Topic: “Treatment of Women and Diasporic Women in Jhumpa Lahiri’s the Interpreter of Maladies”
Jhumpa Lahiri, who is an Indian by ancestry, British by birth and American by immigration, is acknowledged as one of the eminent women writers in Indian English literature. Being an immigrant Lahiri is interested in the large section of new generation Indian Americans their traditions values and relationships and the significance of family and how it ties man to his homeland. Lahiri’s immigrant characters have a double vision and assert their identity in a bicultural universe. Her works portray the many issues that Indians settled abroad face in America. In her short stories, she deals with questions of identity, alienation and the plight of those who are culturally displaced. She vividly shows the estrangement and isolation that often afflict first- and even second-generation immigrants.
In the diasporic identity discussion of four of the stories of the collection in which women have a more central role, namely “Mrs. Sen”, “This Blessed House”, “The Treatment of Bibi Heldar” and “Sexy”, the following essay draws on ideas, theories and key words of two major postcolonial theorists. Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose concerns with postcolonial cultural-identity crisis and cultural hybridity on the one hand and the predicament of female subaltern on the other hand, make them most relevant and beneficial to the concerns of the present study.
In the same way, her novel The Namesake focuses on the contrasting experiences of the two generations of expatriate Ashoke and Ashima who are not inclined towards getting Americanized, while Gogol and Sonia, their children face the need to belong. It’s a great tribute to Indian women who leave their country and spent their best years of their lives in home for their children and husband.
Lahiri uses her acute powers of observation, together with her personal experiences, to create stories that transport readers to an imaginary landscape, exploring and exposing the frailties common to all of humanity. She always tries to show that motherhood is a glorious stage for a woman but for a migrant in a foreign alien land, loneliness and strange surroundings nearly kill such feelings. Similarly, woman in Indian English fiction is depicted as the silent sufferer and upholder of the tradition and traditional values of family and society. The first generation immigrants feel proud to their cultural past and did not like to violate their cultural past while the second generation expresses its aberrations and deviations and does not demand it or demonstrate it. The older immigrants are always reminded of the words of their family elders when they left India.
According to the definition of the Oxford Learners’ Dictionary, “Diaspora indicates a group of people who live outside the area in which they had lived for a long time or in which their ancestors lived.” The main diaspora began in the 8th-6th centuries bc, and even before the sack of Jerusalem in ad 70 the number of Jews dispersed by the diaspora was greater than that living in Israel. Thereafter, Jews were dispersed even more widely throughout the Roman world and beyond.
Diasporic writings occupy a place of great significance between countries and cultures. Theories are generated and positions defined in order to construct new identities which further negotiate boundaries and confines that relate to different temporary and spatial metaphors. This movement causes the dislocation and locations of cultures and individuals harp upon memories. Diasporic writers live on the margins of two countries and create cultural theories.
Interestingly, the terms ‘diaspora’, ‘exile’ alienation’, ‘expatriation’, are synonymous and possess an indefinite status of being both a refugee and an ambassador. The two roles being different, the diasporic writers attempt at doing justice to both. As a refugee, he seeks security and protection and as an ambassador projects his own culture and helps enhance its comprehensibility.
The chief characteristic features of the diasporic writings are the quest for identity, uprooting and re-rooting, insider and outsider syndrome, nostalgia, nagging sense of guilt etc. The diasporic writers turn to their homeland for various reasons; e.g. For Naipaul who is in a perpetual quest for his roots turns to India for the same. Rushdie visits India to mythologize its history. Mistry visits and re-visits India for a kind of re-vitalization and to re-energize his aching soul. Bharati Mukherjee’s childhood memories harken her time and again. All the same it is necessary to realize the importance of cultural encounter, the bicultural pulls which finally helps in the emergence of the new culture. The diasporic writings also known as the ‘theory of migrancy’ helps generate aesthetic evaluation, negotiate with cultural constructs and aid the emergence of a new hybridity.
