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Wed Sep 27 2006

Feature: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The eleventh selection for the Chicago Public Library's One Book, One Chicago program is Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Although the stories' characters are of Indian nationality and their names and the lands from which they hail may be unrecognizable in the American consciousness, Lahiri focuses on themes that are universal to the human experience. As a result, her writing has a richly colored feeling and her musings on family, love and the feeling of foreignness never seem distant from the heart and the mind.

"Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job in such complimentary terms. To him it was a thankless occupation. He found nothing noble in interpreting people's maladies, assiduously translating the symptoms of so many swollen bones, countless cramps of bellies and bowels, spots on people's palms that changed color, shape, or size." So writes Lahiri in the titular story, describing Mr. Kapasi, a man giving a tour to the Das family and whose occupation is, literally, to interpret patients' ailments in a hospital where little Gujarati is spoken. Although the family on the tour is Indian, they came from New Jersey and "dressed as foreigners did," rendering them tourists in their own land. It's obvious that the marriage is failing and Mrs. Das's interest in Mr. Kapasi's work conjures up his own romantic fantasies, at least until she confides that one of their sons is not her husband's child and asks Mr. Kapasi for his help with this malady, her secret. He concedes that he is, however, only an interpreter of languages, not guilt or transgressions.

The first story in the book, "A Temporary Matter," follows another failing marriage and the husband's attempts to rebuild what he once had with his wife before they became parents of a stillborn child. When the couple's electricity is temporarily cut off each evening, Shukumar uses this opportunity to get closer to his wife –- with no lights they must eat dinner together, by candlelight, instead of taking their plates to their separate places in the house. "He remembered their first meals there, when they were so thrilled to be married, to be living together in the same house at last, that they would just reach for each other foolishly, more eager to make love than to eat." The perils of pregnancy also makes an appearance in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," a story about a girl whose illness remains unexplainable to doctors, therapists, priests and anyone else who might try to diagnose her. She envies the girls who get married and questions if it is so wrong for her to want a husband and a child. When Bibi's outrages confine her to a storage room, she's found months later to be pregnant, refusing to reveal who the father might be. And it seems that once the child is born, all of Bibi's ailments have disappeared.

Each story in Interpreter of Maladies feels complete. There's a beginning, middle and end for each one and, in a short space, Lahiri manages to give her characters enough definition to carry the stories she creates for them. There's a real sense of history, emotion and motivation behind these names, which is something that can be rightfully expected from a novel, but which is often left by the wayside in stories of only fifteen or twenty pages. There isn't one of the book's nine stories that doesn't feel whole or, alternately, feels longer than necessary. Short stories are, by definition, not an opportunity to churn out what is really a wayward attempt at a half-novel, and Lahiri minds the limitations she puts on herself by writing in this form. These stories may be inspired by the author's Indian background, but they're never so specific as to alienate any of her readers. They're about the difficulties of marriage, the listlessness of unfulfilled lives and the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. While these may be frequently visited topics, Lahiri's perfectly chosen words and phrases keep them from being mundane. More importantly, she doesn't employ odd tenses or a halting exposition or graphic sex scenes to generate interest in her writing; she simply writes well. That, more than anything, makes for a worthwhile read.


For more information on the One Book, One Chicago program, please visit the Chicago Public Library's website. You can also find a schedule of special events and a CPL book club near you where you can join in the citywide discussion. Ms. Lahiri will be at the Harold Washington Library on October 9 to talk about her acclaimed book with Mary A. Dempsey, Commissioner of the CPL.

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