“Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?”
“Mrs. Sen, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I am only asking if someone would come.”
Eliot shrugged. “Maybe.”
“At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements.”
By then Eliot understood that when Mrs. Sen said home, she meant India, not the apartment where she sat chopping vegetables.
– Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Because my current audible read fails to impress (Calypso by David Sedaris – what’s with the all the good reviews though?), I fell back on my all time favorite – Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – for some much needed revitalization.
When you have different copies of the same book each in places you have stayed for more than a couple of years, you know it’s your primo uno. And no matter how many times you have read the book, when you marvel at the writing style of the author every time, you know it’s a keeper.
This book is a collection of short stories thick with interesting anecdotes, some of them trivial which in a way shows that it’s not so much the story as the poised writing that draws you in.
Almost all the stories are about Indians from Calcutta who moved to America in 1970s and spun a new life miles away from their home. It shows the culture shock which especially affected the newly wed women who not only had to move thousands of miles to a new continent with a husband they hardly knew, but had to also blend in to the new surroundings where they were oddly conspicuous with their embellished silk saris, jingling bangles and vermilion on their foreheads.
Such was the story of Mrs. Sen, who missed her home so badly that she tries to create a little bit of Calcutta in her apartment in Boston. She voices her loneliness to Eliot, an American kid who she baby sat on school days, about how she misses the chit-chat of neighbors back home and how she could just walk to the local store to buy fresh fish instead of depending on Mr. Sen or worse, learn to drive a car herself.
The story which shares the book title is one of a taxi driver who took visitors to Sun Temple in Konark, India. His other occupation was as an interpreter to a doctor who did not speak the local language and so it was his job to translate the illness of the patients, thus the name ‘Interpreter of Maladies’.
There is this other story about a couple, who grew distant after a tragedy, but found an opportunity to reconnect because of a very rare occurrence – an hour long power cut for a few days. The wife reminisced about a game she played back in India during power cuts which was the start of many a profound conversation they both started looking forward to.
The small references about India, like the cooking style and the habit of leaving footwear outside the house, are sure to hit the nostalgic nerve of anyone who has built a new life elsewhere. This book still appeals to me as it did nine years ago when I first read it back at “home” – in India, like Mrs. Sen said.