Indian Diasporic writings help in many ways and is a powerful network connecting the entire globe. Diasporic literature helps in the circulation of information and in solving many problems too. It helps to re-discover the commonality and inclusiveness of India. This literature works as a channel to strength the bonds between the different states of India and of India in relation with the other countries at large. It also serves as an outlet to the pent up passions, emotions and feelings, providing a ventilator to grievances and grudges. In other words diasporie literature helps as a cathartic indignation. The diasporic writings have also helped in casting a new aura around global India and have also contributed in building a novel image of India abroad. All this helps in strengthening bonds between various countries and they begin to relate through historical, cultural, social, traditional and economic ties.
In the writings of Lahiri, we have observed that Lahiri’s stories have their own self-contained plot and characters but they are linked in ways that bind the collection together as a complete entity. Lahiri’s most of the stories revolve around people who are either Indian in India, Indian in the United States or Americans of Indian descent. Further, the stories can be separated into distinct groupings and associations, based on their relation to Indian culture.
Lahiri always explores the elements of Indian society that have not been muted or changed by association with the outside world. The title story, ‘An Interpreter of Maladies’, not only illustrates the main theme uniting the stories, the ‘maladies’ that afflict Lahiri’s various characters, but also bridges the geographic divide between the subcontinent of India and continental North America.
Another grouping concerns first-generation Indians who are inevitably alienated from American culture because they have left the land in which they were born and raised. Mrs Sen, while still quite young, is made to seem old because she cannot adapt to life in America. She is a completely displaced person who yearns only for India and makes no attempt to assimilate. Similarly, Mr. Pirzada lives in America but is completely absorbed by what is happening in the war in his homeland, where his wife and children still reside. The largest grouping of her stories centers on marriage and relationships, particularly the arranged marriages that underpin Indian society. ‘A Temporary Matter’, ‘Sexy’, ‘This Blessed House’ and ‘The Third and Final Continent’, while also portraying memorable characters struggling to adapt to American culture, dwell on the intricacies of marriage and the difficulties that all individuals have in adapting to life as a family.
Again, Lahiri has been celebrated as one of the new-voices in Indian diaspora literature. Her works revolve around the life of Indians, particularly Bengalis, in America and Europe. Lahiri’s approach in describing females is existentialist. Lahiri’s characters, especially female characters, provide an interesting background to interpret existentialism. Similarly, she has mentioned the activities and real situation of the migrants. Lahiri’s female characters support with the existentialist principles as they struggle amidst cultural pangs to create identity.
The parents of Jhumpa Lahiri were born in India and she is of Indian descent. She was born in London but grew up in Rhode Island. From her childhood, she often accompanied her parents back to India – particularly to Calcutta. Her father worked as a librarian and her mother remained a traditional Indian wife. Lahiri began writing at the age of seven, co-writing stories with her best friend in primary school. She abandoned writing fiction as an adolescent, and lacked the confidence to resume the pursuit during her university years. Now Lahiri lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
There are numerous groups of people in the postcolonial world which is highly marked by globalization. Here the transnational migration has turned into a fact of life. Generally, the groups of people always negotiate across the national borders to reach to their promised land. In order to preserve their customs and culture the people all of whom share the same homeland, and they want to recreate the familiar sort of surroundings much associated with their idea of their homeland form communities through which they can hold on to their roots.
Normally, identities are considered as a process, as performed, and as unstable. So, subjects of Diasporas are snared in a process of transformation and repositioning of new identities – identities which are always in the process of becoming and transition but never complete. In the diasporic experience then, “boundaries of the self” are as fluid as ever and this is when the postcolonial concepts of “hybridity”, “liminality” come to the foreground. Homi K. Bhabha in his The Location of Culture (1994) subverts the long-held binary way of thinking about cultural identity in terms of the yawning gap between Self/Other and proposes a hybrid version of identity according to which the Self is present in the other and vice versa. Notions such as “hybridity” and “liminality” seem to be much relevant to the present reading of Lahiri’s stories when one learns that the “liminal” identity is to be found in some “particular (postcolonial) social spaces” (Huddart 5) like the multicultural American society where, due to the constant confrontation of cultural clashes, the Self/Other polarity is constantly threatened; the frontiers are transgressed and people struggle in the process of creating new identities. It is this attention to the situation and predicaments of female immigrant as distinct from her male counterpart that makes Spivak’s views and concerns particularly relevant to Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.
