The Interpreter of Maladies reflects the trauma of self-transformation through immigration which ends up being an attempt in futility as resultantly there is a series of broken identities that form “multiple anchorages.” Lahiri’s stories present the futile diasporic struggle to keep hold of culture as characters create new lives in foreign cultures. Relationships, language, rituals, and religion all help these characters maintain their culture in new surroundings even as they build a “hybrid realization” as Asian Americans. But the lack of harmony and happiness ultimately makes the attempt a futile experience.
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Interpretation of Maladies brings to light many of the issues with identity faced by the Diaspora community. The book contains the stories of first and second generation Indian immigrants, as well as a few stories involving ideas of otherness among communities in India. The stories revolve around the difficulties of relationships, communication and a loss of identity for those in diaspora. No matter where the story takes place, the characters struggle with the same feelings of exile and the struggle between the two worlds by which they are torn. The stories deal with the always shifting lines between gender, sexuality, and social status within a diaspora. Whether the character be a homeless woman from India or an Indian male student in the United States, all the characters display the effects of displacement in a diaspora.
The issues presented by the writer indicate a feeling of futility in the characters on account of the happening of events in their life. The settings, narration, the mindsets of the characters and the interaction characters have with each other assist the readers in comprehending their plight and the futility of the situation.
Interpreter of Maladies:
Jhumpha’s thematic presentation of futility in the Interpreter of Maladies is somewhat subtle yet effective. The setting is just about perfect with the character placement effectively facilitating the futility in their relationships and aspirations. The Central characters in this tale are Mr. and Mrs. Das and the tour guide Mr. Kapasi. The writer through the interactions of the Das couple with their children Tina, Bobby and Ronny present to us the fact that their relationship with their children lack perfection and to a great extent seems futile as the children do not seem to obey their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Das seem more of sibling to their children than their parents as they are constantly squabbling among themselves. Mrs. Das is evidently not interested in the relationship which seems futile to her and the very fact that she describes Mr. Kapasi’s job as an interpreter of maladies as a romantic one leads Mr. Kapasi to fantasize about her which eventually turns out to be a futile exercise. An aspect which does not fail to draw attention of the reader is the instance when the Das couple are engaged in an argument as to who would take Tina to the bathroom is indicative of each one desire to shun responsibility. Here, a sense of futility is existent in the parental relationship the couple share towards their children.
Jhumpa has utilized the lack of communication as an aspect to present the futility of the relationship all the characters are dwelling in. Mr. Das is presented as a character always buried in his guide book while Mrs. Das hides her inner self behind her sunglasses. Mr. Kapasi is trapped in a loveless futile marriage spending lonely nights drinking tea by himself.
The futility of the relationship the Das family is in is very evident in the action of Mrs Das especially when she fails to offer puffed rice which she was gorging on by herself. The element of family sharing a meal fails to be present. This action of Mrs. Das indicates indifference and an underlying sense of hostility towards her spouse and children. The relationships they share is thus understood as being a futile relationship.
Mr Kapasi reveals the futility of his existence as he is working as an interpreter feels that his job is a failure as he is a scholar of many languages. The dissatisfaction he experiences in the job of an interpreter leads to a sense of futility within him. Futility is further expressed by the character when he states that the job of an interpreter was taken to pay of medical bills of his son who had contracted thyroid. His son’s death made his sacrifice of sorts a futile effort.
Mr. Kapasi’s fantasy ride commences with Mrs. Das. It becomes very evident to Mr. Kapasi that the Das Couple’s relationship lacks charm and harmony and is futile. He begins to fantasize about Mrs. Das when she admires his job as that of an interpreter. His fantasy leads to a peak when he and Mrs. Das are conversing while staring at the nudity depicted in the form of temple carvings. The sensuality of the situation is well created by the writer by placing her characters in a setting which is erotic leading to temptation but futile desires.
He decided to begin with the most obvious question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked, “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”
This quote appears towards the end of the story where Mrs. Das reveals the fact that Bobby is the son of a friend of Mr. Das whom she was intimate with while her husband was away. Mr. Kapasi questions her about her feeling and Mr. Kapasi makes one final interpretation. Mr. Kapasi feels that Mrs. Das desires absolution and not questioning, relief and not reflection. She and Mr. Kapasi are both lonely but the fact that they have differences keeps them apart thus making the possibility of a relationship futile.
