Treatment to Home and Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies

Prime focus of Laheri in her Pulitzer prize winner anthology "Interpreter of Maladies” is to present India, Indians and Indian ness like many Indian writers of English writing from abroad. In her stories she discusses India with comparison to other nations. Major characters of her tales are Indians of India or the Indians outside the India. The Indian ness of Indians in India and outside the India defines their attachment to their country and culture. Home is the place for shelter and hospitality for all the live creatures on the earth. But for human being, a social animal, home is spread in more than one sphere. Same is the case with identity, a person has more identities than only human being, categorized by different aspects and spheres. However nowadays all creatures are categorized and identifies in specific class or group in the researches of science and ecology. But in the social layers home, identity, family, culture etc. are very important. Jhumpa Laheri discusses the issues of home and identity in her anthology "Interpreter of Maladies". She depicts India and outside the India as background for her stories. Home and identity are major thematic pre occupation of Jhumpa Laheri in her anthology. In this paper I have discussed here two aspects treated by Jhumpa Laheri in her anthology Interpreter of Maladies.

The first story of the anthology “Temporary Matter " is about love and relationship of husband and wife. Laheri deals with micro aspect of relationship which gradually grows and comes to end too. In this story communication gap and aspiration of beginning mother of Shobha is in the centre. Story starts with the notice from electricity department.

”The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be but off for one hour beginning at eight p.m. A line had gone down in the last snowstorm, and the repair men were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quite tree lined street within walking distance of a row of brick - faced stores and trolley stop where Shobha and Shukumar had lived for three years." (IM-1)

The above narration suggests and juxtaposes the condition of Shobha and Shukumar too. They lost their child after his birth. After this incident Shobha and Shukumar stops to talk to each other. Home is just house of four walls for them. They both try to escape from each other as Laheri narrates:
"...he and Shobha becomes expert at avoiding each other in their three bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible.” (IM-4)

Cut off electricity was temporary matter for five days like their communication gap but it caused for their reunion. Darkness plays an important role to make them couple instead of two individual. "Tonight, with no lights, they would have to eat together."(IM-8). We find in darkness in evening Shobha and Shukumar enjoy their inner feelings. They remember that they are Indian and they are living outside the India so they compare all the situations or things with India. India is in the centre and they discuss or judge any thing or issue with this point of view as Shobha tells Shukumar about India:
“Its like India ", Shobha said, watching him tend his makeshift candelabra.” Sometimes the current disappears for hours at a stretch. I once had to attend an entire rice ceremony in the dark. The baby just cried and cried. It must have been so hot, "(IM-11)

In above lines Shobha remembers her experience at India about rice ceremony. Here she disclosed her mental set very artistically. First as she is an Indian so she transports herself to India by escaping from foreign culture. She informs basically she is an Indian. Then she tells "Sometimes the current disappears" it suggests the problem of electricity in India and in foreign. When Shobha makes clear about sometimes by providing particular time, the rice ceremony, an Indian tradition which is celebrated for the new born child in the family. It suggests her aspirations of being mother. So by above narration we come across the Shobha's mental set. Narrator further narrates:
“Their baby had never cried, Shukumar considered. Their baby would never have a rice ceremony, even though Shobha had already made the guest list, and decided on which of her three brothers she was going to ask to feed the child its first taste of solid food, at six months if it was a boy, seven if it was a girl." (IM-11)

But unfortunately their dream couldn’t be fulfilled. So their love and affections for each other diverts in other direction. But temporary matter, cut off electricity for five days in the evening, become the cause to reunite. In darkness they came to near after long period.

Narrator narrates their oneness:
“We’ve going to the bookstore to browse,” a silver haired man called out….
“I hear they’ve got their power.”
“They’d better” Shukumar said. “Or you
Be browsing in the dark.”
The woman laughed, sleeping her arm through the crock of her husband’s elbow.
“Want to join us”
“no thanks”, Shobha and Shukumar called out together. It surprised Shukumar that his words match her. (IM-15-16)

At the end of the story Shobha knows that Shukumar was there at the time of their child’s birth. Now temporary matter of electricity and of Shobha and Shukumar, are repaired or restarted.