In Lahiri’s writings we have seen that she builds her characters around the immigrant experience and the cultural divide between America and India. At the same time she paints, with sympathy and understanding, indelible characters who experience the pain and suffering of ordinary people. In the title story, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ (pp.43–69), Mr Kapasi is a character who signifies the deep divide between the culture of American-born Indians and that of Indians living in India. As the Das family’s tourist guide, he is constantly bemused by the fact that these people ‘looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did’ (pp.43–4).
Patience is as essential in both to cultural harmony and within relationships. Lahiri has observed it deeply and through ‘This Blessed House’ she explores both the complications of an arranged marriage and the adjustments that must be made to accommodate a couple’s disparate personalities within any relationship. Sanjeev obviously prefers his bachelor existence ‘when he would walk each evening across the Mass. He and Twinkle are completely mismatched: he prefers an orderly existence, while Twinkle is lazy, slovenly and careless of convention. Further, she was ‘excited and delighted by little things as if the world contained hidden wonders’ (p.142). These qualities make Sanjeev ‘feel stupid’, because he does not understand her zest for life. When Twinkle becomes obsessed with the Christian artefacts left behind by a previous owner in their new house, Sanjeev becomes even more uptight wondering what the ‘people from the office’ (p.139) will make of these Christian symbols in a Hindu house. He hates the fact that Twinkle is fascinated with them, but in the face of her refusal to abandon them he concedes that he ‘will tolerate’ her ‘little biblical menagerie’ (p.139). This is a further sign that he will accommodate Twinkle’s excesses for the sake of harmony. He continues to clear up after her, but their differences become obvious when he plays Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as a romantic gesture only to have Twinkle advise him that if he wants ‘to impress people’ he should not ‘play this music’ (p.140). The charms of the ‘tender fourth movement’ (p.140) are completely lost on Twinkle.
The couple had met ‘only four months before’ (p.142), and were brought together by the wishes of their parents. This is the situation at the heart of their story, for their obvious differences soon become apparent: Sanjeev is the son of parents who live in Calcutta, while Twinkle is a second-generation American. This basic cultural difference is a further obstacle to their establishment of a successful relationship. Sanjeev had been lonely in America and Twinkle had recently been abandoned by an American man. Brought together by the parents, they believed they had some things in common such as a ‘persistent fondness for Wodehouse novels’ (p.143). With this comment, Lahiri shows her sense of the absurd. To make a marriage work, especially from culturally diverse backgrounds, she shows that a great deal of adjustment and compromise must take place on both sides, and also that tolerance extends beyond a mere shared passion for an author. Sanjeev does not know if he loves Twinkle, although he has chosen her above all the other Indian brides that were suggested to him. He is clearly mesmerized by her, but ‘did not know what love was, only what he thought it was not’ (p.147). In Twinkle, he asks himself, ‘what was there not to love?’
Lahiri shows that in any relationship the two people must be able to learn to tolerate each other’s differences. This is even more so in an arranged marriage, where the couple must develop mutual love and respect.
Many of Lahiri’s stories feature an underlying pattern of human consideration:
- Shoba and Shukumar eventually develop mutual compassion in ‘A Temporary Matter’.
- Lilia learns compassion through Mr Pirzada’s enforced separation from his family (‘When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine’).
- Miranda learns to value herself through her feelings of compassion for the boy Rohin (‘Sexy’).
- d. Eliot feels compassion for Mrs Sen although, in contrast, his mother does not (‘Mrs Sen’s’).
