These stories by Jhumpa Lahiri are so quiet and subtle that, as one reviewer put it, “you forget that you are reading.” These stories could be happening to you, or your next door neighbor. The fact that many of the characters have Indian names or come from a different culture only adds richness to the story of their struggles, sometimes triumphant and sometimes humiliating, to navigate their way through life’s challenges.
The point of view changes with each story, taking us into the minds of characters with different ages and circumstances. Often, the main details of the story unfold as we observe them through the eyes of a peripheral character. In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” a young girl from a privileged Indian-American family gradually comes to understand the ways in which the Indian-Pakistani war is affecting the people in her life. In “Mrs. Sen’s,” a young boy is cared for after school by an Indian woman who is far from home and trying to become familiar with a new culture.
Although many of the stories deal with the dissonances between American and Indian culture, there are universal themes throughout. In “A Temporary Matter,” we observe with compassion a young couple who are grieving over the loss of their first baby. We see how complicated a process grieving is, how each of us grieves in our own way, and how a shared grief may draw us together or push us apart. The title story, “Interpreter of Maladies” deals with a middle-aged man’s quest to bring some meaning into his unsatisfying life. Isn’t this what we all do? We try to interpret our maladies, understand what ails us and what ails the other people in our lives. Only then can we find a “cure,” if such a thing can be found.
I cannot think of any book or collection of stories I have read that more accurately captures this process. This is Lahiri’s first book. If all her books are this wonderful, I want to read them all.
See my colleague Clare B.’s review of Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.