Prepare a box of Kleenex because, even though there are nine different narrators in the book, they all have—at some point—a mournful quality to their narration. That's because everyone seems to encounter some kind of grievous loss.
The first story actually ends with weeping: "They wept together, for the things they now knew" (ATM 104). Notice, by the way, that this story ends much the same way that "Mrs. Sen's" ends, with a narrator who observes—at middling distance—the sadness of the whole situation.
Eliot, for instance, "looked out the kitchen window, at gray waves receding from the shore, and said that he was fine" (MS 129). The "gray waves" from this story and the weeping from "A Temporary Matter" show us that these characters are definitely not "fine."
The narrators of most of the stories (especially the first one) are getting you to lower your expectations for happiness, not just in these stories, but for life in general. Marriages end, parents neglect us, children die, and families are separated. Somehow, through all this, Lahiri keeps us reading.
You know how Boori Ma just gets tossed out of her building and no one cares? Well, the only person who might isn't even a person; it's the narrator. And in this case, "care" might be too strong a word because the narrator really isn't in the business of feeling.
The narrator's just observing, from a distance, what happens to Boori Ma at the end: "So the residents tossed her bucket and rags, her baskets and reed broom, down the stairwell, past the letter boxes, through the collapsible gate, and into the alley. Then they tossed out Boori Ma" (ARD 75).
Notice the "so" and the "then"? It's as if what happens to Boori Ma is just a part of a logical, linear chain of events. One thing happens and then another thing happens after that. It's a tragic and shocking ending told in a very detached way.
That's pretty much the same tone as the narration in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar." But in that story, Bibi manages to make the chain of events work in her favor. The collective "we" narrators create this tone because they focus on the practical steps Bibi and the community take to help Bibi and her son survive:
Within a month Bibi had recuperated from the birth, and with the money that Haldar had left her, she had the storage room white-washed, and placed padlocks on the window and doors. Then she dusted the shelves and arranged the leftover potions and lotions, selling Haldar's old inventory at half price. She told us tospread word of the sale, and we did. (TBH 52)
The passage goes on, but you get the point. Bibi and the community take whatever steps necessary, one after another.
You know how you feel when you stare at something huge, like the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls? Like the world is so much larger and amazing than you could ever imagine?
That's the feeling you get in the more uplifting moments in Interpreter of Maladies, especially the ending to the last one: "Still there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination" (TFC 151).
The narrator is full of wonder at experiencing so much of the world, step by step, meal by meal, person by person. Notice all the "each"s? They show how much can be accomplished through small, individual ventures.
And here's Miranda at the end of "Sexy": "The Mapparium was closed, but she bought a cup of coffee nearby and sat on one of the benches in the plaza outside the church, gazing at its giant pillars and its massive dome, and at the clear-blue sky spread over the city" (S 190).
Maybe moments like this are what keep us reading in the face of some seriously bleak stories in the collection—and, by extension, what keep us going in the face of the bleak moments in life.
Imagine that your whole life is about your home. Imagine that's your life because you're from an immigrant family (or a family with immigrant roots) living in sub/urban America.
Of course you're going to have family drama: there's nothing else to focus on then the minutiae of everyday life, whether it's Mrs. Sen and her problem with driving, or Mr. and Mrs. Das bickering about whose turn it is to take their daughter to the bathroom while on vacation in India.
Then there are Shoba and Shukumar as well as Sanjeev and Twinkle: couples who are dealing with the problem and possibility of creating a new family together. Couples who find out that they really don't have matching visions of what a family should even consist of (kids? no kids?).
The only family without drama? The family in "The Third and Final Continent." But that's only because we see everything from one point of view—the husband's.
There might not be any knights and holy grails in this book, but there are plenty of characters in search of … something. The narrator in the last story isn't exactly on a grand quest: he just wants to live the American Dream of a house and a stable family. He gets that dream without too much trauma, but he's a rarity in the book. The other characters in the book end up having to suffer various forms of loss in order to achieve their goals. To have a family of her own and be cured of her illness, Bibi ends up having to experience abandonment and then rape. Miranda has her first major heartbreak in order to gain some self-respect. Mrs. Sen doesn't even get what she wants (her fresh fish); instead she gets into a car accident and loses her babysitting job.
Quests aren't easy; they're full of obstacles and few people survive unscathed, even if we're only talking about places as tame as an American suburb.
Coming-of-age stories aren't just for or about kids. Sometimes adults need to grow up too. Like Shukumar or Bibi—both of them act like children who still need to be taken care of; that is, until they're forced to grow up. In Shukumar's case, Shoba tells him she wants to leave the marriage; in Bibi's case, a rape and parenthood force her to become self-sufficient.
Growing up, no matter how you dice it, is painful business, especially for the real kids in the book—Lilia and Eliot. Lahiri shows us that becoming an adult can involve coping with absence (Lilia loses Mr. Pirzada) and loneliness (Eliot loses Mrs. Sen).
Here's a case where we actually know the exact origins of the title. Lahiri chose the title because of a friend of hers who worked as an interpreter in a doctor's office in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Go ahead and check the story out yourself.)
But what's the larger significance of the title? We'll direct you to the title story, in which Mr. Kapasi talks to Mrs. Das about his second job as an interpreter for a doctor. Mrs. Das thinks Mr. Kapasi's job as an interpreter is "romantic" (Interpreter of Maladies 61), "a big responsibility" (IM 75).
