Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Quotes

By Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Language and Communication

    "But they should do this sort of thing during the day." "When I'm here, you mean," Shukumar said. (ATM 3-4)

    A classic Lahiri moment: Shoba, the wife, is commenting on the schedule for rolling blackouts and her husband responds with a kind of subtle sarcasm that shows how much out-of-love these two are with each other. The conversation continues as if Shukumar didn't say anything, but the communication gap between the two is clear in these sharp little asides (mostly from Shukumar).

    Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again. (ATM 88)

    Go ahead and think about all those typical associations you're taught about "light" and "dark." Like "light" means clarity, "dark" means mystery. Here, the secrets are revealed in the dark. But it's when the lights come on that Shoba tells Shukumar that she's leaving him. Her real intentions are clarified in the light.

    "What are these large orange vegetables on people's doorsteps? A type of squash?"

    "Pumpkins," my mother replied. "Lilia, remind me to pick one up at the supermarket."

    "And the purpose? It indicates what?"

    "You make a jack-o'-lantern," I said, grinning ferociously. "Like this. To scare people away."

    "I see," Mr. Pirzada said, grinning back. "Very useful." (WMPCTD 39-43)

    Here's why Mr. Pirzada's so cool. He knows intuitively how to talk to Lilia without talking down to her (like so many adults seem to do). We really like the fact that he returns Lilia's jack-o'-lantern grin.

    "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Das, but why have you told me this information?" Mr. Kapasi asked when she had finally finished speaking, and had turned to face him once again. (IM 145)

    This is the part where Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi all about her affair and how another man fathered her son Bobby. This big reveal shows Mrs. Das's belief that communicating with Mr. Kapasi could cure her unhappiness. But because of the nature of their relationship, it doesn't really come across as authentic communication.

    Her throaty impostures hurt no one. All agreed that she was a superb entertainer. (ARD 12)

    Lest we forget that Boori Ma's job as a "durwan" consists of much more than just sweeping the stairwell, we see that her communication style keeps the community engaged. In the end, it's not enough.

    `"Go ahead," he urged, walking backward to his end of the bridge. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Say something." She watched his lips forming the words; at the same time she heard them so clearly that she felt them under her skin, under her winter coat, so near and full of warmth that she felt herself go hot.

    "Hi," she whispered, unsure of what else to say.

    "You're sexy," he whispered back. (S 39-41)

    Dev and Miranda are testing the amazing acoustics at the Mapparium in this scene. We're thinking there's probably no better example of how hard it is for Miranda to leave Dev. Yeah, Dev's married and kind of a schmuck, but look at the effect of his words on Miranda. How do you turn your back on that kind of communication?! It's like his words are his body and they're so close to her…that's sexy. On the other hand, this verbal exchange takes place at a distance. That's probably a warning sign about this relationship.

    Another day she played a cassette of people talking in her language—a farewell present, she told Eliot, that her family had made for her. As the succession of voices laughed and said their bit, Mrs. Sen identified each speaker. "My third uncle, my cousin, my father, my grandfather." One speaker sang a song. Another recited a poem. The final voice on the tape belonged to Mrs. Sen's mother. It was quieter and sounded more serious than the others. (MS 88)

    A touching reminder of the power of hearing one's native language in a strange land. It communicates love, family, and identity.

    "What about the housewarming? They'll want to see all the rooms. I've invited people from the office."

    She rolled her eyes. Sanjeev noted that the symphony, now in its third movement, had reached a crescendo, for it pulsed with the telltale clashing of cymbals.

    "I'll put it behind the door," she offered. "That way, when they peek in, they won't see. Happy?" (TBH 26-28)

    Did you know that looks of contempt are one of the signs of a troubled marriage? What counts as contempt? Try the eye-roll. Twinkle's got it down.

    Bibi had retreated into a deep and prolonged silence. We took turns leaving her plates of rice and glasses of tea. She drank little, ate less, and began to assume an expression that no longer matched her years. (TBH 41)

    You know things are bad when your town crier (which Bibi literally is—she's always crying about something) retreats into silence. This happens after Haldar and his wife abandon Bibi completely. You wouldn't think they were that important to Bibi since they were so cruel to her, but clearly, some family is better than no family at all to Bibi.

    But each evening when I returned the same thing happened: she slapped the bench, ordered me to sit down, declared that there was a flag on the moon, and declared that it was splendid. I said it was splendid, too, and then we sat in silence. As awkward as it was, and as endless as it felt to me then, the nightly encounter lasted only about ten minutes; inevitably she would drift off to sleep, her head falling abruptly toward her chest, leaving me free to retire to my room. By then, of course, there was no flag standing on the moon. The astronauts, I had read in the paper, had seen it fall before they flew back to Earth. But I did not have the heart to tell her. (TFC 51)

    Sometimes the best form of communication is the kind that comes from routine. Or at least that's what Mrs. Croft seems to need from our narrator here. It's comforting, like a bedtime story. Sitting in silence together was still a kind of communication, also.

  • Marriage

    They wept together, for the things they now knew. (ATM 104)

    The last sentence of the first story—not exactly uplifting. All the painful secrets of their marriage have been revealed. The book seems pretty pessimistic about love and marriage in general, although this definitely changes once you get to the last story (so stick around for that one).

    She ran a hand through her hair, bobbed to a suitable length for her part-time job as a bank teller. "How can you possibly expect her to know about Partition? Put those nuts away."

    "But what does she learn about the world?" My father rattled the cashew can in his hand.

    "What is she learning?" (WMPCTD 13-14)

    We just want to point out that Lilia's father doesn't put "those nuts away" like his wife wants him to. Is he being passive aggressive or does he just not hear his wife? Which is worse?

    After marrying so young she was overwhelmed by it all, having a child so quickly, and nursing, and warming up bottles of milk and testing their temperature against her wrist while Raj was at work, dressed in sweaters and corduroy pants, teaching his students about rocks and dinosaurs. Raj never looked cross or harried, or plump as she had become after the first baby. (IM 142)

    Marriage is definitely drudgery for Mrs. Das. She resents her husband because she is stuck at home feeling overwhelmed while he is out in public, dressed for work and interacting with adults.

    "What are we supposed to do with two basins in a two-bedroom flat?" Mrs. Dalal demanded. She had already been sulking over her lemon peels. "Who ever heard of it? I still cook on kerosene. You refuse to apply for a phone. And I have yet to see the fridge you promised when we married. You expect two basins to make up for all that?" (ARD 41)

    Why does Mr. Dalal get two basins? Why doesn't he spend his money on something else that they actually need? Can you feel Mrs. Dalal's frustration?

    He would go to the bathroom and brush his teeth with his index finger, something he told her all Indians knew how to do, to get rid of the smoke in his mouth. When she kissed him good-bye she smelled herself sometimes in his hair. But she knew that his excuse, that he'd spent the afternoon jogging, allowed him to take a shower when he got home, first thing. (S 55)

    Oh the things a husband does to erase any signs of an affair…How thoughtful of him. (We're being sarcastic of course.)

    Eliot looked through the tiny window in the camera and waited for Mr. and Mrs. Sen to move closer together, but they didn't. They didn't hold hands or put their arms around each other's waists. Both smiled with their mouths closed, squinting into the wind, Mrs. Sen's red sari leaping like flames under her coat. (MS 90)

    We know it's easy to look at this image of Mr. and Mrs. Sen standing apart as a sign of their lack of intimacy, but think about how Mr. and Mrs. Sen show their closeness in other ways. They're not the perfect couple, but it doesn't mean they don't understand each other in the ways couples often do. And maybe it's cultural. Maybe PDAs aren't really an Indian thing.

    He thought perhaps Twinkle would call for his assistance, but he was not summoned. He looked about the hallway and to the landing below, at the champagne glasses and half-eaten samosas and napkins smeared with lipstick abandoned in every corner, on every available surface. Then he noticed that Twinkle, in her haste, had discarded her shoes altogether, for they lay by the foot of the ladder, black patent-leather mules with heels like golf tees, open toes, and slightly soiled silk labels on the instep where her soles had rested. He placed them in the doorway of the master bedroom so that no one would trip when they descended. (TBH 111)

    In this passage, Sanjeev is described more like a maid than a husband. Things that tip us off: "he was not summoned" (like he's at Twinkle's beck-and-call?); the way he surveys the messiness of the room; how thoughtful he is to put Twinkle's shoes away.

    Apparently some activity was what the poor girl needed all along. For the first time we imagined the contours below her housecoat, and attempted to appraise the pleasures she could offer a man. For the first time we noted the clarity of her complexion, the length and languor of her eyelashes, the undeniably elegant armature of her hands. "They say it's the only hope. A case of overexcitement. They say"—and here we paused, blushing—"relations will calm her blood." Needless to say, Bibi was delighted by the diagnosis, and began at once to prepare for conjugal life. (TBH 9-10)

    We don't think we need to tell you that "relations" is a euphemism for sex here. And in this culture, "relations" were only possible within marriage, so Bibi begins to prepare for wedded life.

    My wife's name was Mala. The marriage had been arranged by my older brother and his wife. I regarded the proposition with neither objection nor enthusiasm. It was a duty expected of me, as it was expected of every man. She was the daughter of a schoolteacher in Beleghata. I was told that she could cook, knit, embroider, sketch landscapes, and recite poems by Tagore, but these talents could not make up for the fact that she did not possess a fair complexion, and so a string of men had rejected her to her face. She was twenty-seven, an age when her parents had begun to fear that she would never marry, and so they were willing to ship their only child halfway across the world in order to save her from spinsterhood. (TFC 38)

    It's pretty easy to view an arranged marriage as a questionable deal for the bride-to-be (can you imagine moving halfway across the world for a guy you don't even know?), but it doesn't seem like such a fun thing for the groom-to-be either. Marriage as a "duty"? He doesn't even question it.

    I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft's parlor as the moment when the distance between Mala and me began to lessen. Although we were not yet fully in love, I like to think of the months that followed as a honeymoon of sorts. (TFC 149)

    Here's a counter-example to all that hot, steamy love in "Sexy" or the depressing marriage in "A Temporary Matter." Our narrator shows us that love can exist in a marriage that isn't first built on passion and sex, and, in fact, an arranged marriage like the one between the narrator and Mala can turn out stronger and happier than a typical Western marriage. Here's what some experts say about that.

  • Family

    As the cab sped down Beacon Street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments. He imagined himself gripping the wheel, as Shoba turned around to hand the children juice boxes. Once, these images of parenthood had troubled Shukumar, adding to his anxiety that he was still a student at thirty-five. But that early autumn morning, the trees still heavy with bronze leaves, he welcomed the image for the first time. (ATM 9)

    This memory makes the story just a little more sad because this is the first time when, as readers, we get the sense that Shukumar just might have made a pretty good father and husband. It's a sense of lost possibilities.

    Mr. Pirzada knit his brows together. "Is there any danger?"

    "No, no," my mother assured him. "All the children will be out. It's a tradition."

    "Perhaps I should accompany them?" Mr. Pirzada suggested. He looked suddenly tired and small, standing there in his splayed, stockinged feet, and his eyes contained a panic I had never seen before. (WMPCTD 62-64)

    We love Mr. Pirzada. In fact, if he were real, we would create a hashtag all about loving Mr. Pirzada. Why? Because he shows concern for Lilia even though she's not even his daughter. Sure, it's just Halloween, but his concern is so real that we—and Lilia—can't help but be touched. We know his heart is with his family, possibly in grave danger back in Pakistan.

    At the tea stall Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet. Eventually Mrs. Das relented when Mr. Das pointed out that he had given the girl her bath the night before. In the rearview mirror Mr. Kapasi watched as Mrs. Das emerged slowly from his bulky white Ambassador, dragging her shaved, largely bare legs across the back seat. She did not hold the little girl's hand as they walked to the rest room. (IM 1)

    Mr. and Mrs. Das—not exactly your model parents. In fact, we feel a little sad for Tina, who probably just needs to pee and ends up having to wait for one of her parents to grudgingly take her. Again, a feeling that the daily responsibilities of family life are just drudgery.

    They were all like siblings, Mr. Kapasi thought as they passed a row of date trees. Mr. and Mrs. Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents. It seemed that they were in charge of the children only for the day; it was hard to believe they were regularly responsible for anything other than themselves. (IM 45)

    Mr. Kapasi perfectly describes Mr. and Mrs. Das—two people who never seem to grow up or care about anything beyond themselves.

    "Then why no mention of it until today? Do you think it's beyond us to provide you with clean quilts? An oilcloth, for that matter?" She looked insulted.

    "There is no need," Boori Ma said. "They are clean now. I beat them with my broom."

    "I am hearing no arguments," Mrs. Dalal said. "You need a new bed. Quilts, a pillow. A blanket when winter comes." (ARD 26-28)

    Here's Mrs. Dalal promising Boori Ma new bedding. We'll just add that this is what makes Mrs. Dalal different from the other residents in the building: she really does view and treat Boori Ma like family. Haldar and his wife, her "real" family, aren't worrying too much about Boori Ma's comfort, that's for sure.

