Sometimes we end up reading an author backwards, like Merlins travelling through literary space-time, always encountering younger, less experienced versions of the writer. I have long enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, and here I am reading her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. So if I seem underwhelmed by these compared to the praise I’ve sung of her work in the past, it’s probably because her talents have only grown since she wrote these. That, and although I did enjoy these stories, and I think a short story collection was actually the right choice to read at this time, maybe these particular stories weren’t quite what I wanted.
As with most of Lahiri’s work, these stories are very focused looks at the lives of people living in India or members of the Indian diaspora in the US. Beyond these general similarities, there is a great deal of variety. Some of the main characters are poor, marginalized, or reviled. Some are privileged, well-off, educated. Some are immigrants to the States, others were born there and are learning about or ignorant of their heritage. In each case, Lahiri’s portraits sketch out different possibilities for life within these interconnected but different subcultures. As someone who is a complete outsider, it’s fascinating.
Perhaps this is one area in which short story collections outperform novels, despite the latter remaining my One True Literary Love … short stories allow an author to explore so many more “what ifs”. Whenever depicting non-Western cultures in fiction for the consumption of a Western audience, there is the potential to collapse these cultures into neat and tidy microcosms: to represent “Indian culture” instead of one of the many diverse, multivariate Indian cultures. While Lahiri, for reasons of her own heritage or knowledge and familiarity, often returns to fairly similar roots (most of her characters are Bengali, for instance), she nevertheless manages to acknowledge that there is more at work here than a monoculture. Each story takes us on a different journey, provides a different lens—and that’s definitely one of the most powerful things an author can do with a short story collection.
My favourite story is the last one: “The Third and Final Continent”. It made me tear up, especially towards the end. It’s about a young man who immigrates to the US immediately following his arranged marriage in India. He has a job at MIT and boards with a persnickety woman who, he eventually discovers, is over 100. There’s just something about the brief intergenerational interactions in this one, and the way it relates to his nascent relationship with his wife, once she joins him in the States, that I find very beautiful. I think, also, the montage towards the end, where they grow older and we glimpse their lives over the decades, is reassuring and comforting to me at a time in my life where some things about the future are a little uncertain.
I also enjoyed “Mrs. Sen’s” even though I saw the ending coming. I think it was the way Lahiri told the story through the child’s eyes, thus removing a lot of the narration from the concerns of the adult world and filtering it down to a child’s recollections and experiences.
The other stories are each moving and thoughtful in their own ways, but they didn’t stand out to me as much as those two.
In the end, Interpreter of Maladies is a strong collection of short stories. It’s what I look for when I read this type of fiction: meaningful characters, slow development, a telling that focuses on the whys and hows rather than the whats and whos. Lahiri’s prose is, even in this first collection, beautiful and on point. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as her later works, I still enjoyed it a good deal.