Think of those two concepts she names—romance and responsibility—as threads that run through the entire collection. Every story in Interpreter of Maladies weighs the risks of pursuing one's romantic nature against the demands of reality. Which is the heavier burden? Which leads to a more fulfilling life—the romantic dream or the responsibilities of everyday life?
Now consider the function of the interpreter: what kind of responsibility does an interpreter have to his or her audience? Isn't all storytelling a kind of interpretation, freighted with the same risks? And aren't all stories stories about "maladies," whether real or imagined? You could say we're all sufferers from the malady of figuring out how to connect with the people around us. And we think Lahiri is an amazing interpreter.
Until the final story, we've gotta say the stories have more than their share of disillusionment and despair. You have characters losing babies, being separated from their families, being rejected, abandoned, raped.
But then there's "The Third and Final Continent": a simple story that doesn't try to be more than it is. Just the reminiscence of a kind, honest man who works hard at his job, pays his rent on time, and takes care of his wife and son in a Boston suburb.
That's why the last lines of the story and book are so touching. The narrator admits: "I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first" (TFC 151). Honest, humble, self-aware.
Then the narrator moves from using simple, short sentences to using a sentence that takes up about three lines—a sentence that just exudes the wonder of being human through lots of repetition: "Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept" (TFC 151).
What does being human mean here? It means all the little things a person does in his or her daily life—walking, working, eating, sleeping.
That's a way different measure of human progress and achievement than the "mere hours" the astronauts spend "on the moon" (TFC 151). In other words, the narrator challenging that idea of human progress and basically saying, "Hey, let's give props to what we little people do down here on Earth every day. And being in it for the long haul."
The narrator is awed by the ordinariness of life: "As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination" (TFC 151). And we don't know about you, but the narrator's final words in the last story made us think again about all the other stories we just read, and feel a wonder about each character, each event, and each moment of connection.
There are nine stories in Interpreter of Maladies, but Lahiri makes it pretty easy for us when it comes to the setting because she's really only interested in two places: India and America (more specifically, New England).
Want to know about what life is like in post-Partition India? First, you might want to brush up on what Partition was all about. This might be a pretty good place to start.
As for the India in Lahiri's stories, life is all about the community. That's why, with the exception of the title story, all the action centers on a typical, everyday compound—one that doesn't necessarily have all the conveniences of your average American household or neighborhood.
The lack of conveniences—like sinks in "A Real Durwan"—ends up tearing apart the community to the point where the community runs the old gatekeeper out of the compound.
And then there's the flip side of the community—the good side; the side that sides with the down-and-out, like in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar." This community bands around Bibi when her only remaining family abandons her and she ends up having a baby as a result of rape.
Could either of these two stories occur in some American town? That's the question. We're guessing no because the communities Lahiri chooses to describe are just more populated and interdependent than the spread-out spaces in America.
Mrs. Sen wonders to Eliot if she cried out, would any of the neighbors come as they would in her Indian community? Eliot thinks they'd come over just to tell her to pipe down.
These communities also have to deal with political realities that are slightly different from the ones in America, like the fact of Partition, which resulted not only the splitting of India and Pakistan, but the movement of refugees into compounds like the one Boori Ma ends up in and gets kicked out of. There was a huge displacement of people as the Muslim population of India moved to newly-created Pakistan, and the Hindu population in now-Pakistan moved to India. This sense of displacement runs through many of the stories in this book, which is why Partition is a good backdrop for them.
…is kind of like living two lives: one in whatever country you happen to be in (in this case, America) and another in your homeland (generally India for most of Lahiri's characters).
In fact, Partition ends up affecting more than just Bengalis and Indians in India. It preoccupies the title character in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," for instance—so much so that Mr. Pirzada can't tear himself away from Pakistani news. He might as well be in Dacca where his family is (and where he ends up).
Or Mrs. Sen, who's so homesick that she'll play over and over again a cassette tape with the voices of her family members in India.
That's why in Lahiri's U.S. settings, the immigrant characters' stories are centered in their houses or apartments. Things are unfamiliar and disorienting. They don't leave home much and when they do, generally bad things happen either outside or in the home, like a car accident or husbands getting into affairs or—even—the birth of a stillborn baby.
For second-generation kids, things are slightly different. All of a sudden it's all about showing real signs of success—and, by that, Lahiri means a serious brand-name degree, like Harvard and MIT. (Twinkle has a Stanford degree, but even she seems impressed by Sanjeev and his MIT pedigree. By the way, we don't take sides here: they're all good by our standards!)
So what's with this fixation on Boston schools? Call it global brand-name recognition. These are schools whose significance crosses major distances, that can bring respect and admiration to an immigrant's family in India and America, as is the case with our final narrator.
These schools open doors (or at least that's the belief of the final narrator) for immigrants who are in the business of making a place—a real home—for themselves in a new land.
We also know that Lahiri's focus on Boston and Cambridge has a little something to do with her own biography. She, after all, spent her graduate years at Boston University
We're giving this book a middling score on toughness because Lahiri's writing really isn't all that complicated. Sure, she can be really subtle and, if you're not careful, you might miss details that would give you some "aha!" moments.
But in general, her writing is simple and clear. It's not filled with obscure metaphors and symbols that you need to decipher; maybe just one or two in a given story. In fact, the only thing she really plays with is the timeframe (she likes using flashbacks). And history—you might need to beef up your knowledge of South Asian history. Even so, it's not all that difficult to follow her stories.
So why don't we just give the book a 1 or a 2? Because she's still "high literature," which means she's going to dig deep. You'll probably need to read each story at least once more to appreciate all the details and how they fit together to make the story tick and the characters believable.
