Friday, October 24, 2008

Stories of love, loneliness and longing

I am reading a short stories collection after a really long time. So forgive me if I wax lyrical about this book but believe me this is good reading. The Interpreter of Maladies is a short stories collection by Jhumpa Lahiri. The book had won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for best fiction and a host of other awards. All the stories have the underlying theme of ‘yearning’ , the deep desire to go back to your roots, in this case, India. The cultural displacement of the Indians and their adjustments in the new land of opportunity (America) brings out different reactions from the myriad characters.

Here is a short synopsis of some of the stories.
A Temporary Matter is about this couple who are individually grieving over the loss of their dead infant and have completely not overcome the sadness. Instead of talking it out, both of them keep silent about it, while the wounds of loneliness and pain fester beneath their hurt bodies. The power cuts in their area force them to spend time together by candlelight. They end up slowly and unsurely, having conversations about their past. This one is highly recommended and my favorite of the whole lot.

This Blessed House A young couple finds sacred objects of Christianity, hidden in extremely ingenious ways in their newly acquired house.

The curing of Bibi Haldar tells the tale of a emotionally disturbed, young girl who has to endure a lot of pain before finally getting her deliverance. It reveals the huge expectations of the traditional Indian culture on single women who have to marry someone within an appropriate time and the resultant implications of that.
When Mr Pirzada came to dine is the story of Mr Pirzada(a Pakistani) who is separated from his wife and kids at the time of the Dacca war. He spends time with a friendly Indian family across the seven seas. The food shared by the protagonist with the Indian family is the strongest bond of love that also expels the collective feeling of homesickness.

The Third and Final continent is about a shy Bengali immigrant who recollects how he had to get accustomed to a new culture and a new land (having traveled from India to Britain and finally to the US). He finds a mother figure in his 103 yr old landlady who has her own quirky ways. The story ends with the protagonist’s wistful lines, ’’Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.’’

Mrs.Sen’s is about this Bengali lady who takes up a job as a caretaker of little Elliot. Though the boy’s eyes, we understand how she is sick of leading a false life and pretending to be well off and happy in the alien place. In reality, she is bored and miserable and the trips to the fish market are her only solace. The fish market is so vividly described that you actually experience the sights and sounds of that place. In a way, the food is her link to her homeland that she sorely misses.

The characters in Jhumpa’s story are very ordinary people who lead mediocre lives. Though they look somewhat happy and okay with their lives, but beneath the surface, they have lots of desires, fears and wants, which are unexpressed. These hidden needs manifest in different ways in their day-to-day lives and everyone continues to exist mundanely, ignoring what they really want from life.

Jhumpa does not go too deep into the characterization of the people involved but she mentions small personal details about them, which more or less tell the reader everything about the character. The writer has captured the nuances so well, that you actually feel the pathos of the characters.

Somehow the narrative does touch a chord in your heart. You know these people because they could be anyone of the persons that coexist with you in your locality. The silent workaholic couple, the lonely bachelor, the disloyal wife and so on. The point that the writer makes is that none of us are completely black or white but we have loads of gray shades to our personas.

Finally it’s befitting that none of the stories have an ending per se. The ending of each story leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions and ponder about the vagaries of life. Successful stories are those that make the reader go through the entire gamut of emotions that the characters experience. With her stories, Jhumpa Lahiri has succeeded in doing just that and much more.

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