Sunday 24 June 2012

interpreter of maladies

The second of my forgotten reviews. I remembered about this one because I have a copy of The Namesake sitting by the bed in my TBR pile.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was her first book and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a beautifully written collection of short stories, they tell the reader something about the experience of India, of being Indian in America and the nature of cultural identity.

I liked all the stories, and they are all so different, little snippets of people's lives, caught at a particular time, not momentous or eventful, just people learning something about themselves. The first story, 'A temporary matter' tells of a young couple sitting in the dark together while their electricity is fixed, the darkness symbolic of their avoidance of the issue that haunts them. It is a universal tale of loss but with the added twist of their personal and cultural expectations that make it poignant. I really liked 'Mrs Sen's', about the relationship between a young boy and his babysitter, how she confides in him about her new life in America as he watches her chop vegetables for the evening meal:

"She had bought the blade from India, where apparently there was at least one in every household. "Whenever there is a wedding in the family," she told Eliot one day, "or a large celebration of any kind, my mothers sends out word in the evening for all the neighbourhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night." Her profile hovered protectively over her work, a confetti of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins heaped around her.  "It is impossible to fall asleep on those nights, listening to their chatter." She paused to look at a pine tree framed by the living room window. "Here, in this place where Mr Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence." (p.115)

In 'A Real Durwan' we return to India and meet Boori Ma, who loyally looks after an apartment building in exchange for a spot to sleep. When one more affluent couple fit a sink in the hallway for the use of all, there is a rush of 'gentrification', and following the theft of the sink the poor woman is ejected in pursuit of a real durwan to provide proper protection for their new status.

"No one in this particular flat-building owned much worth stealing. The second-floor widow, Mrs Misra, was the only one with a telephone. Still, the residents were thankful that Boori Ma patrolled activities in the alley, screened the itinerant pedlars who came to sell combs and shawls from door to door, was able to summon a rickshaw at a moment's calling, and could, with a few slaps of her broom, rout any suspicious character who strayed into the area in order to spit, urinate, or cause some other trouble.
In short, over the years, Boori Ma's services came to resemble those of a real durwan. Though under normal circumstances this was no job for a woman, she honoured the responsibility, and maintained a vigil no less punctilious that if she were the gatekeeper of a house on Lower Circular Road, or Jodhpur Park, or any other fancy neighbourhood." (p.73)

All in all a wonderful collection, full of atmosphere and details and engaging characters. It is a proper collection because together they are more than the sum of the individual tales, each adds to the last, the themes of belonging and identity being shown from different perspectives.

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