Her stories are fairly short and quick. Give her stuff a shot: she's really the perfect introduction to "high lit" writing. Not to mention an inspiration to young authors everywhere. Most early reviewers of the book had things like this to say: "Indeed, Ms. Lahiri's prose is so eloquent and assured that the reader easily forgets that ''Interpreter of Maladies'' is a young writer's first book" (source).
If Interpreter of Maladies were music, it would most definitely be Mozart –clear, structured and measured. Things happen only after careful exposition, like the movement of "A Temporary Matter."
Talk about methodical: first, before we even get to the blackouts, Lahiri slowly reveals—through Shukumar—what Shoba and Shukumar are presently like and, then, what happened to Shoba and Shukumar in the past. In fact, it takes practically 10 pages (out of 22 pages) before we actually get to the first blackout conversation between the two.
And then Lahiri painstakingly leads us through what happens during each of the five nights of blackouts Shoba and Shukumar spend together.
The final night takes the final three pages. That's three pages of buildup before both Shoba and Shukumar drop their respective bombs on each other (all of which happen on the last one and a half pages).
And then the last paragraph, which is so representative of what Lahiri does in every story:
Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening was still warm, and the Bradfords were walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for the things they now knew. (ATM 104)
See how Lahiri shows us every little movement Shukumar makes? Any more detail and we'd be counting his breaths. Lahiri stretches the moment out so that, when we finally get to the last moment, it feels like a real ending. Nothing rushed, no take-backs or do-overs, nothing impulsive.
After reading one of Lahiri's stories, you know the decisions that are made at the end have been thought out thoroughly and are final.
You know how Boori Ma and Bibi Haldar are into babbling? Lahiri is the exact opposite.
If Lahiri doesn't need words to express something, you better believe she won't use them. Case in point, the scene when Mrs. Sen decides to take Eliot in the car.
Up until this point, Lahiri has done such a good job of showing us how Mrs. Sen hates driving (nothing's clearer, by the way, than the sentences: "I hate it. I hate driving" (MS 104)) that she really doesn't need to show us what happens once Mrs. Sen gets into the car with Eliot. So she doesn't.
Instead, she just describes what happens before the accident: "Eliot thought she was just practicing while they waited for Mr. Sen. But then she gave a signal and turned" (MS 126). (Hint: a sentence that begins with "but" probably isn't going to turn out well.)
Then she gives a paragraph break and tells us what happens afterward: "The accident occurred quickly" (MS 127). Four words only, because that's all we need to confirm our suspicions.
And less is definitely more in Lahiri's minimalist style. It in no way minimizes the reader's emotional reactions to the stories. If anything, it enhances it, because we end up filling in the blanks and supplying the emotion. Lahiri doesn't have to be all up in our face about the loss, betrayal, or emotional neglect our characters feel. We get it anyway.
We're guessing you already know that a story with major blackouts isn't a good thing because you know all about the difference between light and dark imagery from your English classes. Light = good; dark = not so good.
And, in fact, you would be right because the blackouts in ATM basically are a huge flashing sign telling you that this story won't be happy.
The blackouts aren't that simple because, if you're reading the story carefully, you might find yourself getting persuaded by Shukumar's optimism. To Shukumar, the blackouts signify honesty and intimacy with Shoba, both the verbal kind and the marital kind:
Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again. The third night after supper they'd sat together on the sofa, and once it was dark he began kissing her awkwardly on her forehead and her face, and though it was dark he closed his eyes, and knew that she did, too. The fourth night they walked carefully upstairs, to bed, feeling together for the final step with their feet before the landing, and making love with a desperation they had forgotten. (ATM 88)
You can see why Shukumar sees these blackouts as an opportunity for connection and why he's hopeful that their relationship might return to what it used to be.
And he's not totally off-base. The couple does seem to have some honest self-disclosure during these blackout sessions. Honest, maybe, to a fault, especially in Shoba's case:
On the third night, she told him that once after a lecture they'd attended, she let him speak to the chairman of his department without telling him that he had a dab of pâté on his chin....The fourth night, she said that she never liked the one poem he'd ever published in his life….He'd written the poem after meeting Shoba. She added that she found the poem sentimental. (ATM 87)
Notice how Shoba uses the blackout as an opportunity to spill all the negative stuff she never bothered to reveal before? That's an added tip to you that these blackouts really just mean negation, specifically, the negation of their relationship.
That's very clear at the end, when the lights are back on and Shoba decides to tell Shukumar she wants to separate from him. Shukumar, in turn, decides to be just as revealing and tells her the one thing she doesn't want to know: the sex of their stillborn baby (it was a boy). In response, she turns off the lights and they "[weep] together for the things they now [know]" (ATM 104).
Why does she turn off the lights herself? Think of the color of grief and mourning—black. The final way you can read the blackout is to link it straight back to source of the couple's problems: the death of their child.
Think of all the positive things you might associate with candy and apply it to the relationship between Mr. Pirzada and our girl-narrator Lilia. That's kind of what the candy represents: an exchange or token of affection from Mr. Pirzada to Lilia.
It's also Mr. Pirzada's way of recognizing that Lilia's a good kid: "I only spoil children who are incapable of spoiling" (WMPCTD 23) he tells Lilia's parents.
That's why Lilia treasures Mr. Pirzada's candy way more than the candy she gets from trick-or-treating on Halloween. Mr. P's candy is a gift meant to make Lilia feel good about herself—like she's worthy of candy just because of who she is. She doesn't need to do anything for it; she doesn't need to dress up in a costume and go asking for candy.
