Maladies both momentary and life-changing, communication and compassion, routines and rituals, and the deterioration of past cultural values – these are among the themes of Jhumpa Lahiri’s extraordinary Pulitzer Prize winning debut collection of stories. Lahiri’s stories are filled with emotional characters searching for love beyond the barriers of nations, cultures, religions and generations. The theme that will be the focus of my presentation today is the use of ‘confessions’ in Lahiri’s stories from the book ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. The stories that I will be focusing on are ‘A Temporary Matter’, the title story ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ and ‘Sexy’. At the very outset of my presentation let me explain the word ‘confession’. The definition of confession is a formal declaration of ones sins to a priest. Well it is not necessary to confess to a priest. A more generalized definition would be to accept a sin or a mistake committed by a person.
The first story of the collection ‘A Temporary Matter’ is a Bengali diaspora in the U.S. In this story we see two characters Shoba and Shukumar who are extremely depressed after the loss of their baby. The action in this story occurs sequentially, in a progressive manner. A resolution occurs towards the end when Shukumar makes a confession of what was unknown to Shoba for quite some time. We should note that the confessions are made in this story by both protagonists for the purpose of alienating the other. This also brings the concept of deception.
Shoba confesses, “That time when your mother came to visit us, when one night I said I had to stay late for work, I went out with Gillian and had a martini”. Shukumar confesses back that ‘he really hadn’t lost the sweater-vest she had bought him for their wedding anniversary but had exchanged it for cash at Filene’s.’ This series of confessions are actually examples of deception that are revealed throughout the story. This shows that Shoba and Shukumar started alienating each other even before the loss of their baby. They have always dealt with arduous situations and obnoxious emotions by lying and keeping secrets. When Shoba initiates the deceptive game, she is following a definite pattern. In reality she is engineering her final separation from him.
Told in third person and limited to Kapasi’s point of view, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ dramatizes Kapasi’s mistaken belief that love can easily cross cultural boundaries. This story reveals no immediate conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Das until one-third of the story is narrated. The story begins with the description of the Das family traveling to the Sun Temple at Konark. We see some drama occurring in the form of mutual bickering, sudden interest of Mr. Kapasi in Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi’s detailed account of his role as an interpreter. The immediate conflict appears when Mrs. Das confesses her illegal and temporary sexual involvement with a friend of Mr. Das. The conflict here is internal and caused due to the confession by Mrs. Das. Here the resolution of the conflict is temporary, as the conflict has not been fully resolved due to the inability of Mr. Kapasi to say the right thing to soothe Mrs. Das. This temporary resolution ensures Mrs. Das of the possibility of repairing the psychological damage that she has set up in her own mind.
The third story of my focus ‘Sexy’ as compared to the former two is based on a different aspect of confession. As the title suggests the story is about the sexual relationship between Dev and Miranda, and the despondency of the extra-marital affair. It is a story which supplies adequate details about the major characters with a smooth bringing in of the external conflict. The story is set in Boston and cross-cultural conflict is the main theme. Confession is made in this story not externally from one person to another but internally as a sort of realization of ones own mistake. After the definition given by Rohin of the word ‘sexy’ Miranda realizes that that is what she is precisely doing, “loving someone you don’t know”. Dev and Miranda both originate from two different cultures and have different lifestyles. This difference causes the conflict to arise in the first place. Also we see an internal conflict setting up in Miranda’s mind. This conflict, being emotional and psychological, creates so much stress that she is forced to confess or admit her mistake.
Looking at what confessions lead to in all these stories, first and foremost it is very noticeable that Lahiri builds up the stories in a dramatic manner where the confessions form the peripeteia or climax of the stories. Also as the protagonists have been through a lot of misery, it is obvious that the confessions generate catharsis among the readers. Comparing the stories we can observe that there is tremendous difference in the way confession is portrayed. In the first two stories the confessions occur between two different people however, in ‘A Temporary Matter’ the protagonists confess to alienate each other whereas in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ it’s a one sided confession by Mrs. Das to a person she has no connection with, simply to reduce the guilt of the mistake she has committed.
In ‘Sexy’ the conflict is set in the mind of the protagonist. Also the resolution occurs in the protagonists’ mind in the form of a confession. What we should note is how confession contributes to these stories as a whole. In the first story, the power outages are a ‘temporary matter’ which leads to the coming together of both the protagonists. This is very ironical as both of them are emotionally distant but are forced to interact more closely. In ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ as well, the confession comes as a result of Mr. Kapasi revealing his role as an interpreter of maladies. Similar to the first story, this story is also ironical as Kapasi’s passion for Mrs. Das, – noticing the “golden brown hollow in her throat”, the “strawberry between her breasts” – his fantasy that romantic love could arise between them fades as quickly as the scrap of paper disappears in the wind.
