In this tale, 11-year old Eliot commences living with Mrs. Sen – a professor’s wife – after school. Mrs. Sen who is the caretaker cuts and makes meals as she tells Elliot tales of her past life in Calcutta, thereby assisting in crafting of her identity. Like “A Temporary Matter,” this stale is full of lists of produce, catalogs and recipes with descriptions. Stress is placed on ingredients and the mode of preparation. Other aspects are definitely emphasized as well, such as Mrs. Sen’s collection of saris which are multicolored brought in by her from India. The The entire storyline rotates around Mrs. Sen’s customary practice of purchasing fish from a seafood market locally. This fish helps in reminding Mrs. Sen of her house back and holds great importance to her. But reaching the seafood market needs driving, a skill that Mrs. Sen has failed to learn and is not interested in learning either. Towards the finale of the story, Mrs. Sen tries to learn to drive to the market without her better half but this attempt leads to a car accident. Eliot soon stops living with Mrs. Sen after this.
To conclude with, I am of the conviction that Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer prize winner for this literary work of art “The Interpretation of Maladies” has undoubtedly excelled in creating a work of literary expression which presents human emotion and interaction in its rawest form. This makes each story believable and close to the readers heart. She has very well employed the human emotion of sorrow in most of the stories as this I believe is one emotion which every individual can deeply identify with and relate to. Her characters such as that of Mrs. Sen, Shoba, Sukumar, Mrs Das and the others are very realistic as they are presented as ordinary humans with issues which every other individual deals with. The added aspect to this realistic presentation is the fact that her characters are primarily migrants finding it hard to get acquainted to a European culture and are being confronted with culture issues and discrimination. She has woven a beautiful story line in each story and the readers are drawn enigmatically into her world and her style of storytelling which is essentially different in a unique way than their contemporaries.
The stage setting employed in each story differs and is highly apt to the story complementing the story and presenting the characters in a comprehensive way. The Temporary Matter, Mrs. Sen, Interpretation of Maladies etc. has stage setting which make the story realistic and not deviate the attention of the writer. This is an important aspect which can be understood in her works.
The language employed by the writer to present her characters is another vital aspect. The language is simple and precise without being dramatic. More importantly the body language of the character plays vital part in communicating the essence and the feeling within the characters.
Each story of hers has message or a theme which is learnt by the reader in the process of acquainting himself in her stories. Her bring out themes of deception, love, tragedy, discrimination in a manner most beautiful and subtle.