In other words, Mr. Pirzada's candy is the best gift of all. It's a pure gift that asks for nothing in return, not even a "thank you" (WMPCTD 24).
Of course, because Mr. Pirzada is so sweet for giving Lilia so much candy, Lilia ends up feeling this deep affection for this man anyway, this man who, by the way, is almost more like a father to her than her own father. She "covet[s] each evening's treasure as [she] would a jewel, or a coin from a buried kingdom, and [she] would place it in a small keepsake box made of carved sandalwood beside [her] bed" (WMPCTD 25).
Totally typical of a kid, right? She doesn't even eat the candy because by this point, the candy's become something else: it's a metaphor for this unspoken love she feels for Mr. Pirzada even though he doesn't exactly feel the same way. (After all, he does have his own daughters to whom he returns.)
Which is why, when Lilia throws her candy away at the end of the story, it's pretty much like a spurned lover throwing away all mementos that remind her of the guy.
By the way, if that whole "spurned lover" thing makes you feel uncomfortable, you're not alone. Read too much into this whole candy business and it might feel a little…well…uncomfortable, kind of how Lilia feels when she's around Mr. Pirzada: "I was charmed by Mr. Pirzada's rotund elegance, and flattered by the faint theatricality of his attentions, yet unsettled by the superb ease of his gestures, which made me feel, for an instant, like a stranger in my own home" (WMPCTD 24).
But that weird feeling exists because there isn't a name for the kind of relationship Mr. P and Lilia have. Candy, in this case, is a superficial metaphor for Lilia's feelings. It can't come close to acting as a real symbol of Lilia's affection/obsession for Mr. P and his family—another reason why Lilia tosses the candy away once she learns Mr. P's back with his family.
Way deep for something that's just full of empty calories.
Remember that 80s song "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" and how sunglasses became the universal sign for cool back then? Well, Mrs. Das is basically stuck in the 80s. You can't get her to take her sunglasses off.
That's because not only is Mrs. Das too cool for school; the sunglasses keep her aloof and remote from everyone, like she's Coco Chanel or Jackie O. Note, by the way, that her sunglasses aren't just practical; they're stylish: "She was wearing large dark brown sunglasses with a pinkish tint to them" (IM 14). Our guess? They're probably designer shades.
Anyway, so you get the point: the sunglasses are a symbol of her upper class status and her general poser-ish attitude.
That's why it's such a big deal when she takes them off to talk to Mr. Kapasi. He gets to see who she is for the first time: "She lifted her pinkish brown sunglasses and arranged them on top of her head like a tiara. For the first time, her eyes met Mr. Kapasi's in the rearview mirror: pale, a bit small, their gaze fixed but drowsy" (IM 61).
If you're feeling a little underwhelmed about Mrs. Das' big reveal, we don't blame you. Her eyes don't seem like much; they're kind of just pale and beady. Kind of like her personality once she starts talking to Mr. Kapasi and spilling her secrets.
That's the other meaning of the sunglasses. Sunglasses on=distance and detachment. Sunglasses off=self-disclosure, closeness. (Worst-case scenario in this metaphor: mirrored sunglasses.)
Knowing what Mrs. Das is really like, it might actually be preferable for Mrs. Das to keep those sunglasses of on, for her own sake and for Mr. Kapasi's. This is a case where maybe we all need the romantic fantasy much more than the crummy truth.
As far as symbols go, a slip of paper with an address on it probably doesn't seem like much. But imagine you're some guy who's crushing on this girl and you've just given her your number. All of a sudden, that slip of paper is everything. It means a potential for communication—maybe that girl will call you.
That's Mr. Kapasi's view of the slip of scrap paper with his address on it. Here's Mr. Kapasi fantasizing about what the piece of paper could mean:
[Mrs. Das] would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor's office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish. (IM 89)
Too bad his fantasies get blown away by the wind (and by the reality of Mrs. Das' personality).
You've got a head start on this one if you know what a skeleton key does. A skeleton key gives a person the ability to bypass any lock. It's the ultimate master key.
The irony is that Boori Ma's skeleton keys don't really give her that much access to anything. It should be a sign of her absolute power in the apartment building; she should be able to go in and out of residents' apartments and the building freely or at least be treated as such.
Instead, she's marginalized. She sleeps next to a gate or hangs out on the rooftop or "crouch[es]…in doorways and hallways, and observ[es] gestures and manners in the same way a person tends to watch traffic in a foreign city" (ARD 37). She's just not of a high enough social class for the residents to treat her like she truly belongs in their community.
Which is why it's doubly ironic that those skeleton keys—which she never used inappropriately—end up getting her kicked out of the building.
What does all this mean? Those skeleton keys—symbols of power and accessibility—only become real tools of power and accessibility if Boori Ma is willing to sidestep the rules of her society and break the law.
Brooms aren't just for sweeping. In Boori Ma's hands, the broom is a weapon: "with a few slaps of her broom," Boori Ma can "rout any suspicious character who strayed into the area in order to spit, urinate, or cause some other trouble" (ARD 13). The broom, like Boori Ma herself, is useful because it's versatile, like a Swiss army knife.
The broom is also what people in the land of English lit call a metonym: the broom stands in for Boori Ma because it's so deeply associated with Boori Ma, like the way a pen (or a computer) stands in for a wrier. Note, by the way, that the broom is the one thing Boori Ma keeps when she's thrown out of the building at the end (ARD 76).