Next story in anthology is “When Mr. Pirzada came to Dine”. The narrator recollects the memory of her childhood about the time of civil war in Bangladesh, 1971. Home and identity both are in the centre in this story. Both Mr. Pirzada’s home and homeland are in the trouble and he is worried about that. Narrator considered Mr. Pirzada as an Indian but her father explained to her the political issue and identified him not an Indian:
“More importantly, Mr. Pirzada is no longer considered Indian,” my father announced brushing salt from the cashews out of his trim back beard. “Not since partition. Our country was divided in 1947”. (IM-25)

Mr. Pirzada everyday worried about his home and family as civil war was there in Dacca and many innocent people were killed every day. Even Mr. Pirzada physically present in the Boston but he constantly thinking about his home and homeland. The following line suggests his mental presence at Dacca:
“the pocket watch, he had explained to me, we set to the local time in Dacca, eleven hours ahead.”(IM-30)

Historical events affects the individual is shown in this story. When they heard about the more horrible situation of the Mr. Pirzada’s home land, narrator presents the feeling of universal brotherhood here like this:
“and high-pitched voices hollering in the middle of the night when my parents called our relatives in Calcutta to learn more details about the situation. Most of all I remember the three of them during that time as if they were a single person sharing single meal, single body, a single silence and a single fear”(IM-41)

The title story of the anthology set in India. It’s about the Indians’ visit to India from the abroad. Mr. Kapasi, a tourist guide of them, observed as, “The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did,” (IM-44). But Mr. Das likes to be identified them as foreigner as mentioned in below narration:
“You left India as a child?”, Mr. Kapasi asked when Mr.Das had settled once again in to the passenger seat. “Oh, Mina and I were both born in America,” Mr. Das announced with an air of sudden confidence. “Born and raised. Our parents live here now, in Assignor.” They retired. We visit them every couple years.” (IM-45)

On other hand Mr. Kapasi wanted to be diplomat but now he is working same job in little sphere as he works as the interpreter for the village people to interpret their illness to the doctor who does not know the Gujarati, language of the village people. He works as a guide for the foreigner because he knows the English. Mrs. Das confesses about her sexual encounter with the friend of her husband to Mr. Kapasi and ask remedy for that as he is working as interpreter.

“…I am tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I have been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.”(IM-65)

A Real Durwan and the Treatment of Bibi Haldar, two more stories from the anthology which set in India. A Real Durwan is about the old lady who live in the parking of an apartment and known as Boori Maa, work as a gate keeper and sweeper. Narrator say about her past:
“the details of her plight and loses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after partition. At that time, she maintained, the turmoil ad separated her from her husband, four daughters, a two storey brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffee boxes whose Skelton keys she still worw along with her, life savings, tied to the free end of her saree.” (IM-71)

But now this lady is homeless and identity less in society. She lives under the stairwell and just known as the Boori Maa, nothing more than this. She works as gate keeper as described in the following lines:
“Boori Maa’s service came to resembles those of real durwan. Tough under normal circumstances this was no job for a woman, she honored the responsibility, and maintained a vigil no less punctilious than if she were the gate keeper of a houses on lower circular road, or Jodhpur Park, or any other Fancy neighbour.” (IM-73)

But at the last again Boori Maa becomes homeless and insulted and identified by the natives as messenger of robbers. Indira Nityanandam rightly comments:
“Laheri succeed in forcefully expressing the philosophy that society needs to take care of the lowliest of the low. The complexicity of contemporary life for the down trodden is perceptively portrayed.” (Nityanandam 38)

In the case of Bibi in the story The Treatment of Bibi Haldar, The neighbours are presented as family members of Bibi. There is no one of her family. Her cousin Haldar and his wife are living with her but they have no much feelings for Bibi as their family member. She is suffered from ailment. Doctors suggest that after her marriage she will be normal and free from all her illness. But it was very difficult to arrange the marriage of Bibi's because of her simplicity. She was different from other girls, so boys rejected her. Haldar and his wife decide to leave the house and Bibi after the birth of their child. Neighbours found Bibi pregnant and she gives the birth to the child. She never disclosed the name of the man who was responsible for Bibi's condition. But now she is the mother of a boy who is her family. She runs cosmetics shop successfully and live happily with her child in her simple home. Laheri ends the story very artistically:
“Four years afterwards, we wondered who in our town had disgraced her. A few of our servants were questioned, and in tea stoles and bus stands, possible suspects were debated and dismissed. But there was no point carrying out in investigation. She was, to the best of our knowledge, cured." (IM-172)