- The narrator, although he does not fully understand her, feels a connection with Mrs Croft based on compassion.
Titles are important in any text, but Lahiri’s carefully-chosen titles often provide clues as to the stories’ content, as well as important information about character; they can also lead directly to the substance of the narrative. The title ‘Sexy’, for example, keys us into a character’s fundamental misunderstanding of the precise meaning of this word, while ‘A Temporary Matter’ refers to the event that sets the central plot in motion. Language and narrative point of view Lahiri’s precise and spare prose is stripped of any florid phrases, and the adjectives and adverbs provide specific details rather than merely embellishing her writing. She has said that ‘I just want to get it less – get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can’. While the language in this short story collection is functional, it still creates a sense of beauty and wholeness. For most of her stories, Lahiri has chosen a third-person omniscient narrative structure. In this way, she can present her characters from an outsider’s point of view. For ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’ and the closing story, however, the first-person narrative voice lends immediacy to the poignancy of the speakers’ experiences.
Lahiri builds her characters around the immigrant experience and the cultural divide between America and India. At the same time she paints, with sympathy and understanding, indelible characters who experience the pain and suffering of ordinary people. In the title story, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, Mr Kapasi is a character who signifies the deep divide between the culture of American-born Indians and that of Indians living in India. As the Das family’s tourist guide, he is constantly bemused by the fact that these people ‘looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did’.
It is the doubt of the ending that leads to different interpretations in ‘A Temporary Matter’. The marriage of the young couple, Shoba and Shukumar, has fallen apart after the stillbirth of their son. As a result of this tragedy, their previously happy relationship has become dysfunctional to the extent that their marriage seems to be only ‘a temporary matter’. Shoba is unable to deal with her disappointment and grief at losing her baby, and has projected her anger and frustration onto her husband because he was absent at the time of her labour. They have lost touch with one another in their relationship, as Shoba silently blames Shukumar for the tragedy; Shoba’s increasing workload serves as an outlet for her frustration and further extends the marital discord. Like many mothers in her situation, she is unable to understand that Shukumar is equally grief-stricken. She has become sloppy in her appearance and has abandoned her traditional role as an Indian wife. At the same time, Shukumar, ‘still a student at thirty-five’, has increasingly allowed himself to use the house as a kind of prison in his despair at both the loss of the child and the breakdown of their marriage. He feels helpless and lonely. When the couple receive a notice that their electricity will be disconnected every evening ‘for one hour’, Shukumar makes an effort to create a romantic ambience by using candles to illuminate their dinner. They begin to reconnect in the darkness through confessions of ‘the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves’. ‘Something happened when the house was dark’ and by the fourth night they were able, tentatively, to rekindle their relationship. Interpretation 1: The relationship ends In ‘A Temporary Matter’, Lahiri presents a sad view of a marriage destroyed by grief and misunderstanding.
The relationship ends when Shoba confesses that she had been ‘looking for an apartment’ and has now found one. She thought they had been ‘through enough’, that it was ‘nobody’s fault’. Shukumar is both ‘relieved’ at the release and yet ‘sickened’ that she had been playing a game all along while knowing that their marriage was only ‘a temporary matter’.
Many reviewers have interpreted this as the ending of the marriage, but the story’s last pages suggest a quite different interpretation. Interpretation 2: The relationship continues ‘A Temporary Matter’ is a narrative about the ability of a relationship to survive overwhelming grief and despair. Shoba’s confession leads to a further revelation by Shukumar. Both Shoba and her mother had assumed Shukumar to be a heartless, absent father; instead, however, he had ‘arrived early enough to see their baby and to hold him before they cremated him’. The poignancy of the situation is revealed when he tells his wife that the baby was a boy and describes him for the grieving mother. He says that he had not told her because she had wanted the sex of the baby to be a ‘mystery’. Now in their shared grief they ‘wept together, for the things they now knew’. Thus, their estrangement is over and they are able to regard their rift as ‘a temporary matter’.