Unfortunately, the broom, like Boori Ma, probably won't do a lot of good anywhere else. It is, after all, just "a bundle of reeds" (ARD 76), easily replaced and probably not all that appropriate for a "real durwan" (ARD 74).
What's the big deal with the basins anyway? Why the drama in the story over a couple of sinks?
Mr. Chatterjee says it all for us. The basins are "[a] sure sign of changing times" (ARD 50).
Sinks are a pretty ordinary piece of household equipment for us, but they are a luxury in many parts the world. For the residents in ARD, the basins are shiny new things that make the apartment building a part of the 20th-century as wealthy Indians and Westerners experience it. The sinks put them in touch with their aspirations for a better life.
The sinks get the residents into washing, as in their hands and their mouths. Basic and important, yet can you imagine not having the ability to wash yourself in clean water easily? The residents are so enamored of the newly-installed communal basin that "[e]ven Boori Ma [is] urged to rinse her hands under the clear running water" (ARD 47).
But there's a disadvantage to these basins: they begin to cause discord among the residents. Take this morning scene for example:
Among the wives, however, resentment quickly brewed. Standing in line to brush their teeth in the mornings, each grew frustrated with having to wait her turn, for having to wipe the faucets after every use, and for not being able to leave her own soap and toothpaste tube on the basin's narrow periphery. The Dalals had their own sink; why did the rest of them have to share? ( ARD 51)
There's always a downside to technological progress. We would just kill for an iPhone upgrade.
We probably don't even need to point this one out. When Miranda thinks about buying a bag of Hot Mix for Laxmi at the Indian grocery store and the grocer tells her that the Hot Mix is "too spicy" (S 70) for her, the pun's absolutely, positively intended.
Who's the "hot mix"? Is it Dev, whose Bengali origins seem so exotic and hot to Miranda? Is it Miranda, whose leggy, Midwestern look gets Dev to call her "sexy"? Or is it the two of them together, a white American mistress and her married Bengali lover?
Another way to look at the bag of Hot Mix: it's like a badge of belonging, a sign of Indian-ness that Miranda wants to explore. She knows it's what Laxmi eats (S 69) and if she could only offer it to Laxmi…maybe they could be friends? Maybe Miranda could feel almost Indian?
It's got to be more than a little irritating if the guy you're seeing keeps showing you maps, like he's trying to educate you. That's what happens to Miranda.
For example, Dev brings Miranda an issue of The Economist to show her where Bengal and India are because he wants her to know where he comes from. Maybe you're thinking, "Oh, how sweet," but catch this: he also "[rolls] up the magazine, and [says], 'Nothing you'll ever need to worry about,' and he tap[s] her playfully on the head" (S 6) when Miranda asks a question about how to read the map. Kind of patronizing, no?
But maps don't only represent what Miranda doesn't know…they signify her willingness to learn (despite Dev); to bridge the gap between where she's from and this unfamiliar place called India (and the rest of the world).
When Dev tosses that issue of The Economist in the trash, Miranda takes the magazine out of the trash and studies the map to try and learn more about where Dev is from (S 7). That's something.
"Fish out of water"; "fresh off the boat"; Mrs. Sen's a new immigrant from India who can't get used to America.
The fresh fish aren't just a simple metaphor for Mrs. Sen's Indian-ness. They also give Mrs. Sen a reason to get out of the house and be social with Americans. As a result, she gets to know the fish monger really well—enough so that he reserves fish for her and calls her up to let her know when her fish are in. It's the fish that are her undoing, though, when she gets into a car accident on her way to buy them. (MS 121-126).
You're 16…what's the first thing you do? You get your driver's license. Freedom—that's what the car means to you. That's what the car means to Mrs. Sen.
The only difference? You're probably not freaked out by this symbol of American independence and mobility (your parents, on the other hand, probably are).
Why is Mrs. Sen so reluctant to drive? First, there's the whole issue of focus. It's hard to do, especially if you're a distracted driver, which Mrs. Sen is—"continuously distracted" (MS 39) in fact.
And then there's the whole business of merging into oncoming traffic:
Each time they approached the grove of pine trees where the asphalt loop met the main road, she leaned forward, pinning all her weight against the brake as cars hurtled past. It was a narrow road painted with a solid yellow stripe, with one lane of traffic in either direction.
"Impossible, Eliot. How can I go there?"
"You need to wait until no one's coming."
"Why will not anybody slow down?" (MS 39-42)
Pretty scary, if you look at it from a newbie driver's perspective. Maybe even enough to make your "knuckles pale…wrists tremble…English falter" (MS 45) like Mrs. Sen.
Okay, sure, you're thinking, driving can be dangerous, but what's the "larger meaning" behind Mrs. Sen's fear? It turns out that, where she comes from, a woman of her class doesn't need to be independent in the same way (she, for example, had a chauffeur in India).
Moreover, driving in America is just another form of isolation. As Mrs. Sen tells Eliot after one of their driving practice sessions, "Everyone, this people, too much in their world" (MS 46). And, if you think about it, she's not exactly wrong. What do you do, after all, when you're in your car? Roll your windows up and listen to music, probably.
The image of Mrs. Sen waiting anxiously as she watches the American drivers go whizzing by is a powerful one. She has no idea how to merge into the traffic, to "merge" into this new fast-paced culture.
What would you do with a bunch of Jesus statues and posters if you were of another religion? Would you be like Twinkle and think: "Oh how cute!" and display them everywhere? Or would you be like Sanjeev and try to dump the stuff somewhere?
