There are a number of books that have left me nursing a huge hangover for days. You know that feeling: you couldn’t begin to read your next book because you still keep thinking about the one you’ve just finished – because you couldn’t get over how good that last book was. Now take that feeling and multiply it by nine – one for each of the nine stories that comprise Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies – that was how much I enjoyed the book. I was overwhelmed and hung over and so in love with this collection that I have made it my personal mission to buy every (second-hand) copy I see and give them to whoever would want it.
All the stories that make up this compendium are exceptionally wonderful, but my personal favorites are A Temporary Matter, Interpreter of Maladies, Sexy, and A Real Durwan.
The book’s first salvo, A Temporary Matter, is the story of a young couple’s marriage, and how they dealt with the problems that came with the territory. If I may borrow my reading buddy’s words to describe it – that story hurt so good. After reading it, I wondered if Lahiri would be able to sustain my interest all the way to the ninth and final story. I wasn’t disappointed.
Interpreter of Maladies – the story from which the title of the collection is lifted – is about an Indian-American family vacationing in India and their tour guide who also happens to be a clinical interpreter – a medical transcriber, perhaps?
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?”
Sexy is about a young woman who becomes the paramour of an older, married man – and realizing her self-worth, thanks to a young boy who picks the proper adjective to call her. On the other hand, A Real Durwan is about an old, withered and presumably mad woman who cleans the common areas of a tenement building, how she is allowed sleeping space in a storage room for as long as the residents found her useful, and how everything can change in a snap. These stories, together with the other five – When Mr Pirzada Came To Dine, Mrs. Sen’s, This Blessed House, The Treatment of Bibi Haldar and The Third and Final Continent – are equally beautiful and unforgettable. But I picked these four as my favorites among the nine because these were the ones that created a hollow, inexplicable, aching feeling inside me that I just couldn’t shake. Perhaps it’s because these stories dealt with some kind of loss – and there are many kinds – and for every loss that each of these stories offered me, I felt my heart bleed a little.
Last night, I searched my bookshelves for my copy of Interpreter of Maladies – I just wanted to hold it in my hands, browse through the stories, relive the emotions evoked in me when first I read it. When I could not find it, I felt hollow. I hope whoever got it from the White Elephant swap last Christmas took good care of it.
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It isn’t just the stories themselves that clung to me – it was also the lovely prose, the serene and engaging writing, that charmed me from the first story to the last. Jhumpa Lahiri writes so, so beautifully, it makes me want to shed tears. She writes so exquisitely that you could feel a character’s emotional turmoil from the words, sense an individual’s inner feelings from the text. If I may be allowed to say so, she gave soul to the stories through the prose.
One more thing about the stories that I appreciated was the presence of something Indian in them: the characters were of Indian descent, or they tackled a piece of Indian or Asian history. This can be attributed to Lahiri’s roots of course. It was something both informative and entertaining, as well.
Having said all those, I highly recommend Interpreter of Maladies to anyone who knows how to appreciate good storytelling and lovely prose. I am certain that there will be one story in this collection that will appeal, charm, or tug at your heartstrings – it is impossible not to.
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Date read: May 2013
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars