“When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose the touch of the one in the play of the many.”–Rabindranath Tagore

In the quote I have added to my post for today, Tagore brings up the issue of the many and the one, and asks that he be always able to see each person as an individual, not just one person lost in a crowd, a sea of possibly opposed faces.  He also suggests that knowing even one person well is an entryway into knowledge of others in general.  This is a very complex statement of quite laudable values, and one which bears upon the book of short fiction by another Indian author, Jhumpa Lahiri, the winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Her book Interpreter of Maladies, the title of which was taken from one of her stories by that title,  not only won the Pulitzer Prize, but was also a Pen/Hemingway Award winner and was selected by the New Yorker as a “Debut of the Year.”  The most intriguing thing about the relationship between the author and her book is in fact the degree to which she herself is an “interpreter of maladies,” the maladies of alienation and separation visited upon people either moving from one continent to another or from one state of being to another.  In each of her nine stories, whether they are stories of families travelling between India and the U. S. for love or work or recreation or whether they are portraits of unique and unusual loves and characters, she traverses the boundaries, both those which keep her characters separate and those which, being overcome, unite them more firmly to each other.  And as she does so, her characters and their dilemmas, however firmly they may be rooted in cultures which don’t understand each other intuitively, become the objects of a further development of intuition.  Just as Tagore says, understanding one person’s motives and concerns, even if they are very different from yours, and though the understanding may be hard won and have developed from a totally alien perspective, shakes one’s faith in the notion of alienation and causes readers to extend their minds to the faiths and concerns of others.  Suddenly, one can imagine the person as being like oneself after all; one can at least understand.

From the first story, “A Temporary Matter,” in which a young couple deals with the conditions of having been deprived of their child, the subject of alienation is strong.  In order to overcome the separation which has been occasioned by their mutual grief, they begin to confide in each other about things they’ve never before told.  Their reconciliation is made bittersweet by the recognition that they have perhaps never really known the other person fully.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the second story, shows an Indian family joining forces in their support of a man from Dacca, a Pakistani (before Bangladesh became separate) who has some different traditions from themselves.  The story is told from the point of view of the young daughter of the house, for whom Mr. Pirzada brings treats every evening, missing as he does his own seven daughters.  He nervously watches the news on their television in a town near Boston, since he is unable to be with his own family in Dacca.  The manner in which the American society around them isolates the newcomer with his own hard luck is portrayed by a scene in which the young daughter is prevented by a teacher from following up on her interest in the geography and history of the region Mr. Pirzada is from.  The family must wait with Mr. Pirzada to find out if his family survived the conflict or not.  The ending is reported obliquely, not only by the news broadcasts the family continues to watch on their television set, but also by the letters Mr. Pirzada writes them after he leaves Boston to return to Dacca.  Clearly, it is up to neighbors to act locally in order to overcome cultural blindnesses.

In “Interpreter of Maladies,” Mr. Das and his wife, who were raised in the States and who are visiting India and various tourist sites there for the first time, rely on their guide, Mr. Kapasi, to show them around and inform them of local traditions.  Mrs. Das, however, upon finding out that Mr. Kapasi works for a doctor as a language interpreter, assumes incorrectly that he is a sort of psychologist who can help her with her problems.  Mr. Kapasi, meanwhile, has been misunderstanding Mrs. Das to mean that she wants to be special friends.  Gradually, though Mrs. Das has a rude awakening in discovering her error, Mr. Kapasi’s cover of polite and correct behavior aids him in preserving his equilibrium and delivering the family from a crisis which has arisen due to their own inability to adjust to their environment.  It is Mr. Kapasi in this case who has the epiphany, or perhaps the moment of wisdom, when he realizes just how the Dases see him:  for they are people who are estranged from the land of their origins, and are rather ordinary “ugly American” tourists.  Thus, he has correctly deduced their malady.

“A Real Durwan” is a tragic sort of story to which even someone unfamiliar with the idea of what a “durwan” is (a sort of underprivileged charperson) can relate.  It takes place in an Indian setting, where Boori Ma, the staircase sweeper and door guard of an apartment building, each day chants up and down the stairwells as she sweeps the tale of where she used to live (a much better place) and the life she used to live (how grand), and though the other residents of the building where she sleeps in an old quilt under the mailboxes don’t entirely believe her, until the landlord moves, they all treat her with a guarded respect.  The sad outcome is derived, ironically, from a promise the landlord makes to get her better sleeping arrangements, perhaps because it leads Boori Ma to “count her chickens before they’e hatched.”  Her friend the landlord forgets, with unfortunate consequences for Boori Ma, because the building has recently had a facelift and the other residents have become prideful, just as they blame Boori Ma for having been all her years there.  Was she telling the truth all that time, or only fabricating?  The ending doesn’t resolve this issue; it only portrays how the Wheel of Fortune can betray any one of us at any moment who is without friends.