Well, what all this Christian stuff means kind of depends on which perspective you take. If you're like Twinkle, it's not a sign of devout faith; the stuff is like a puzzle or hidden treasure, waiting to be figured or found out at …say…a housewarming party with a bunch of your husband's coworkers.
In other words, for Twinkle, the Christian paraphernalia is another way for Twinkle to show how interesting, surprising, and "wow" (TBH 99) she can be. It's another way for her to be the center of attention: "For the rest of their days together she would keep [the silver bust of Christ] on the center of the mantel, flanked on either side by the rest of the menagerie. Each time they had guests Twinkle would explain how she had found it, and they would admire her as they listened" (TBH 124).
In fact, Twinkle is a lot like these Christian treasures: fascinating, shiny, eye-catching.
If you're like Sanjeev though, the stuff is a threat to your very identity as a proper Hindu and Indian. Even though he's the one to inform his coworker that "[t]here are Christians in India," it's clear that he really wants to show that he's not that kind of Indian (or, even, that kind of American)—he's of the Hindu majority: "but we're not [Christian]" (TBH 92), he reminds his coworker.
If you're a writer, the number two is really handy because just think of all the ways "two" can be used.
It can refer to the two-ness of a couple—like Sanjeev and Twinkle.
It can also bring up the idea of "too" much, as in the too much two-ness of Sanjeev's house: "There were two working fireplaces, a two-car garage, and an attic suitable for converting into extra bedrooms if, the Realtor mentioned, the need should arise" (TBH 50).
2/2 also happens to be Sanjeev's birthday, which the house already commemorates with "the solid brass 22…nailed impressively to the vaguely Tudor façade" (TBH 50).
Maybe Sanjeev's two too much?
Owning a house is the American Dream, and that's pretty much what the house represents for Sanjeev, who's already living the dream. He's got the MIT degree, the upwardly-mobile career, a beautiful wife: he just needs a house to match.
And what a house he has:
Sanjeev had found the house on his own before leaving for the wedding, for a good price, in a neighborhood with a fine school system. He was impressed by the elegant curved staircase with its wrought-iron banister, and the dark wooden wainscoting, and the solarium overlooking rhododendron bushes, and the solid brass 22, which also happened to be the date of his birth, nailed impressively to the vaguely Tudor façade. There were two working fireplaces, a two-car garage, and an attic suitable for converting into extra bedrooms if, the Realtor mentioned, the need should arise. (TBH 50)
Notice all the fine interior details? The solarium? The vaguely Tudor façade? Doesn't the house just seem perfect for a suburban couple, like an almost-vintage American McMansion featured on HGTV?
No wonder Sanjeev decides to buy the house without Twinkle's input—all that house and "for a good price."
Of course, because "[b]y then Sanjeev had already made up his mind, was determined that he and Twinkle should live there together, forever" (TBH 50) and because the house really does seem like such a good deal, Sanjeev doesn't "[bother] to notice the switch plates covered with biblical stickers, or the transparent decal of the Virgin on the half shell, as Twinkle liked to call it, adhered to the window in the master bedroom" (TBH 50).
In other words, Sanjeev blinds himself to all the imperfect details of the house…kind of like how he ignores all the details that make Twinkle not-so-perfect for him just so he can maintain his dream of the perfect American life.
We can't say that Bibi's illness is a metaphor exactly, or for that matter, even a symbol of anything. In fact, it's a good example of what Lahiri likes to do with things that ought to be metaphors, symbols, or whatever. She puts them to work.
Let's take Bibi's illness as an example. Bibi's illness is Bibi. Okay, so we guess that's more or less a metaphor, or better yet, a metonym.
But that's not what's important. Bibi's illness gives her something to talk about, to socialize with; it makes people notice her: "She bemoaned her fate and challenged her stars as we hung our laundry" (TBH 4); "Each day she unloaded her countless privations upon us, until it became unendurably apparent that Bibi wanted a man" (TBH 5).
It's not like Bibi's illness means anything really grand like "death," "honor," or what have you. It's a conduit, a way for Bibi to be a part of her neighborhood. It keeps Bibi and the story grounded in her community.
Babies don't just symbolize new life—they are new life. But babies are also a total burden: they can't do anything on their own, so of course, they need people to take care of them.
Which brings us to Bibi and her baby. How is Bibi supposed to take care of her baby when she can't even take care of herself? By the way, do you notice how "Bibi" sounds a lot like "baby"? We don't think that's accidental.
Sometimes, though, a person needs to become a parent in order to grow up. That's something Bibi knows already when she complains to the community: "Is it wrong to envy you, all brides and mothers, busy with lives and cares? Wrong to want to shade my eyes, scent my hair? To raise a child and teach him sweet from sour, good from bad?" (TBH 4).
Having a kid means having a life—a "busy" life, full of practical purpose and direction—something Bibi's life becomes after she has her son. She's no longer an incurable sick person; she's a single mom who also happens to be a pretty good business owner.
Bibi's pregnancy kind of just pops out of nowhere. Obviously, everyone figures out that a rapist ends up impregnating her, but it's not something she dwells on or even speaks of. In fact, she says "she could not remember what had happened" (TBH 51).
