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Literature / Interpreter of Maladies

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Interpreter of Maladies is the debut short story collection written by Jhumpa Lahiri, released to universal critical acclaim in 1999. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, beating out contenders from various well-established writers. The New Yorker listed it as the Best Debut of the Year, and Oprah Winfrey has it on her Top Ten Book List. It has since sold over 15 million copies.

The stories mainly focus on the lives of various Indian Bengalis (or Americans who know Bengalis), and examines the cultural disparities and societal structures those of Indian origin face. The themes mainly revolve around family structures as well as the barriers of language, dignity, and normalcy people must overcome when dealing with various situations. The book is notable for giving special attention to the lives of women and how they become defined through Western and Eastern attitudes toward marriage, cooking, or language.

The first three stories of the book are going to be adapted as a film trilogy; more information can be found here.

List of stories:

  1. "A Temporary Matter"
  2. "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"
  3. "Interpreter of Maladies"
  4. "A Real Durwan"
  5. "Sexy"
  6. "Mrs. Sen's"
  7. "This Blessed House"
  8. "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar"
  9. "The Third and Final Continent"

"The Trope-ment of Bibi Haldar":

  • Ambiguous Innocence: In "Sexy", the seven-year-old Rohin innocently doesn't realize why Miranda shouldn't undress in front of him or sleep in his bed. However, he says that she is "sexy" because he realizes that she's the type of superficial girl whom men use without taking the time to understand her.
  • Arranged Marriage: "Interpreter of Maladies", "Mrs. Sen's" and "The Third and Final Continent". The rest of the stories feature love marriages, most of which have tension between the couples.
  • Babies Ever After: Deconstructed in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar". By having children, Bibi ultimately fulfills the expectations of a woman in Indian society and becomes self-sufficient; however, if she had not been raped and impregnated, the townspeople would have continued to pity her instead of enabling her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: At the end of "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine", Lilia feels saddened by the fact that she'll never again see Mr. Pirzada, who is now back in Bangladesh caring for his family after the horrific war. She throws away all the candy he gave her out of love because it reminds her too much of him.
  • Chocolate Baby: In "Interpreter of Maladies", Bobby is significantly fairer than the rest of his siblings. Sure enough, his mother confesses that she had an affair, although her husband still has no idea the boy isn't his.
  • Coming of Age Story: "Mrs. Sen's" is about Eliot's gradual tolerance of his caretaker's inability to adjust to life in America, and how he realizes his own insecurities when he becomes independent toward the end.
    • "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" is about how Lilia realizes the inherent differences between Bangladeshis and Indians despite how they united in the wake of war.
  • Culture Clash: All stories express this in one way or another. "Mrs. Sen's", for example, shows how the title character can't adjust to life in the United States despite the ample opportunities she is given. She holds too closely to her material possessions that remind her of life back home.
  • Death by Childbirth: Bibi Haldar has no one to look after her, partly because her mother died giving birth to her.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: In the title story, Mr. Kapasi sees Mrs. Das's infidelity as wildly offensive. Not only does it go against everything he and his culture stand for, but Mrs. Das tells him this with the expectation that she will be "cured" if he can "interpret" her malady. When Mr. Kapasi (rightfully) tells her that she is suffering from guilt, she rebuffs him, refusing to accept that her actions were anything short of understandable.
  • Downer Ending: "A Temporary Matter", which shows the married couple gradually reconciling their marriage for most of the story... before deciding to separate at the very end.
    • Also "A Real Durwan", which shows how Boori Ma was once respected by the community before being scapegoated and thrown out.
  • Dumb Blonde: Subverted by Miranda in "Sexy"; people treat her like this despite her willingness to embrace Indian culture.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Sanjeev and Twinkle got married after only four months of knowing each other. The former is worried that they're not really in love, though the story's final pages heavily imply that Sanjeev does indeed love Twinkle, or at least has the capacity to do so.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: "Sexy" portrays Miranda as a naive girl caught up with a married Bengali man whom she idealizes. "Interpreter of Maladies", in contrast, portrays Mrs. Das as an irresponsible, even opportunistic woman.