In “Sexy,” a seasonal story if ever there was one, a young woman, Miranda, who is having a love affair with a married Indian man, learns the difference between seasonal and perpetual.  The story features a background plot of another love affair with a married person:  Miranda’s friend Laxmi also has a cousin who now knows that she’s being cheated on by her husband, a frequent traveller on airplanes between Delhi and Montreal.  Instead of coming home to the cousin in the Boston area, that husband has picked up with a younger woman he met on a flight.  The story in the background acts as a foil for Miranda’s relationship; besotted as she is with Dev, her own married man, the words of a young boy she’s babysitting for, who tells her she’s sexy just as Dev did previously, awaken her to what is actually happening.  She plans what to tell Dev, but the change of seasons, a sort of fate, articulates her points for her, in a fine and neatly handled end to the story.

The next piece of fiction, “Mrs. Sen’s,” tells the story of a friendship between a young boy, Eliot, and the Indian woman, Mrs. Sen, who babysits for him.  As Eliot watches Mrs. Sen chop vegetables and deal with her various fears and insecurities about living in a new community outside of Boston (where her husband teaches mathematics), he begins to understand something about her points of reference.  For one, she previously had a chauffeur, and now Mr. Sen is insisting that she learn to drive.  She is worried by the fact that she feels alone and isolated in the building where she lives, too far away for other people to hear her if she screams.  When she encounters further difficulty with the driving, it is in fact Eliot who hears her crying in the bathroom as Mr. Sen apologizes to Eliot’s mother for having involved him in an accident.  Eliot hears her, and has thus understood something about her fear and her difficulties.  And with this, he has gone through a learning experience of his own.

“This Blessed House” is a deceptively simple story about the nature of tolerance and belief.  When Twinkle and Sanjeev begin to find Christian ornaments hidden in every nook and cranny of their new home, Twinkle celebrates them, though she is a Hindu, by putting them all up on the mantel.  The objects by and large have no real artistic value, they are obviously the result of a sincere and devout observance, however one without much taste.  But as everything continues to go well for the young couple, Twinkle insists on retaining the objects, which costs Sanjeev something severe in the way of his ability to tolerate them.  It’s not, in fact that Twinkle is changing her religion:  she seems simply to regard the objects as good luck charms, and despite Sanjeev’s embarrassment when they have friends over, the couple’s lucky popularity is clearly a result of Twinkle’s open and receptive personality.  It becomes clear by the end of the story that despite disdaining Twinkle’s good luck charms themselves, Sanjeev cannot resist the charm of Twinkle herself.  He has a dark moment of the soul, as it’s called, when he realizes just what this will entail.

When we first begin the story “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” we have to wonder ourselves just what is wrong with Bibi.  From the description of the many different kinds of medical treatment and advice she has received, not all of them equally reputable, we have to ask if perhaps she is an unacknowledged hysteric, or perhaps if she suffers an unknown form of epilepsy.  Her fits are looked upon with sympathy by her friends and neighbors, which she has in spite of being closely quarantined by her family.  It’s only when Bibi’s own preferred solution and a chance event that it turns out no one can trace coincide that she finds herself an ordinary member of society.  This story seems to suggest that ordinary human interaction and good-heartedness can guide people to accept what seems at first like a totally anomalous situation, something which comes about without the sanction of restrictions and family rule.  Bibi is after all human, not a demon as her cousin’s wife, with whom she lives on and off, sees it; people may be demonized by someone around them, it is clear, but there are equally those prepared to accept what they don’t understand.

Finally, in “The Third and Final Continent” the book ends with a sort of summary story about the way in which a person originally difficult to understand in their ideas and motives can come to symbolize something precious for someone from an entirely different society.  A young Indian man leaves his home in 1964 to go to Boston and study, and to work in the MIT library system.  While there, he is at first situated in a YMCA, but soon moves to another room in a private house for the summer before his wife can come over from India to join him.  He meets a real eccentric in the owner of the house, Mrs. Croft.  At first, it takes some real practice of patience and conscious good will on his part to meet her halfway.  Soon, however, he meets her daughter and learns things about her that cause him to feel a genuine empathy for her.  Later, when he moves into another house with his wife, he still thinks of Mrs. Croft as an essential part of his establishing himself in America, and goes to see her.  The results of his interest in her affect the rest of his life, and become a watchword for his family as well.  As the story concludes in the character’s voice at the end, “….[T]here are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.  As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”  Luckily for us, we have Jhumpa Lahiri’s work of imagination to fall back on, so that if such things are beyond us for the time being, we can always find a translator, in fact an “interpreter” of our “maladies.”

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