All of this brings up the idea that Bibi's pregnancy and son are a take on the story of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. If you're a devout Christian, this all might seem totally sacrilegious, although it might be worthwhile to think about how Bibi's story and the Virgin Mary story inform each other. We'll leave that heavy-duty thinking to you…
Mrs. Croft is a big reminder to our narrator of the concept of responsibility, specifically his duties to her, as a young man in a new country:
At times I came downstairs before going to sleep, to make sure she was sitting upright on the bench, or was safe in her bedroom. On Fridays I made sure to put the rent in her hands. There was nothing I could do for her beyond these simple gestures. I was not her son, and apart from those eight dollars, I owed her nothing. (TFC 96)
In our humble opinion, the narrator seems like he's already a really conscientious guy, checking in on Mrs. Croft the way he does. Maybe you can tell, though, that he feels like he's not doing enough.
Is he just a really nice guy? Or is there something else going on? Here's our bet: it's all about the mother.
I was mortified. I had assumed Mrs. Croft was in her eighties, perhaps as old as ninety. I had never known a person who had lived for over a century. That this person was a widow who lived alone mortified me further still. It was widowhood that had driven my own mother insane. (TFC 92)
Mrs. Croft is a reminder of his mother, who eventually died from her grief.
Worse—Mrs. Croft isn't just a simple reminder. She actually brings up the fear that the whole thing might happen again—a death that the narrator has to be responsible for since no one else is really there. He might be forced to relive these final memories of his mother:
Nearly six years ago, before leaving for London, I had watched her die on that bed, had found her playing with her excrement in her final days. Before wecremated her I had cleaned each of her fingernails with a hairpin, and then, because my brother could not bear it, I had assumed the role of eldest son, and had touched the flame to her temple, to release her tormented soul to heaven. (TFC 39)
Pretty harrowing memories, if you ask us.
In fact, they kind of make Mrs. Croft more than just a symbol of a son's burden and a son's duty; she's really more like a symbol of death—only living.
Finders, keepers—that's what a flag on a piece of land means, right? Especially if it's an American flag—the only flag—on the moon. So right off, the flag on the moon should tip you off as a symbol of American power and American ownership.
And yeah—it's an amazing historical event. "A flag on the moon! Isn't that splendid?" Mrs. Croft keeps repeating throughout the story.
But how does that "splendid" event compare to the narrator's personal achievements? Which one is greater? As the narrator points out:
While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination. (TFC 151)
"One step for mankind"? Not to take away from that metonym—"one step" for (hu)man progress—but the narrator refocuses us on what (hu)man progress can (and maybe should) really mean: how an ordinary person lives.
In other words, what if we were to think about success and achievement apart from some dramatic accomplishment or conquering distant real estate? Wouldn't that be pretty amazing, too?
With the exception of three stories, this book's all about showing how limited our main characters are through their third person narrators.
And by limited, we mean flawed. Deeply flawed.
Like Shukumar—yeah, we're in his head so maybe we can kind of feel sorry for him when the narrator notes that:
In the beginning [Shukumar] had believed that it would pass, that he and Shoba would get through it all somehow. She was only thirty-three. She was strong, on her feet again. (ATM 13)
The "it," by the way, just so happens to refer to his and Shoba's stillborn baby. Shukumar thought "it" would "pass." You know, like the flu or something. All of a sudden, feeling sorry for him maybe isn't our reaction to him.
Especially after this next scene: "It was often nearly lunchtime when Shukumar would finally pull himself out of bed and head downstairs to the coffeepot, pouring out the extra bit Shoba left for him, along with an empty mug, on the countertop" (ATM 13).
We're just wondering: who's the one who had to go through pregnancy and labor only to deliver a stillborn baby? Why does it seem like Shukumar, not Shoba, who went through the delivery?
That's the power of the limited third person. It lets us get the main character's perspective without being persuaded by that perspective. It lets us have the freedom to be a little judgmental of these characters.
This occurs with most of the other third person stories:
The one exception might be Mrs. Sen and Eliot, but Eliot's also eleven. He's like Lilia: as kids, they've got a special perspective on the ways adults act, so think of them as characters with sort of a free pass from our judgmental eyes.
Telling another person's story is kind of cool because you don't have to live that person's drama…that is, until you start to get emotionally involved.
Take Lilia in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine." She doesn't even remember "his first visit, or of his second or his third" (WMPCTD 4). But she goes from disinterested observer of Mr. Pirzada to being so attached that she learns "what it mean[s] to miss someone who [is] so many miles and hours away" (WMPCTD 78).
Then there's the collective first person narrator—"we"—in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar." Although "in [their] private moments [they] were thankful" that Bibi "was not [their] responsibility" (TBH 21), they can't help but be horrified by how Haldar and his wife run Bibi out of their house and then abandon her.
In response to Haldar's treatment, they become a part of Bibi's story: "To express our indignation we began to take our shopping elsewhere; this provided us with our only revenge" (TBH 37).
They also teach Bibi how to raise a child: "one evening in September, we helped her deliver a son. We showed her how to feed him, and bathe him, and lull him to sleep. We bought her an oilcloth and helped her stitch clothes and pillowcases out of the fabric she had saved over the years" (TBH 52).
Maybe we should all have someone else telling our stories for us…
Then there's the last story, which has the most standard central first person narrator. Even though he's nameless, we get to know him well because he very candidly "talks" about himself and the ways in which other people affect his feelings and his life.
Take for example the details of his memory of his mother's last days: "Before we cremated her I had cleaned each of her fingernails with a hairpin, and then, because my brother could not bear it, I had assumed the role of eldest son, and had touched the flame to her temple, to release her tormented soul to heaven" (TFC 39).
The narrator can't help feeling responsible for Mrs. Croft and what her final story—her death—might become: "That this person was a widow who lived alone mortified me further still" (TFC 92). And when he sees an Indian woman getting harassed by a little dog, he's reminded that "It was [his] duty to take care of Mala, to welcome her and protect her" (TFC 99).
