Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

Friday, March 10th, 2006

Interpreter of Maladies was my first literary journey with an Indian author. The book that caused this so-called addiction that I now have for Indian writers. This Pulitzer, New Yorker and PEN/Hemingway Award winner consists of nine short stories that delve into the lives of Indians living in a foreign land, struggling to balance between their traditional values and the demands of today’s modern ways. A beautiful descriptive insight into what goes on behind the closed doors of these people’s homes. About what they eat and how they decorate their houses. About how they struggle to fit into society but also at the same time try to live up to their own dreams and expectations.

My favourite story is titled The Treatment of Bibi Haldar. The story takes you into the life of a woman who suffers from a strange ailment that nobody can find a cure for. Doctors, therapists, family and friends all tried to end her suffering. They tied her with ropes, sprinkled holy water on her and rubbed different scented oils on her temples. They put various amulets on her body, sent her to temples and martyrs but still her misery continued. She was not able to go anywhere unsupervised, hence was kept locked in a little storage room in her cousin’s house, where she recorded the inventory for his cosmetic shop. Day by day, her cousin’s wife came to hate her more, saying she brought bad luck and ill fate to the family. Until one day, a doctor came up with a remedy for her illness: marriage.

The story ends with a sweet yet unexpected surprise which I will not spoil here. Eventhough all nine stories are all very strong in character and plot, this one remains my favourite to this very day. The twists and turns on each page kept my eyes wide awake with excitement and I remember finishing this book in one night, sometime back in 2001.

Her daily occupation consisted of sitting in the storage room on the roof of our building, a space in which one could sit but not comfortably stand, featuring an adjoining latrine, a curtained entrance, one window without a grille, and shelves made from the panels of old doors. There, cross legged on a square of jute, she recorded inventory for the cosmetics shop that her cousin Haldar owned and managed at the mouth of our courtyard. For her services, Bibi received no income but was given meals, provisions and sufficient meters of cotton at every October holiday to replenish her wardrobe at an inexpensive tailor. At night she slept on a folding camp cot in the cousin’s place downstairs. –Interpreter of Maladies, page 159

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