Revelation leads to futility. The revelation made by Mrs Das about the legitimacy of her child to Mr. Kapasi was the blow which tarnishes the fantasy of Mr. Kapasi. For a short spell of time, Mr. Kapasi was on an imaginative trip which proved baseless and futile as he failed to accept the person who he was daydreaming about to have a scandalous past as such.
The revelation of Mrs. Das proves her infidelity further shattering the image of the Das family proving the fact that the relationship is more of an arrangement than a bonding of love.
The writer has aptly used setting to bring all her vital characters in the scene and weaving a storyline in a natural way facilitating the flow of human emotions at their various moment of interaction. The writer crafts every character in a natural and believable manner leading us to realize the fact that there are several relationships where people are bound together for the sake of fulfilling an arrangement commenced to fulfill a certain purpose but the lack of depth and gravity of the relationship proves the relationship to be a futile on as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Das and their relationship, Mr. Kapasi and his profession as an interpreter and a tour guide and his fascination for Mrs. Das which later on sours as he learns about her “real” self.
With regards to being in India, Mr. and Mrs. Das fail to connect with the country India as their home but have a tourists’ perspective which is very evident when Mr. Das snaps away a picture of the starving peasant instead of helping him. When Bobby is need of help when surrounded by monkeys, Mr. Das is excited about the picture he clicks instead of immediately helping the boy. This indicates a lack of understanding and connection with each other and the country they are in which they understand as being home. Thus the trip too can be safely understood as being an exercise in futility.
The camera of Mr. Das is symbolically employed by the writer to present the fact that Mr. Das view the world through his camera and in not in direct touch with reality. The camera proves to be an obstruction and proves to be a futile aspect blocking Mr. Das’s chance to view the real world devoid his camera.
“Interpreter of Maladies” is a story with a setting and dialogues which may not be larger than life but is as close and real as life could be though the writer presents her work as a fictionalized account of her imagination and creativity.
A Temporary Matter:
In this tale, the writer in all clarity wishes to point out that lack of trust and deceit in a relationship makes the existence of that relationship futile. The futility of the relationship of Shukumar and Shoba is visible through the game that Shoba and Shukumar play of revealing secrets; readers learn that deception has been a theme in their relationship which deteriorates the relationship. They have lied to each other, and the lies have been selfish ones-told not to spare the other’s feelings but to allow the person telling the lie to escape some discomfort or sacrifice. To avoid having dinner with Shukumar’s mother, Shoba lied and said she had to work late. Shukumar told Shoba that he lost a sweater she had given him, when in reality he returned the sweater and used the money to get drunk.
As these examples of deception are revealed throughout the story, it is clear that Shoba and Shukumar’s emotional estrangement began before the loss of their baby. They have always dealt with difficult situations and unpleasant emotions by lying and keeping secrets. When Shoba breaks the stalemate that their grief has caused by initiating a deceptive game, she is following an established pattern. Throughout the week of power outages, Shoba appears to be reaching out to Shukumar. In truth, she is engineering her final separation from him.
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At the same time, the game that appears to be drawing them together also reveals a past filled with deception. Things have not always been as they seemed between these two people. In addition, readers learn early in the story that Shoba has always been one to plan ahead and that she keeps a separate bank account. Readers are left to wonder whether the pattern of deception will be broken or intensified.
The balance seems to shift decisively in favor of a happy ending when, on the fifth evening, the narrator declares, “They had survived a difficult time.” Shoba’s silence that evening has been interpreted as the calm after a storm. But that interpretation is as misleading as Shoba’s behavior has been. Readers, like Shukumar, have been given mixed signals and only learn at the end which set of clues was reliable.
The stage setting adds to the realm of the story. To depict futility of the relationship of the protagonists, the writer places the Bradford couple as neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Bradford are neighbors of Shoba and Shukumar. Shoba and Shukumar see them walking by, arm in arm, on their way to the bookstore on the second night of the power outage. The Bradfords seem to be a happily married couple and as such provide a contrast to Shoba and Shukumar. The narrator mentions that the Bradfords placed a sympathy card in Shoba and Shukumar’s mailbox when they lost their baby.
