12 December 2007

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

198 pages. Published by Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Co. New York 1999.

In keeping with my habit of seldom reading "new" stuff, here's a book from the free table at work that's eight or nine years old, and I only regret that I didn't find this writer sooner. These stories are all excellent, perfect, what can I say? Find a copy and read it.

Each one of these stories deals with people living or visiting somewhere other than their home. Many are Indian or Pakistani living in the United States of America, others are moved from their home by the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

"A Temporary Matter" is the story of Shoba and Shukumar, a Bengali couple living in Boston. They are notified that their electric power will be interrupted for an hour on the next five evenings at eight PM. These interruptions provide an unlikely respite from ordinary life, an opportunity for them to take stock. The result is bittersweet, complicated.

"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" is told from the perspective of a young Indian girl living in the USA with her parents in 1971. Mr Pirzada is a neighbor who has left his wife and seven daughters in Dacca, Pakistan, where civil war is raging.

"Interpreter of Maladies" finds a family of first generation Indian-Americans and their children, returning to India on vacation.

"A Real Durwan" is about Boori Ma, a woman displaced to Calcutta by Partition.

"Sexy" tells about an affair between Miranda, an American, and Dev, a Bengali, in New York. This is set against a story told to her by her Indian friend Laxmi, whose cousin's husband has deserted her for a Canadian woman. As a favor to her friend, Miranda watches the cousin's seven-year-old son for a day, which puts her relationship with Dev in a new perspective.

"Mrs. Sen's" is where another young boy, Eliot, goes during the day while his parents work. Mrs. Sen's husband is a mathematics professor. She is adrift in America, unable to drive a car, used to having a "driver" at "home."

"This Blessed House," the Connecticut home of newlywed Hindus is packed full of Christian knicknacks, courtesy of the former residents. Raking leaves, they uncover a large shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard.

"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar." Bibi Haldar has a disease that sounds like epilepsy, but is not understood. She lives at the mercy of relatives, who tolerate her but before long find her to be too much to handle. Many treatments have been attempted for Bibi, but in the end, she finds her own remedy.

"The Third and Final Continent" is North America. The young man has lived in India, and England, and now Cambridge, Massachusetts. For six weeks he awaits the arrival of his wife, Mala, from Calcutta. During this time he rents a room from a remarkable old lady who opines that the planting of an American flag on the moon is "splendid!"

I have not done justice to these wonderful stories in my brief descriptions. Please don't be put off by my vain attempt to summarize them, but dive in and read them all. The worst thing about this book is the temptation to simply read it all at once, without stopping. It is a feast of reading, and worth savoring.

I look forward very much to my next opportunity to read Jhumpa Lahiri.

A Google search for "Jhumpa Lahiri" is rewarding.