The narrator shows us how incredibly burdensome it is to carry your own story. The reason for that? Your story isn't just yours. It's also about the people you come in contact with and ultimately are responsible for.
Each story of the collection might fall under a different category, but overall? Our vote is for "rebirth" because that's kind of what you go through if you treat the stories in the book like chapters in a novel.
The first few stories seem totally bleak and dark. Marriages fail; communities turn on old, loyal friends; people are abandoned and dreams are smashed into smithereens. The first half of the book is depressing.
But then the second half starts to surprise, with endings that—if not happy—at least begin to show a glimmer of hope. Endings like: a young girl who decides to walk away from an affair; a woman who appears like a totally useless victim but who ends up becoming a successful single mother and shopkeeper; and finally, an arranged marriage that produces the most heartening story of love and warmth in the entire book.
In our book, that movement from black-out depression to marital (albeit mundane) love feels a lot like getting reborn into happiness.
If you've ever made a playlist on your iPod, then you'll get this analysis right away. A great playlist has a flow to it; there's a reason why you place a song in a certain spot on the list. Well, think of this book like a playlist and the stories as different songs, starting with…
Instead of starting the book off with a cheery story about love, "A Temporary Matter"'s Shoba and Shukumar totally deflate our expectations, especially Shoba who, in a surprise twist, decides to leave Shukumar. Their failed marriage basically sets up the idea that marriages can come with a shelf-life and are easily broken apart.
If you're already starting with incredibly low expectations for love, what then? If you're Mr. Pirzada in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," you keep hoping that you'll find your family once again (which he does), even if it means you're unknowingly breaking another little girl's heart. So, in other words, you believe in love. Or, if you're like Mr. Kapasi in "Interpreter of Maladies," you wish and hope for love but then you find out that the object of your affections is an adulteress who doesn't really care about you.
These two stories show us all the conflict and complications that come with hoping for and pursuing love in the context of marriage. That's why we call this part of the book "rising action."
First, there's Boori Ma, who gets turned out of the building she's been tending because the residents want "A Real Durwan." It's a heartless move because they're literally throwing out the old (Boori Ma) to bring in the new (a modern building with a new durwan). It's also what we call a moment of crisis: the old and the new are in complete conflict.
Same with Miranda in "Sexy"; she reaches a crisis in her life—does she stay in an affair with a married creep or does she leave? The difference here: unlike Boori Ma, she turns the crisis into a positive turning point by choosing herself over the creep.
But why consider these two stories the climax of the book? Because they turn all that built up confusion and conflict from the rising action into a need for clarity and a need for change.
Well, only if you believe in soul mates and Valentine's Day. If you do, then you're in for a fall because in the next three stories—"Mrs. Sen's," "This Blessed House," and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar"—love gets totally crushed under the weight of reality.
Mrs. Sen's a housewife who babysits on the side. Under pressure from her insensitive husband, she drives their car to the fish market even though she doesn't really know how to drive. So of course, she gets into a car accident with the kid she's babysitting and Eliot, the kid, stops going to Mrs. Sen's. It's a sad ending since both Eliot and Mrs. Sen, who've grown pretty close, end up lonely again.
On the other hand, in "This Blessed House," Sanjeev seems to surrender to his wife Twinkle's charm at the end. We aren't fully convinced that that relationship will last past a year or two because Sanjeev is drunk when he succumbs to Twinkle; plus, the whole marriage is only a few months old and they've already got major differences.
Then there's Bibi Haldar, whose only wish is to have a husband; instead, she gets raped by who knows whom and ends up pregnant.
Want that dreamy kind of love? Better look elsewhere…
Fine, there's no such thing as a perfect marriage whether it's built on love or arrangement. But there is, however, the kind of love that develops slowly over time. That's what happens in the last story, "The Third and Final Continent," when the narrator finds love only after years of living with his wife, whom he met at their arranged marriage.
After all the noisy conflict, betrayal, and heartbreak in the other stories, we get to a place of quiet contentment.
For a story that fits the "three act plot analysis," look no further than the title story of the book.
Mr. Kapasi thinks Mr. and Mrs. Das are typical American tourists in Indian bodies. Mrs. Das especially just seems kind of arrogant and aloof. That is, until he mentions that he's an interpreter, not just a tour guide. From that point on (or at least, until the end of the story), Mrs. Das is hooked on Mr. Kapasi's "romantic" job and Mr. Kapasi is totally hooked on Mrs. Das (and her legs).
In fact, he's so hooked on her that he's figured out a way to extend the Das family's trip with him as their tour guide.
Now that Mr. Kapasi has Mrs. Das interested in him (or so he thinks), he's happy. But wait—Mrs. Das ends up telling him all about her nasty little secrets (like the fact that Bobby isn't Mr. Das's son), which totally crushes Mr. Kapasi.
In fact, he's so disappointed that he makes one of those no-turning-back comments: he suggests to Mrs. Das that her physical pain is because she feels guilty about her affair and Bobby's secret father. There's no way Mrs. Das can forgive that comment, so she leaves the car.
Everything that happens after Mrs. Das walks out of Mr. Kapasi's car is like a series of bad coincidences that highlight how truly selfish Mrs. Das can be. The ending shows how there's no way Mr. Kapasi will ever be able to view Mrs. Das—or the entire Das family—favorably.
It's a pretty subtle resolution, but at least you know for sure that Mr. Kapasi's totally over his temporary infatuation and has come back to earth hard.