“You went to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your mother, and I figured it would be a long call. I wanted to know if you’d promoted me from the margins of your newspaper.”
Instead of looking for clues about her future husband or finding something of earth-shattering importance, she looks to see if she is making up the little details of Shukumar’s life. Again, it is clear that the little things mask the greater realities.
Alienation further triggers of futility of the relationship. Shoba and Shukumar’s grief has led them to withdraw from each other. Until the nightly power outages began, they avoided each other. Shoba leaves for work early each morning, returns late, and often brings home extra work to occupy her evenings and weekends. When Shoba is home, Shukumar retreats to his computer and pretends to work on his dissertation. He has put the computer in the room that was to be the nursery because he knows that Shoba avoids that room. She comes in briefly each evening to tell him goodnight. He resents even this brief interaction, which Shoba initiates only out of a sense of obligation.
Shoba and Shukumar do not attempt to comfort or support each other. Each withdraws from the relationship, and they endure their grief as if they were two strangers living in a boardinghouse.
Mrs. Sen, the titular character of Lahiri’s story demonstrates the power that physical objects have over the human experience. This aspect is employed by the writer to display a sense of futility in the thoughts and existence of the titular character. During the entire story, Mrs. Sen is preoccupied with the presence or lack of material objects that she once had. Physically though Mrs. Sen is there where she is but mentally or rather emotionally she seems to be dwelling in another world, a world of the past. Whether it is fish from her native Calcutta or her special vegetable cutting blade, she clings to the material possessions that she is accustomed to, while firmly rejecting new experiences such as canned fish or even something as mundane as driving a car.
“‘At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements”
This moment illustrates that Mrs. Sen is referring to her neighborhood at home as a much more closely-knit community than that of the area where Eliot lives. Here she uses a slightly superior attitude when referring to her culture as opposed to Eliot’s, which helps her remain confident about staying true to her Indian roots while she physically lives in a different place.
Lack of the ability of the central character of Mrs. Sen to transcend successfully and accept her new world presents the futility of the situation. While her homesickness is certainly understandable given her lack of meaningful social connections, her item-centric nostalgia only accentuates the fact that the people she meets in America are no barrier to her acclimation. The man at the fish market takes the time to call Mrs. Sen and reserve her special fish. The policeman who questions Mrs. Sen after her automobile accident does not indict her. For all intents and purposes, the people in the story make it easy for Mrs. Sen to embrace life in America. But despite this, Mrs. Sen refuses to assimilate to any degree, continuing to wrap herself in saris, serving Indian canapés to Eliot’s mother, and putting off the prospect of driving. By living her life vicariously through remembered stories imprinted on her blade, her saris, and her grainy aerograms, Mrs. Sen resists assimilation through the power of material objects and the meaning they hold for her.
In this story, 11-year old Eliot begins staying with Mrs. Sen – a university professor’s wife – after school. The caretaker, Mrs. Sen, chops and prepares food as she tells Elliot stories of her past life in Calcutta, helping to craft her identity. Like “A Temporary Matter,” this story is filled with lists of produce, catalogs of ingredients, and descriptions of recipes. Emphasis is placed on ingredients and the act of preparation. Other objects are emphasized as well, such as Mrs. Sen’s colorful collection of saris from her native India. Much of the plot revolves around Mrs. Sen’s tradition of purchasing fish from a local seafood market. This fish reminds Mrs. Sen of her home and holds great significance for her. However, reaching the seafood market requires driving, a skill that Mrs. Sen has not learned and resists learning. At the end of the story, Mrs. Sen attempts to drive to the market without her husband, and ends up in an automobile accident. Eliot soon stops staying with Mrs. Sen thereafter.
“Sexy” is particularly poignant in the analysis of feeling like a foreign inside your own personal relationships and the unspoken possibilities that await those willing to break away from the past. Sexy tells the story of a young woman’s futile affair with a married man. Miranda is the outsider in her relationship with Dev, secondary to his wife and incapable of living her own life since it revolves solely around the next time they’ll meet.
Through the innocent words of a young boy who unintentionally makes her realize the futility of her ways, she is driven to examine and re-evaluate what love is, until she is finally ready to let go.
The final pages of Sexy, portray the central character as having gained a sense of self, having broken away from her maladies to work their way towards personal freedom with the end of an affair which is the case with Miranda.
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