Coming to the third story ‘Sexy’ we see that it is the word ‘sexy’ that actually initiates the confession. After Rohin describes the word, Miranda undergoes a remarkable change. From this moment, the story ceases to be an external conflict and a conflict arises in Miranda’s mind. This helps her in realizing her mistake due to which she then avoids Dev’s visits. Lahiri depicts the title very well in this story using a series of similes as an observation of visual images – “She had silver eyes and skin as pale as paper, and the contrast with her hair, as dark and glossy as an espresso bean, caused people to describe her as striking, if not pretty.”
Imagery is also depicted in the titular story. Lahiri uses sensual images as a way to support Kapasi’s self-deception that he may have a relation with Mrs. Das. The carvings on the temple of “the countless friezes of entwined naked bodies, making love in various positions” and the frequent images of Mrs. Das’s attire mixed with the unattractive images of Kapasi’s wife creates sexual tension in Kapasi’s mind. In ‘A Temporary Matter’ Lahiri creates a realistic scenario by using everyday details. When Shukumar wakes each morning, he sees Shoba’s “long black hairs”, the armchair in the living room is yellow; the Turkish carpet is blue-and-maroon. Such realism is what separates this story from the titular story. The minute things that Lahiri mentions alienate Shoba and Shukumar more from each other.
Lahiri uses a similar technique in all three stories. All three stories are narrated in third person, and have a tightly controlled point of view. In ‘A Temporary Matter’ the view is limited to Shukumar, in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ it is limited to Kapasi and in ‘Sexy’ the view is limited to Miranda. This technique provides a detailed look into the interior life of most of Lahiri’s characters. Another technique that Lahiri focuses on in these stories is the gender reversal meaning a switching of the roles of men and women. Lahiri creates a world in which women are in charge. In all three stories it is the women protagonists who are active, who confess or initiate the series of confessions.
Lahiri’s tone in her stories are complex and restrained, at the same time implies a negative criticism of most of her characters. Taking the example of the titular story, when describing the Das’s the narrator focuses on many negative aspects of them: the relenting of Mrs. Das, the bickering of the Das’s, and the children’s irritating behavior. This kind of criticism in her stories makes the climax more dramatic.
Focusing our attention to the book as a whole, we see that these three stories play a huge significance. The short stories in the book are not just individual stories but are linked by a variety of themes. It is like a short-story cycle where the themes and motifs balance and compliment each other. For example the unfaithful Dev of ‘Sexy’ is balanced by the unfaithful Mrs. Das of ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. It feels as if the stories are communicating with each other. Confession forms one of the only modes of communication among the characters in these three stories. It forms a mode of communication between these three stories as well. Thus confession plays a major role to the book as a whole.
Confessions also play a major role in defining the closure of Lahiri’s stories. In all three stories, we see that there is no definite closure. Infact we are free to create our own closure, and make our own judgments as to the outcomes suggested by Lahiri’s narratives. For example ‘A Temporary Matter’ ends with the line, “They wept together, for the things they now knew.” We cannot be sure whether Shoba and Shukumar separate from each other or not. Similarly in ‘Sexy’ Miranda’s future is unclear. What we should note is that this type of indefinite closure suits a story with immense drama where the climax forms the denouement of the story.
To conclude I would like to say that Lahiri’s stories are simple, with uncomplicated plots and have variety of thoughts. Confession forms one of the only modes of communication in these stories and plays a huge role to the book as a whole. Confessions have been portrayed in a variety of manners in these stories. They also help in bringing about other themes in these stories such as deception and conflict. The stories are well-seasoned with irony, and Lahiri uses immense imagery to depict different themes. Also the mood of these stories is such that the confessions generate catharsis among the readers.
I feel that reading this text as a novel and not as independent stories will provide us with an in-depth understanding of the text. It will give us a more refined interpretation of the South Asian diaspora. Lahiri paints the worlds of both the immigrant and the native in miniature, allowing for a micro analysis of the characters, at the same time places them in a macro perspective of the universal truth. As the protagonist of ‘The Third and Final Continent’ notes: Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
Interpreter of Maladies takes us beyond our own imaginations and we are all the better for it.