“Interpreter of Maladies” is the title of a 1999 short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri. Born in the US, but of Indian extraction, the collection explores issues of diaspora, culture ritual, otherness and difference. Her prose is spare and her narratives expose the drama in the every day.
This text is from an oral presentation that explores the role that food plays in Lahiri’s collection, as metaphor and cultural signifier. As such the language is less formal than you might usually expect from an academic paper.
Food plays several roles in Jhumpa Lahiri’s work. My intention here is first pick out the main signification before moving on to smaller ways it manifests as meaning in stories featured in Lahiri’s collection “Interpreter of Maladies”. In doing that I think we see some of the themes that run through the other stories too.
There’s an overarching sense throughout this collection that food – its preparation and the rituals of consumption – are representative of the dislocation of Indian culture. Lahiri’s description of the making and then the serving of meals serves as a shorthand for “diaspora” – the transplantation of people from one culture into another.
There’s often a contrast between the food prepared and the settings in which food is eaten.
“You made rogan josh” Shoba observed, looking through the glass lid at the bright paprika stew”
Pg 9 “A Temporary Matter”
Then, a little later, there’s this description of the meat.
“It’s ready,” he announced.
The microwave had just beeped when the lights went out and the music disappeared
The Western technologies of the microwave and HiFi are set here against another life, rich in other ways, where another set of values is important.
I think it’s interesting that when the food is ready, the lights go off. As the story progresses, the couple bond over this shared part of themselves – a shared culture through food – that is at its purest when there’s no electricity to power the “American side” of their lives; the computer Shukumar retreats to when they were both grieving, for example. That’s made explicit in an observation that Shoba makes on page 10 where, as they eat in the dark, she says “It’s like India”
Later, in the story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” – the sense of shared culture between Mr. Pirzada and Lilia’s family is underlined by the meals they take together – even though he is Pakistani and they are Indian. Again, that’s contrasted against the trappings of the culture that they’ve been transplanted into.
“We did not eat at the dining table, because it did not provide an unobstructed view of the television set. Instead, we huddled around the coffee table, without conversing, our plates perched on the edges of our knees. From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in yoghurt sauce”
Pg 30 “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”
And this continues as an almost sensuous description of the meal – one that emphasizes its diversity and exoticism and the family’s identity.. However, by placing the family in front of the television as they eat, it also becomes a metaphor for dislocation and diaspora.
Analysing more deeply, food can be seen to stand in for more specific aspects of, mostly, Indian culture:
Family – especially in When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
Love – in A Temporary Matter
Home – in Mrs Sen’s (which is about Mrs Sen’s house, her world as much as Mrs Sen – hence the possessive apostrophe).
Food is culture, and culture is family, love and home. And of course, most importantly, food is life.
This idea is at its strongest in Lahiri’s work when life ceases to matter to Lahiri’s characters. She demonstrates this by showing that food no longer matters to her protagonists.
For example, food becomes secondary to grief during “A Temporary Matter”, in which Shoba loses the will to cook and it’s up to her partner Shukumar to assume that role.
In one of the collection’s few instances of Western food being eaten – the absence of culture, of family, home or love – and more literally the lack of money – are illustrated by the protagonist’s eatign habits in the last story, The Third and Final Continent
Waiting for his wife to arrive in the States, a student eats nothing but cereal throughout the story. Lahiri describes this in plain, matter of fact terms.
We’re left with the sense that the frugal, convenient consumption of corn flakes is the opposite of the Indian cultural experience that unites families in the collection’s other stories. The protagonist here exists rather than lives.
(An aside here, his landlady Mrs Croft only eats soup. Her daughter turns up and opens cans for her, then she goes. So, the student and Mrs Croft have this “lack” in common. She is at the end of her life, he is waiting for his to begin; they are both alone).
There are a few places where eating food has negative metaphoric connotations – and when that’s the case eating or abandonment of food is the desertion of one’s culture or morality.
In the collection’s key story, Interpreter of Maladies, the abandonment of an Indian staple snack food leads to the story’s focal event.
Mrs. Das – a heavily Westernised Indian woman seeks the counsel of Mr. Kapasi – an“Interpreter of Maladies.”She wants advice about dealing with her feelings about an affair that lead to the birth of her son, while the family are on holiday. The answer she gets is not the validation she’s after – but it is an authentic reflection of her feelings.
What follows is a metaphoric representation of that cultural guilt. She storms off, dropping hot mix behind her like breadbrumbs, trailing her culture behind her. Monkeys follow the trail and find her son at the end of it – then attack him.
Finally, in Interpreter of Maladies there are several mentions of bubble gum. A child tries to feed a goat some gum, Mrs Das offers some to Mr. Kapasi on the ride out – and on the way home a child calms his traumatised brother by offering him gum.
Just as the meals described elsewhere in the collection are iconic of Indian culture, displaced – bubble gum here is Western and particularly American.
The Indian food we Lahiri describes is carefully prepared, colourful and nuanced. In comparison – the gum is pre-packaged, disposable, artificial and provides no nourishment. You can’t even eat it. All you get is a “thick sweet burst of liquid” on the tongue – then it’s over. It’s tasty, but temporary and offers no nutrition.
The intended comparison is clear.