Interpreting maladies, and stories

I’ve always been a little doubtful of authors with Indian names. A little racist, I know, but having read a few Indian authors whose regard for English was far less than decent, I didn’t feel too guilty about myself either. However, I also know there were some exceptional Indian authors. I’m making a list and a recent entrant is Jhumpa Lahiri.

I have to say, I love her name. I love the way in rings in my ears, and rolls off my tongue. He family must’ve had a great sense of rhythm and respect for the listener. Perhaps that’s why Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing is also so aware of the reader’s mind and how her words would echo in their heads.

“Unsavoury sorts murmured indelicacies at cutlet stands”

Interpreter of maladies is a collection of short stories, some of them based in Bengal, some in Boston. What’s weird about this book is that though relatable in so many ways, Lahiri’s settings and her characters are yet un-relatable in many ways, too.

For example, she narrates the story of a young Indian-American couple. Their tour guide in India muses about their clothing, their relationship with each other and their children, their attitude towards natural beauty and photographed memories. And all the while, he makes judgements, often accurate, about how unhappy the couple are in their marriage — he observes like an old woman does with her hunched shoulders and ever-munching betal-stained mouth. The guide in the story is relatable because he’s a bit like an old woman, but he’s also un-relatable in many ways because he’s attracted to the young American woman he’s hosting. He contemplates his own unhappy marriage and compares himself to the young woman and her husband. He knows she’d go back to America in a week, and still he imagines — of writing letters to her, of nurturing a friendship with her, of explaining his job of interpreting maladies. All these qualities in a tour guide, who himself grew up wanting to be a scholar in five European languages, is a little unconventional, a surprising edge to a typical Indian character. And that’s what Lahiri does so well in her stories. She’s singled out some of the most common characteristics in Indian culture, spicing them up with unexpected behavioural patters to weave characters that refuse to leave the reader.

As a reader, you can’t help but appreciate Lahiri’s subtleties. In another story, Lahiri narrates the life of a young Bengali woman suffering from an unknown disease. Her neighbours talk about her behind her back and spread gossip, yet some offer to help. Referring to the women’s chattering, Lahiri paints a vivid picture so familiar to every Indian: “News spread between our window bars, across our clothes lines, and over the pigeon droppings that plastered the parapets of our rooftops.” That’s the India I grew up in, and yet, when reading Lahiri’s description, I can see the women gossiping along, drying their clothes under the burning mid day sun.

Another great aspect of this book is that the author herself has experienced both the worlds she describes. And I think that’s what makes some of the stories in this book, the stories that take place both in America as well as in India, so vivid and unforgettable. Some even outline regrettable, cringe-worthy incidents. What appears common in America in the late 60s is still taboo in some parts of India. This is an exchange between a mother and a daughter:

“It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!”

“For your information, Mother, it’s 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?”

Mrs. Croft sniffed. “I’d have her arrested.”

Mrs. Croft is a 103 year-old woman who cannot accept a man and woman speaking in private. And for that, her daughter mocks her — in 1969 America. The saddest thing, though, it’s 2017 and some Indians still cling to the same belief. The regrettable reality is that some parts of the world are yet to catch up to the sensibilities of equality and modern civilisation.

It’s things like these that make Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories a precious read. As an Indian, I loved reading narratives that I could relate to and smile as I recognised behaviours. As a person familiar with some ways of American life, I could sympathise with the feelings and emotions that the foreign characters portrayed. In sum, none of Lahiri’s creations are over-the-top unimaginable — they’re simple people living simple lives, who invite readers to share a few days in their lives. Interpreter of maladies is a wonderful read.

Lawmaker’s son

Dissents dad’s decree,

detesting disparity—

the decent descent.

Inspiration

“Notorious stab at discrediting our culture…” the editor read aloud. With an impassive look, he cast Darcy’s article on his desk, along with countless papers lined with fine print. He had leafed through them all, but still hadn’t picked his copywriter when he picked up Darcy’s commentary on a teenager’s now-viral YouTube rant.

Darcy gulped. Had she nominalised a verb, perhaps?

Notorious,” he lingered, letting it ring through the otherwise silent room.

‘…mass murderer Sirius Black,’ her mind recalled the day she had learnt the word. But he smiled, “Great work.”

One story had birthed a new generation of storytellers.

