Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies

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Author: Jennifer Bess
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 2007
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 96)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,452 words

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[(essay date winter 2004) In the following essay, Bess focuses on irony in Lahiri's stories, noting how the most fleeting of relationships may result in the greatest self-understanding.]

A plate of peanut butter crackers and a Jesus trivet become, in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, icons of alienation and loneliness. In the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, everyday items and events expose the liminal situation unique to the first- and second-generation immigrant characters, but also embody the author's timely lament over the failure of global living to bridge the gaps between cultures and between individuals (cf. Dubey 23: Lewis 219). In fact, although firmly grounded in the concrete and in the present, Lahiri's collection weaves together universal themes of alienation, connection, and loss as her characters embark on unique quests to find the union between understanding the human experience and finding satisfaction in their individual lives. Moving between values of collectivist and individualist cultures, they are perfectly suited to navigate the relationship between the universal and the unique, but they find that the homogenizing forces of globalization, the chaos of mechanized living, and the silence of loneliness threaten cultural identity instead of fostering a sense of community and that they threaten individual identity instead of nurturing self-knowledge. It is, ironically, only in the most transient of relationships that the sought-after union between understanding humanity and understanding self is found, creating in the collection a dialectic between the failure to understand the human condition and the hope of embracing its richness.

In "Mrs. Sen's," the title character attempts to become a global citizen by maintaining her Indian identity at the same time she adapts to American culture. Newly arrived from Calcutta with her husband, she struggles to maintain the traditional role of the wife to Mr. Sen through her careful attention in preparing Indian cuisine. Although she laments the fact that bhetki is not available, she finds that fresh halibut will suffice. Collected from a seaside fishmonger, the fish is prepared with a special blade from India. This blade, Mrs. Sen explains to the young boy she baby-sits, recalls to her the community of women she has left behind: "'Whenever there...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075389