The struggle with short stories is the limited space and the need for enough information, enough plot, enough character development, to get the point across. Short stories are speed dating for those not quite willing to commit to a full length novel. Jhumpa Lahiri does not shy away from the daunting task of short stories and her product is nothing short of amazing.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the daughter of Indian immigrants, born in London but spending the majority of her childhood in Long Island, New York. Lahiri often refers to herself as American, once saying “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.” While The Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s debut publication, it is anything but amateur. The book was even the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize Award, which reportedly came as “quite a shock” to Lahiri. After taking a look at the book, however, it is not a shock to readers. The book itself tells the stories of India natives either still residing in India, or immigrants to America. She wrote the book in 1999, drawing observations from her family, and immigrants she met while growing up.
Lahiri expertly navigates the world of short stories with an artful hand. The novel contains nine different stories, which delve into idea of marriage and the trials that accompany it. For the most part, the stories are not about heartbreak. They are not about a climactical moment where everything falls apart, but about the characters. Her stories are not about the drama, not about how many twists she can place in one short story, but how the characters deal with their lives. The characters in these stories all deal with a certain amount of miscommunication. In any of the stories, there is evidence of one character not understand another, and that is what led to the majority of heartbreak. The novel is about the opportunities that the characters have as they face the collapse of their idea of marriage is or should be. Opportunities to remake their lives, to revitalize the love in their relationships, or to move on. With each page, the sympathetic disappointment one feels is transformed into a thirst for the age old question; what comes next?
With nine different stories in one book, and each one dealing with the struggle of marriage, it would be easy for the anecdotes to become repetitive. Lahiri does not bend to that, however, crafting each character uniquely and constructing each situation exclusively. Her characters appeal to the hearts of readers, and the result is not disappointing. One cannot help but ache for the young couple trapped in the familiarity of their marriage, dealing with the heartbreak of their stillborn child silently and letting their marriage fall around them. One cannot help but hurt for Boori Ma, the old widow who spends her days sweeping the staircase of an apartment building, until the tenants are overcome with greed and chase her out. Each story is a look into our world. Lahiri studies society in a way unlike those before her. She examines cultural restraints, and notes how our affections simultaneously defy and preserve such constrictions.
Jhumpa Lahiri uses such expressive language that it is impossible to read her work without feeling affected. Her words are used to build a world around the reader, and to invite them into the world she’s created. Her language is powerful, and leaves the reader with a choice. What is taken away from the stories is not printed, it is not handed to you. What is taken away from the book will be different for everyone.
For me, the highlight of the book lies in the seventh story, This Blessed House. Sanjeev and Twinkle are newlyweds, exploring their new house in Hartford, Connecticut. Whilst looking around, they begin to unearth several garish Christian decorations. Twinkle is immediately drawn to them, laughing, and wanting to put them all over the house. Sanjeev, however, is more conscious of their Hinduism, and fears what his coworkers and neighbors will think if they saw the decorations. Sanjeev begins to regard Twinkle as an unknown; he doesn’t understand her spontaneity, and is uncomfortable with her rash decision making. When throwing a house warming party, his colleagues are immediately drawn to Twinkle’s enigmatic ways. Lahiri intricately designs Twinkle to be a character with impulsive tendencies that directly crash with Sanjeev’s deliberate lifestyle. Twinkle, in some ways, bears a likeness to the book in general. Once acquainted, you’re left with a simple “wow”.
In many ways, one cannot ask for more if looking for a book of compelling short stories. Lahiri exceeds any and all expectations. While many people have never experienced some of the ideas in the stories, it is easy to look beyond the plot with Lahiri’s writings, and sense the overarching themes and insights that she is making. This makes the book relevant to a very diverse group of people. If you are just delving into the world of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies is an excellent place to start.
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri, Published by Mariner Books in 1999, 198 pages, Fiction