Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies Introduction

It's 1999, and a young Bengali/Indian American author named Jhumpa Lahiri publishes her first work: a collection of nine short stories focused on the Bengali/Indian immigrant experience. Many of the stories had been previously published in magazines and literary reviews, but they come together as Interpreter of Maladies, named after of one of the stories in the collection.

Lahiri's book is a smashing success. With her literary debut, she wins the 1999 O. Henry Award and the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Reviewers rave. And she's featured on Oprah's Top Ten booklist (we all know what that means: this book went on to sell 15 million copies.)

We can see why.

These nine stories are about the contemporary Indian immigrant, but they sidestep all the stereotypes associated with "minority" or "ethnic" literature. The stories are truly global (she sets stories in India, not just in America), but they feel local. Why? Because they are such intimate explorations of a specific character or event.

You might not think you can relate to her characters since they appear so different at first, but then you find yourself understanding, even relating, to all sorts of people:

  • an old gatekeeper who gets tossed out of the building she looks after
  • a wife feeling lonely and disoriented in a new and unfamiliar home and culture
  • the young college grad who gets into an affair with a married man
  • the immigrant who's just a decent, honest man with decent, honest goals

Lahiri's main characters are all always flawed—but what redeems them (and maybe us) is how familiarly human they are. These characters require us to feel empathy because they do things that we might do too.

This collection shows us the wide scope of human experience across continents and cultures through the unique tales of people who live that experience every day. How does Lahiri accomplish all this in just nine short stories?

Read on.

What is Interpreter of Maladies About and Why Should I Care?

We could convince you that reading Lahiri's stories make you more deeply human (which they do), or that these stories will make you feel smarter and more profound (which they will), but that's not why you're here.

You're here to get the real scoop on why you should read Interpreter of Maladies, so here it is: these stories teach you how to write.

"Wait…what?" you're thinking. "You mean if I read Interpreter of Maladies, I too will become a famous fiction writer?"

Well, that we can't promise.

But what the book does do is show you how to use the English language to structure—not just create—characters, moods, thoughts, stories, a whole book. And even if you're not interested in fiction, Lahiri's writing still shows you what a brilliantly clear sentence in English looks like. And that, readers, is no small feat.

Reading these stories can inspire you, not just to view humanity in a "We are the World" way, but to communicate with simplicity, too. Lahiri isn't about verbal gymnastics and linguistic fireworks; her writing is more like a humble candle that works hard to briefly illuminate a room. It's writing that's beautiful because it's accessible.

Of course, that means you have to do more than read the book—you have to pay attention to the way she writes. Lucky for you, she makes the whole business of reading pleasurable rather than torturous.

The final perk? If you take on Lahiri's writing as a model, every humanities teacher you ever have from now on will love you because your essays will be little gems of clarity in the middle of a stack of confused drudgery. Trust us on this one.

Interpreter of Maladies Resources

WEBSITES

Ha Jin, Lahiri's classmate
You might be wondering why a page all about Jhumpa Lahiri features an interview with acclaimed Chinese/American writer Ha Jin. But did you know that Jhumpa Lahiri was in the same fiction-writing workshop as Ha Jin? And that she liked one of the stranger stories he wrote for the class? Great minds, thinking alike…

Random House
The official website for Jhumpa Lahiri.

Jhumpa Lahiri's Facebook Page
And here's the other "official" website…

Interpreter of Maladies's Facebook Page
You know you've really made it if even your book has its own Facebook page.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Namesake
No movie's been made of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies, so while you're waiting for that to happen, just sit back and watch the movie adaptation of Lahiri's novel The Namesake.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

NYTimes Goes Gaga for Lahiri
For a super-positive take on Lahiri's book, check out this review.

PBS Interview
An interview with Jhumpa Lahiri about Interpreter of Maladies—very research-paper worthy.

Pif Magazine Interview
An interview that gets Lahiri talking about some of her lesser-known stories.

How Jhumpa Lahiri Writes
Want to write like Jhumpa Lahiri? Here's her guide to doing just that.

"Cooking Lessons"
You can't get this article for free. Look at it this way though: if you do decide to shell out some bucks and subscribe to the New Yorker, or if someone in your family already does, you'll get access to literary gems like this personal essay on cooking with her mother by Lahiri herself.

VIDEO

Excerpt from Charlie Rose Interview
Live interviews FTW.

Nickelodeon Clip
Nickelodeon made a video clip celebrating Lahiri's ability to transcend cultures.

AUDIO

NPR's interview with Lahiri
And of course NPR has something for us.

IMAGES

Covers
Like all covers of famous books, this one's gone through a few evolutions. Check out the earliest here.

Maps of Partition
A series of maps of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as the area went through Partition:

Political Map of India
Click on any of the states or territories and the site will give you a summary of the politics of that region. Or just sit back and take in the whole big picture.

Oh Boston, my Boston
Maybe these are some reasons why Lahiri's likes Boston settings.

The Sun Temple at Konarak (or Konark)
This is what the Das family visited:

The Caves at Udayagiri and Khandagiri
Another Das family jaunt.