Daily Recco, May 6: Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer-winning debut is light but powerful

Jhumpa Lahiri's award-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies, is a collection of stories that together deal with varied subjects including belonging, loss, identity and nostalgia.

 |  3-minute read |   06-05-2021
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There is usually little of fresh significance that can be said of an artistic work that has received sky-high praise. But this is where Jhumpa Lahiri's debut Interpreter of Maladies continues to shine more than 20 years after it became a breakout success globally. The book of short stories excels at striking a chord of understanding with each individual who reads it depending on their own experiences.


Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories, all by Lahiri. The stories together deal with as varied subjects as belonging, loss, identity, nostalgia and change in prose that is light overall.


Whether it is the story of Boori Ma, the old sweeper of a building who becomes the casualty of the residents' attempts to 'upscale' the property, or that of Mrs Sen, an expat Bengali housewife who meets with an accident on her first attempt to drive to a nearby seafood market, Lahiri's stories hit home precisely because you can sense an overall honesty in them. There are no attempts to 'internationalise' characters or references and there are no stock characters to bridge gaps in understanding.

Lahiri also excels in bringing up the deep scars of the past through the freshest of perspectives. One of the short stories revolves around the relationship between an East Pakistani scholar in the US, who often visits the family from the Indian part of Bengal. The story is told through the eyes of the 10-year-old girl who cannot understand why he is any different from her parents. The story is set in 1971 and grapples with the East Pakistani's growing concern over events back home and their effects on his wife and daughters. When he does manage to return home, it is a whole new country, and he sends a letter and picture informing that everyone is safe. The little girl reveals that she has been praying for him every day in her own way.

Each story in the Interpreter of Maladies is perhaps rooted in Lahiri's own heritage, upbringing and multicultural identity. And that is what made it such a fresh read when it came out in 1999. The book won two prestigious awards — the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Award. It is estimated to have sold over 15 million copies and has been translated into at least 20 languages. If that is not a testament to the fact that it holds appeal across multiple cultures and geographies, nothing is.

Interpreter of Maladies is a must-read. It is a testament to the fact that whenever tropes and styles become too entrenched, there will emerge a storyteller who could break the collective consciousness out of its stasis. In this case, it was Jhumpa Lahiri who interpreted that malady.

Also read: Meet Hamnet, Shakespeare's son


Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

The author writes on wildlife, environment, gender issues, science, health, books and a host of other topics. A professional journalist and a passionate environmentalist. Former Assistant Editor, DailyO.

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