“How about telling each other something we’ve never told before.”

In this class we have spent a long time looking at the cultural identity of races, ethnicities, and genders. A large part of that look has been the struggles faced by these groups and their actions to work towards equality, recognition or simply civil existence as part of our larger society.

In the short stories in Interpreter of Maladies we are thrust into a world where we immediately are given a sense of a culture that at once has distinct differences but at the heart share the human loneliness that all people feel. Characters are faced with changes that reflect not only individual and relationship issues, but suggest a change in cultural roles.

In “Temporary” Shukunmar describes his wife before the loss of their child as the type to “plan ahead” and pointed out how their cabinets were always full of “endless boxes of pasta….sacks of basmati rice, whole sides of lambs.” [1] Shoba was a strong Indian woman who prepared for “surprises” and always and things well in hand, including her love for her husband. But after the loss of the child, and the telling of secrets, the lights come on and she must confess the change which has occurred in her. The death of her child is the death of her old life. The death, perhaps, of what made her part of a more traditional cultural family unit, and reveals her leaving of her husband.

The story could be one of any family in America. But I think it is important to consider that these are people who are living in a society where they must live with the pressures of two cultures: Indian and American. The changes they face and the changes they make are not just the result of tragedy, but of assimilation. The old white couple who waves and invites them to join them in a jaunt to the bookstore is a journey that they will be unable to take for more reasons than their separation as man and wife.

When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, it is filled with sadness of its own kind. In this story the lights are turned on to Lilia’s cultural background and she comes to understand how Mr. Pazada is seeking to remain connected with his lost family with nightly dinners with her family. His connection to his own Pakistani roots and the desperate situation that he faces which he “endures with dignity”[2] brings a relation to Lilia’s that was not there before. After one of their nightly dinners the gravity of his situation floods her mind and she tries to erase the fear she has by trying to “banish the image…” with looking at “ yellow canopied bed, with matching flounced curtains”[3] and the other objects in her room that disassociated her with the children thousands of miles away. But for Lilia’s, the reality is that despite the trappings of one culture, she is firmly connected to the one across oceans. That is by sheer luck that she did not live through “catastrophes[s] she could not comprehend” before the dinners began.

Our past and our culture inform who we are. The writer herself began her life in America but was drawn repeatedly back to Calcutta, even marrying there in 2001. [4] Her work of fiction reflects her own story of growing up American but discovering that her culture is what helps to define who she is, and connects her with others at home and abroad.

[1] Jhumpa Lahari. Interpreter of Maladies ( Houghton Mifflin Company Boston  1999)  6

[2] Ibid 32

[3] ibid

[4] Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/readers_guides/interpreter_maladies.shtml

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