  • Grief-Induced Split: Shoba and Shukmar in "A Temporary Matter" break up at the end, because they can't get past Shoba miscarrying a pregnancy.
  • Guilt Complex: Shoba and Shukumar both develop the third kind of guilt complex when they reveal their deepest secrets to one another. The guilt from Shoba's miscarriage severs what little communication they had between them, and they feel guilty about not being able to trust one another. Even after mentioning some of their most embarrassing secrets, they finally go against each other's wishes and have to separate their marriage.
  • Happily Married: The narrator of "The Third And Final Continent" and Mala eventually become this. Also an example of a Perfectly Arranged Marriage.
    • Sanjeev and Twinkle have their issues, but their relationship is ultimately much more loving and stable than most other couples in the book.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: A series of stories mostly organized around the theme of Indians adjusting to the Culture Clash of life in the United States.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Pretty much every Bengali in the book has gone or is attending some Ivy League. "Third and Final Continent" mentions that narrator attends MIT, "This Blessed House" mentions that the protagonists attended Stanford and Yale, and "A Temporary Matter" revolves around a married couple who attended Oxford.
  • Leg Focus: Dev, an Indian man, is having an affair with a white lady, Miranda. He specifically notes that one of the things that attracted him was her long legs.
    "You're the first," he told her, admiring her from the bed. "The first woman I've known with legs this long."
  • The Mistress: Miranda in "Sexy", carrying on a weekend affair with a married man. She goes to a lingerie shop to buy sexy underthings, because she decides that a mistress should have stuff like that.
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: Twinkle in "This Blessed House" sticks a leg out of the bathtub and wiggles her toes. Sanjeev is momentarily distracted, but pushes on and tells her he's getting rid of the Virgin Mary statue, which starts an argument.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Sanjeev's wife Tanima is only ever called "Twinkle". She was "nicknamed after a nursery rhyme." ("This Blessed House")
  • Only Sane Man: Mr. Kapasi in "Interpreter of Maladies"; both Mr. and Mrs. Das appear to act like irresponsible children.
    • Subverted by Sanjeev in "This Blessed House". He seems to have a legitimate reason for objecting to his wife's sudden obsession with Christianity, but in reality, the story mentions that might be the one who doesn't understand spirituality.
  • Perfumigation: Mrs. Kenyon rudely interrupts the narrator of "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine", making her put down a book on Pakistan in the library. Then she walks away, "the aroma of her perfume filling up the tiny aisle."
  • Rape Portrayed as Redemption: Bibi Haldar's cousin treats her with contempt due to her frequent seizures, and most of the townspeople express pity for her without really giving her any work to do because they believe she is invalid. It is only after that the townspeople discover that she is raped and impregnated that they enable her to provide for herself. The narrator, one of the villagers, says that Bibi was "cured" due to this at the very end.
  • Reflective Eyes: As Mr. Pirzada watches terrifying news reports from the war in East Pakistan, the narrator watches him as "the images flashed in miniature across his eyes." Mr. Pirzada is desperately worried about his wife and daughters, still back in what would soon become Bangladesh.
  • Single-Issue Wonk: Sanjeev in "This Blessed House" becomes one when he faces his wife's strange obsession with Christian paraphernalia, despite both of them being Hindus. It's what finally gets him to speak his mind against her, though it doesn't work for very long.
  • Starbucks Skin Scale: The narrator of "The Third and Final Continent" reflects on how his wife was perceived as an undesirable bride, because her skin wasn't light enough.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: In the backstory of "A Temporary Matter", a married couple lost a baby in stillbirth. They haven't been able to get over it and their marriage has been wrecked.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: In the title story, Mrs. Das pulls this one on Mr. Kapasi when he brings up his job at the physician's department. She ends up doing it to gain his trust so that she can freely admit her infidelity to him.