I am the first male of all my friends to read this book. Maybe it is just that men often don’t read something other than adventure or detective fiction or stick to non-fiction or sports or don’t read–or maybe I’m just indulging in stereotypes! At any rate, this Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories is well worth reading by both men and women because of the exquisitely fine writing and large themes captured in short narratives.
Lahiri is a woman of Bengali Indian descent, born in London, raised in Rhode Island by a mother who valued her Bengali Indian heritage, and educated in Boston. These short stories reflect the complicated challenges of negotiating heritage, immigration to a new country, and the impact these have upon relationships as modernity and traditional cultural values clash.
The title story, “Interpreter of Maladies” typifies this clash as a Bengali tour guide for Americans explains that his other job, serving as a translator for a physician opens up an odd intersection of these two worlds with a foreign couple he is serving as guide. In “This Blessed House” we have an Indian couple who buy a house in the US that is filled with the trappings of its previous Christian owners and we have the comical and thought-provoking clash between husband and wife of what to do with all these artifacts of a foreign religion that were part of the home. In “Mrs. Sen’s” we have a traditional Indian wife of a university professor in the US, who supplements the family income by watching children, and who struggles between her traditional role and the pressures of her husband to learn to drive.
There are also stories about the clash of traditional cultural values and modernity in areas of marriage and sexuality. In “A Temporary Matter” we see a struggling arranged marriage that comes to a crucial turning point during a series of power outages. “Sexy” narrates two affairs, including one between a Bengali and an American, who works with a Bengali friend who has just told her about her cousin’s husband’s affair. “The Third and Final Continent” explores the dynamics of arranged marriages and immigration and an unlikely catalyst to real love forming in the person of a 103 year old landlady.
A last category seems to be the ephemerality of relationships, which include the story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” “A Real Durwan”, and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”.
What it seems all these stories have in common is change. Relationships that grow, and those that die. People that come and go. Ways of living confronted by the circumstance of migrating to a new culture. We long for permanence and hope that in a place, in a person, in a set of values, we can find that. In the world Lahiri describes, we see in these short pieces the large, existential drama of the search for what lasts in a world of change.