“A flag on the moon! Isn’t that splendid?”: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
This collection of short stories begins with “A Temporary Matter,” a story about Shukumar and Shoba, a married couple living in Cambridge. They are grieving over someone they lost, and when the lights go out in their apartment and they are surrounded by darkness, they start to talk to each other. In “Interpreter of Maladies,” Mr. Kapasi, the taxi driver, feels an attraction for Mrs. Das, whose family had come to India as tourists. Mr. Kapasi imagines a future with Mrs. Das, but in the end, the little slip of paper where he had written his contact information gets flown away by the wind, unnoticed by Mrs. Das and her family. The collection of stories ends with “The Third and Final Continent,” where the narrator comes to work at MIT, and brings his wife, who was married to him by arrangement, to come live with him.
Before I started reading this book, I hoped I would be learning something new – maybe something new about the Indian culture, or what it is like for people coming from India to adjust to the American culture, etc. However, once I started reading, I was surprised to find these short stories showed Indians and Indian-Americans, with a huge cultural barrier between them. While these characters may have shared similar physical traits, and maybe even similar names, their lifestyles and the languages they spoke were completely different. Those who were from America even seemed to take pride in the fact, as if this made them somehow superior. I have seen the same thing happen to some Koreans, too, and it made me wonder again about how valid that idea is, and whether people still believe it to this day. Obviously, these stories show that cultural differences go deeper inside you, and that even if you share the same color of skin as the person sitting next to you, that does not mean you two are similar. What a person believes on the inside is what truly makes them who they are.
And this is why I liked the last chapter, “The Third and Final Continent”. An old white woman, still holding on to the Victorian values, somehow made herself an important person in an Indian couple’s lives, and even though they had nothing in common. Mrs. Croft, who was born in 1866 and wears a skirt that fully covers her ankles, is prone to chastising her daughter Helen, who is 68 years old (who is old enough to be the narrator’s mother) and the narrator for speaking to each other without a chaperone. The narrator, on the other hand, who is from India and still feels uncomfortable walking inside the house with shoes on, is waiting for his wife (whom he married by arrangement), and he and his wife have not even know each other that well. In this unlikely group of individuals, a connection is made. Their moment together in Mrs. Croft’s house somehow closes the distance between the husband and wife, and they are able to build a life together, giving birth to a son, and telling him about the old lady who had always made his father say how splendid it was that a flag was on the moon.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of maladies: stories. Mariner Books – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.