Handed down

Religion—it’s one of the most common inheritances in most countries. India is no different. From even before people started recording historical events, Indians nurtured a passion for godliness and idol worship. India is also called Hindustan, and some people even name Hinduism as the national religion. Despite other believers protesting against idolising Hinduism, it’s so widespread that you’d see Hindu gods and goddesses even lining the International Airport in Chennai.

I never talk religion, both in my blog and in my life outside of my blog, however, this goddess reminds me of how much cultural and religious heritage India has accumulated over the years.

handed down - Hindu god in Chennai airport

A birthday at work

“Hey Jared,” called out the new intern. She was much younger than I, but our work etiquette encouraged us to collaborate on first-name basis. I didn’t care much, because it made me, even only just, feel a little younger.

“Yes, Sharon?” I replied without looking up from my laptop. I had a project I had to submit by the end of the day, and I had just begun to put it together. It had been a hectic week, and I was already looking forward to the close of the day and the week.

Sharon didn’t reply. I typed away unpertubed for a while, but she called out again, louder this time, forcing me to look up, irritation balooning within me but a smile spreading on my fake face. “Sorry, was busy.” I added an extra emphasis on the last word. “What’s up?”

What an easy phrase that was—what’s up. So helpful when you don’t know what to say, yet so casual that it won’t sound like you’re pissed off at the person you’re saying it to—even if you are pissed off.

“It’s Wendy’s birthday on Monday, and we wanted to get her a cake, and also decorate her work place.”

Wonderful. Just what we needed now, a birthday party. As if we don’t have enough distractions already.

“Oh.” I replied, instead, unable to say anything further. As she looked at me expecting I’d say more, I forced myself to do so, “Oh, ok. That sounds cool.”

No it doesn’t. You’ve worked here one week, why would you throw Wendy a party when you don’t even know her that well?

“Great!” Her eyes popped with with excitement. We’ll order a cake and hang back after work today to decorate her place. You’ll help us, won’t you?”

Why should I? It’s Friday!

“Oh ok,” I trailed away. If I had to spend time decorating with the new kids in, then I’d better finish my work fast. I heaved a deep sigh. Just then, my phone lit up with a push note from my bank: my credit card bill had arrived, and I owed more than I could afford this month. Ah, well. More dues; no news.

I continued to type away wishing this project would end, and with it my responsibility in it. It had taken us more than half a year to get the project up and running, and even afterward, our clients came back reporting issues and disappointmnet. The boss and I had been emailing each other for a while now, he trying to get me to fix it, and I trying to explain to him that we don’t have enough resources.

“Hey Jared!” Sharon’s voice jutted into my thoughts again. Masking my frustration, I looked up again, and trying to sound as innocent as I could replied, “Hmm?”

She looked down at the notebook in her hand, biting the end of her pencil. “It’s three dollars each for the cake, two for the decorations, and a five more for the Papier-mâché doll—the present.” She narrated in an even voice, careful not to give away the impression of robbing me. I saw right through it.

Brilliant. Ten dollars down the drain. For a birthday that will only depress Wendy because she’s getting old.

Wendy and I had been colleagues for over two years now, and though she loved the occasional splurge, I knew she wasn’t taking this birthday in her stride. She had complained to me on various occasions about feeling “old timey”.

“Woah, that’s a handful.” I had to protest. These kids would do anything to get a few likes on Instagram and Facebook. After all, they still lived under their parents’ patronage. “Are you sure you want to spend that much?”

It’s almost the end of the month, and I’m running short of cash.

But I couldn’t tell them that.

“Well…” She dragged on trying to figure out a way to convince me. “It is a bit fancy, but it’s Wendy.” She cocked her head to one side, letting a little streak of untied hair fall down to her eyes. She pushed it aside in a sweeping motion. “She’s like a mentor to us,” she turned to the other four new interns who nodded as if their life depended on it, “and we want to thank her.”

Oh, well. Wendy will be happy, but I’ll be the one getting her a cab home from the bar tonight, after she weep-drinks complianing about her age.

I knew better than to judge Wendy. I had been there myself, and she had been there for me.

“Oh, alright then. Let me finish this first, and I’ll pay you after.”

If the kids wanted to thank her, but end up depressing her inspite of it, I’ll be there for Wendy.

And with that, I went back to my email, writing to the boss: “Sure, thing, Daniel. I can pull some strings with the supplier, and see how we can solve our client’s issues. You can count on me.”