In the story 'Sexy' Dev is suffering from identity crises. By introducing the map in the Economists to Miranda, he informs to her about the political history of his homeland as "nothing you'll ever need to worry about.”(IM-84) and throw that magazine in the garbage. Dev likes to be identified as an American and not an Indian. He is married man and a father of one boy. After all he has extra affair with an American girl, named Miranda because she is sexy. The story "Mrs. Sen's " deals with immigrant experiences and cultural alienation of professor's wife at coastal area at America. Eliot, an American boy, who live with Mrs. Sen whole the day when his mother goes to job at far place. Mrs. Sen talks with this little boy every now and then about her experiences at India and about Indian culture. She remembers her family and neighborhood of Calcutta and also miss them and the sensitivity which is very much concern with Indian culture and it is totally absent in U.S.A. She tells Eliot:
"Whenever there is wedding in the family or a large celebration of any kind, my mother sends out word in the evening for all the neighborhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle on the some of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night......Here in this place where Mr. Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence." (IM-115)

The feelings of alienation come in the story “The Blessed House” from Sanjeev’s fear of loosing his religious and spiritual distinctiveness. He is not happy by his wife’s attachment with idols and Christian paraphernalia from the beginning discovering the treasures in their new house. The author points out. :
“He started that it was in his house, and that he owned it. Unlike the other things they’d found this contained dignity, solemnity, beauty even.”(IM-157)

Twinkle likes all this but Sanjeev doesn’t like these all as once he says:
“We’re not Christian,” (IM-137)

The last story of the anthology is “The Third and Final Continent” is about diasporic experience of narrator and his wife. Land lady Mrs.Croft, 103 years old, and her experiences helpful to narrator to be comfortable in America, far from his homeland. The issues of identity and diaspora find a persuasive resolution in this story. This process can be observed in Mala and her husband, the narrator of the story, at the concluding part of the story as well as anthology.

“We are American citizen now……Though we visit Calcutta every few years, and bring back more drawstring paijamas and Darjiling tea, we have decided to grow old here…Mala no longer drapes the end of her saree over her head, or weeps at night for her parents, but occasionally she weeps for our son. So we drive to Cambridge to visit him or bring him for a week-end, so that he can eat rice with us with his hands, and speaks in Bengali, things that we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die.” (IM-197)

In this anthology home and identity are the central points in major stories. Temporary Matter is about communication gap between Indian couple who live in alien culture. Parental and cultural identity is constructed in the story. Second story set in the time of 1971, Mr. Pirzada is worried about is family far from them. Laheri artistically shows that how historical movements affect the individual and after all we are all human being. Religious affection nicely presented in the story The Blessed House, in which Sanjeev is conscious about his religion. The title story of the anthology is about the Indians who live outside the India. Here Mr. Kapasi’s professional identity is also discussed. A Real Durwan is about the grassroots of the society they are quite homeless and living the below of mainstream. Dev is totally westernized and doesn’t like to be identified by his homeland. In contrary Mrs. Sen dose not feel comfort in America, her mind is thinking about India constantly. Bibi in the story The treatment of Bibi Haldar gets affections of family from her neighborhood. In the last story narrator and his wife Mala accept the reality of their living far from their culture and homeland. Laheri portrays the picture of Indian Immigrants who are living far from their homeland and discuss the issues of home, identity in her stories very skillfully.

Work Cited

  1. Abraham, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Seventh Edition. Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
  2. Amur, G. S., V. R. N. Prasad, B. V. Nadade & N. K. Nihalani. Eds. Indian Readings in Commonwealth Literature, New Delhi : Sterling Publication, 1985.
  3. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth, Griffith & Helen Tiffin. Eds. The Post Colonial Studies Reader. London : Routledge, 1995.
  4. _________. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. (First Indian Reprint) Routledge; London. 2004.
  5. Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Penguin Books 1999, (Revised by C. E. Preston).
  6. Gowda, H. H. Aminah, Encyclopedia of Commonwealth Literature, Cosmo Publications. New Delhi 1988.
  7. Jain, Jasbir and Veena Singh. Eds. Contesting Post-Colonialism Jaipur and New Delhi : Rawat Publications, 1998.
  8. _________. Eds. Writers of the Indian Diaspora. Jaipur and New Delhi : Rawat Publications, 1998.
  9. Laheri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Harper Collins Publishers, India. New Delhi: 1999. Print.
  10. Nityanandam, Indrani. Jumpa Laheri The Tale of Diaspora, Creative Books. New Delhi. 2005. Print.
  11. Sharma, Kavita, A.P., T.C., Theorizing and Critiquing Indian Diaspora, Creative Books, New Delhi. 2004.
  12. Wolfreys, Julian, Ruth Robbins and Keneth Womack, Key Concepts in Literary Theory, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi – 110 002.

Mr. Yatinkumar J. Teraiya
Assistant Professor, Department of English,
Kamani Science & Pratapray Arts College, Amreli,
Research Scholar(PhD),
Department of English & CLS, Saurashtra University, Rajkot-360005