This interpretation is a much more emotionally satisfying ending. The motif of the ‘temporary matter’ means that it is their separation, and not their marriage, that is temporary. This is reinforced by Shoba’s declaration that she ‘needed some time alone’, not that she wants a termination of their relationship. Shukumar’s simple declaration implies that this will not now be necessary. If we view the stories as a complete entity, as we must, we can conclude that the tenor of the work is not as bleak as the first interpretation suggests. Although Lahiri quite often leaves us to make our own conclusions, her vision is generally a positive one.
Generally, we gain a sense of identity through family, society and culture. For the culturally displaced, this is a difficult endeavor. Lahiri points out that, communication is essential, both for societies and for individuals within society. Lack of communication and miscommunication often lead her characters to feel emotionally isolated and to suffer from cultural displacement. This is particularly true for immigrants who feel divided between the customs of their homeland and those of their adopted society. For Mrs Sen ‘everything is there’– that is, in India – and she cannot assimilate to life in America. Although her Indian cooking practices function as the obvious symbol of her lack of adjustment, her separation from her family is at the heart of her alienation. She waits fretfully for the ‘blue aerogram’ that brings news from the family, an anxiety that Eliot finds ‘incomprehensible’. Her alienation is heightened because she is unable to communicate successfully even with her husband, as Mr Sen has not understood her feelings of isolation and simply expects her to be able to cope alone. Her failure to learn to drive is the motif through which Lahiri demonstrates Mrs Sen’s ongoing sense of cultural displacement. After the accident, she becomes even more isolated. Lahiri explores the idea that identity, especially for immigrants, is something that must be sought. Lahiri’s female characters can be roughly divided into two categories. First, those who accept ethnic identity and embrace the inherited values transferred to them by their parents and society. These females are first generation Indian immigrants in America. Second category is of those young women who are born-and grown-in-America. They disregard their ethnic identity and create a personal identity of their choice. In both the categories personal choices of the female subjects claim superiority, so they must be held responsible for whatever comes in their way. While the female characters in the former category accept walls and find so lace in abiding by culture, ethnicity and values; the latter break the walls of culture, ethnicity and values, and venture forth exhibiting global attitude. It must be reiterated that females in both the categories face difficulties in negotiating the identities they have chosen.
In the short story titled “Mrs. Sen” that appears in her short story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies. Mrs. Sen is unable to cope with the western ways of life. She feels alienated and remains marginalized as assimilation in western culture seems impossible to her. In the story when Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, Lilia’s mother too intends to maintain a safe distance from western culture. The elderly mothers that appear in the stories in Unaccustomed Earth also display similar psychological traits and endure alienation.
All these first generation immigrant female characters of Lahiri accept to migrate to west with their husbands but, upon reaching west they realize cultural differences and loss of roots. They marginalize themselves due to their delayed adaptation and suffer. They embrace Indian ethnic identity in foreign-land, and hence feel difficulties in cultural discourses. Their inability to assimilate with the society and culture of the land they live in makes their times troubling.
The females in the second category are the children of immigrants. These women grow up in western society hence feel uncomfortable with their ethnic Indian identity. Indian culture proves suffocating to them. They feel homely with American/western lifestyle and emphasize on individualism. Ironically, all these females who uphold individualism suffer resistance to their freewill at their home, that too by their mothers! They break the ethnic walls but get least support by females at home! In the novel The Namesake Moushumi swears in her adolescence to not to marry any Indian but her vow is never supported by her mother.
The novella “Hema and Kaushik” in the collection Unaccustomed Earth exhibits existentialism in the best way. It supports individualism and focuses the difficulties that come in the way of creating individual identity. It projects the circumstances that are created by the characters, which after wards rule them.
The females belonging to the second category are more assertive than their predecessor. They realize that they have to stand forthrightly to create their identity and set goals for their life. They break the walls. They assert their individual identity and personal choices. But, their act of crossing the boundaries doesn’t bring happiness to them.
