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Different People with the Same Story

November 15, 2009

Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies
By Jhumpa Lahiri

(My apologies for missing a week. I was living in luxurious excess in Asheville for the weekend.) Much in the same vein as Junot Diaz, Lahiri has selected her token group and writes almost exclusively from the perspective of Indian immigrants to the U.S. Her characters are more disoriented than Diaz’s–who appear to assimilate with less external tension, although a host of forces are perpetually competing beneath the surface–and somehow less compelling.

I don’t know what it is about this collection of nine stories. I know that it was her first big published work and that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when it came out in 2000. But I just wasn’t that crazy about it. I was far more charmed by The Namesake, which was my assigned summer reading as a first-year at UNC. With the exception of the title story, all of the people here are easily forgettable–because their issues are fairly indistinguishable from the rest of Lahiri’s characters. They all struggle to reconcile their Indian identity with an American one; they all have relational discord; they all seem lost.

The story “Interpreter of Maladies” was the outstanding piece. It follows a tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, who is squiring an Indian American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Das, and their young children around India for their summer vacation. On the weekdays, Mr. Kapasi is an interpreter for a doctor, a position he explains in detail to Mrs. Das, who is detached from her husband and children but takes a passing interest in Mr. Kapasi’s life. Within the course of a few hours, Kapasi falls for her and envisions a fantasy of reuniting with her in an international romantic liasion. She confides in him about her own affair, telling him that her eldest son was born out of an adulterous relationship. Kapasi is an intriguing, driven character who sees what he wants from life but always sees it eluding his grasp. Mrs. Das is unsympathetic, but magnetic for her eccentricities and her unmatched allure to the compassionate Kapasi. A monkey attacks one of the boys and the story ends with Kapasi looking on as they tend to the child, separated once again. It is a compelling and well-written glimpse into an unusual intersection of lives and Lahiri manages her diction and her presentation with a deft hand. But it is, regrettably, the only memorable, outstanding story in the collection.

My general perspective on Lahiri is that she is a very strong, very talented stylist and storyteller, but she seems to almost limit her creativity with this typical stock of characters. I think she could write bigger, broader novels if she looked beyond this favored subgroup and into other swaths of society. That said, I’ll still probably read Unaccustomed Earth. Because she’s still good at what she does. And that will always bring me back.

READ IF: You want to enjoy the story “Interpreter of Maladies.” The rest of it you could probably do without.

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