On the other hand, the first generation immigrant females do not like to cross the ethical boundaries. They strive to continue with their ethnic values and identity, and are ready to pay for it. Boori Maa migrates to India but her life grows pathetic. Her litanies tell about her affection towards her past which makes her an object of ridicule. Ashima’s expectations from children, self-imposed marginalization and divided loyalties make her suffer throughout her life. Ashima symbolically goes homeless as in the end of the novel the reader is informed that she would stay both in Calcutta and in America for six months each- Almost all first generation immigrant female characters portrayed by Lahiri lead a self-imposed isolated life.
The second generation has to struggle a lot to forge their way, yet they create their own identity. But, both suffer. Their sufferings are largely generated due to their own mental moorings. The stories and novels remain open-ended, signifying the existence of unlimited choices and directions which characters can choose.
The characters in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake flit from Calcutta to the States, their subject usually the big move and its immediate aftermath – the experiences of Lahiri’s parents’ generation. In the eight stories that make up Unaccustomed Earth, she focuses on the lives of the children, who’ve grown up in the American education system, have sometimes married non-Indians, yet cannot escape the burden of parental traditions. In “Only Goodness”, the central character Sudha has always conformed, at least superficially, to her Bengali-American parents’ rigorous standards.
Lahiri’s prominent female characters and their nuisances can be observed in the light of two famous existentialist precepts. The first is coined by existentialist philosopher Simon De Beauvoir, who propounded, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”
Lahiri’s fiction does not present female characters as the subject of male chauvinism or victims of masculine oppressions. Rather they have to fight against the issues that emerge from themselves. Her female characters create their own identity and choose the life of their choice. Hence, they themselves are responsible for their success, failure, struggle and triumph. At this juncture of thought, Lahiri appears more existentialist than a feminist or a ‘writer of diaspora sensibilities’.
Lahiri’s female characters can be roughly divided into two categories. First, those who accept ethnic identity and embrace the inherited values transferred to them by their parents and society. These females are first generation Indian immigrants in America. Second category is of those young women who are born-and grown-in-America. They disregard their ethnic identity and create a personal identity of their choice. In both the categories personal choices of the female subjects claim superiority, so they must be held responsible for whatever comes in their way. While the female characters in the former category accept walls and find solace in abiding by culture, ethnicity and values; the latter break the walls of culture, ethnicity and values, and venture forth exhibiting global attitude. It must be reiterated that females in both the categories face difficulties in negotiating the identities they have chosen.
In the novel The Namesake, Ashima chooses to move abroad with her husband Ashoke and opts to be a house wife. Her housewife-identity is largely shaped due to her belief in roots. She chooses to be a housewife in Massachusetts despite getting chances to adopt any professional identity. Being an NRI is cumbersome to her as she feels lonely and alien inwestern culture. Same is the case with Mrs. Sen in the short story titled “Mrs. Sen” that appears in her short story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies. Mrs. Sen is unable to cope with the western ways of life. She feels alienated and remains marginalized as assimilation in western culture seems impossible to her. In the story when Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, Lilia’s mother too intends to maintain a safe distance from western culture. The elderly mothers that appear in the stories in Unaccustomed Earth also display similar psychological traits and endure alienation. All these first generation immigrant female characters of Lahiri accept to migrate to west with their husbands but, upon reaching west they realize cultural differences and loss of roots. They marginalize themselves due to their delayed adaptation and suffer. They embrace Indian ethnic identity in foreign-land, and hence feel difficulties in cultural discourses. Their inability to assimilate with the society and culture of the land they live in makes their times troubling.
It is seen that Lahiri’s female characters engage in creating identities thereby emphasizing on individualism. They noisily assert that meaning of life and suffering both depends on individual and the agencies that engage in constructing identity. Lahiri explains that creation of identity has to endure resistance. It must also be reiterated that Lahiri does not differ between female and women as existentialists do. She emphasizes that inability to adapt and adopt creates marginalization and sub-alternate.
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