    Apart from Laxmi and Dev, the only Indians whom Miranda had known were a family in the neighborhood where she'd grown up, named the Dixits. Much to the amusement of the neighborhood children, including Miranda, but not including the Dixit children, Mr. Dixit would jog each evening along the flat winding streets of their development in his everyday shirt and trousers, his only concession to athletic apparel a pair of cheap Keds. Every weekend, the family—mother, father, two boys, and a girl—piled into their car and went away, to where nobody knew. (S 56)

    The Dixit family seems strange to the children of the neighborhood. Miranda goes on to describe how she's even afraid of the family's house and yard. But this family seems to enjoy spending time together and they even include the neighbor kids in their daughter's birthday celebration despite the fact that the other mothers avoid Mrs. Dixit and the kids joke about them behind their backs.

    It was the last afternoon Eliot spent with Mrs. Sen, or with any baby-sitter. From then on his mother gave him a key, which he wore on a string around his neck. He was to call the neighbors in case of an emergency, and to let himself into the beach house after school. The first day, just as he was taking off his coat, the phone rang. It was his mother calling from her office. "You're a big boy now, Eliot," she told him. "You okay?" Eliot looked out the kitchen window, at gray waves receding from the shore, and said that he was fine. (MS 129)

    Obviously, becoming a latch-key kid is a huge change from Eliot's afternoons with Mrs. Sen. You can tell he's lonely and that, in some way, he probably prefers being with Mrs. Sen. She's warm and inviting while his mother and their empty beach house are definitely not.

    It bewildered Sanjeev that it was for him, and his house, and his wife, that they had all gone to so much care. The only other time in his life that something similar had happened was his wedding day, but somehow this was different, for these were not his family, but people who knew him only casually, and in a sense owed him nothing. (TBH 96)

    Maybe Sanjeev's a little "bewildered" here because he's also experiencing how it's completely possible to create a "family" out of friends and acquaintances when you're living far away from family. Not that these guests really are "family" to him (at least, not yet), but we're thinking Twinkle might understand this more easily than Sanjeev.

    Before the year's end the family moved away, leaving an envelope containing three hundred rupees under Bibi's door. There was no more news of them. One of us had an address for a relation of Bibi's in Hyderabad, and wrote explaining the situation. The letter was returned unopened, address unknown. (TBH 46-47)

    Bibi's family is not much use to her at all. Makes us wonder again, "What is family, really?"

    In my son's eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world. In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected. But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong. Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. (TFC 151)

    The narrator reminds us that, sometimes, if you have a close and supportive family, that's all you need to get by in the world.

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    Their baby had never cried, Shukumar considered. Their baby would never have a rice ceremony, even though Shoba had already made the guest list, and decided on which of her three brothers she was going to ask to feed the child its first taste of solid food, at six months if it was a boy, seven if it was a girl. (ATM 36)

    Here's a rare look at what Shoba was like before she lost her baby. She seems like a totally different person. Talk about shattered dreams—this passage is so poignant.

    The job was a sign of his failings. In his youth he'd been a devoted scholar of foreign languages, the owner of an impressive collection of dictionaries. He had dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides. (IM 77)

    This is all about Mr. Kapasi's job as an interpreter for a doctor and how far he thinks he has fallen. It's also about economic reality and how it can make any dream come crashing down. We learn soon after that Mr. Kapasi only took this job to work off what he owed to the doctor for treating his son's typhoid, a son who eventually died anyway. The doctor offered him more money than he was making as a teacher.

    He hoped that Mrs. Das had understood Surya's beauty, his power. Perhaps they would discuss it further in their letters. He would explain things to her, things about India, and she would explain things to him about America. In its own way this correspondence would fulfill his dream, of serving as an interpreter between nations. He looked at her straw bag, delighted that his address lay nestled among its contents. When he pictured her so many thousands of miles away he plummeted, so much so that he had an overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around her, to freeze with her, even for an instant, in an embrace witnessed by his favorite Surya. (IM 106)

    Mr. Kapasi—quite the romantic dreamer. We don't need to tell you how soon these dreams will come crashing down.

    As soon as the Dalals were gone, the other wives began planning renovations of their own. One decided to barter a stack of her wedding bracelets and commissioned a white-washer to freshen the walls of the stairwell. Another pawned her sewing machine and summoned an exterminator. A third went to the silversmith and sold back a set of pudding bowls; she intended to have the shutters painted yellow. (ARD 58)

    Obtaining this one communal sink seemed to unleash everyone's dreams for a better and more refined life. Would the community have been better off without it? Is it dangerous to create dreams and wants in people who have little real chance of attaining them?

    While Dev was at the airport, Miranda went to Filene's Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have. She found a pair of black high heels with buckles smaller than a baby's teeth. She found a satin slip with scalloped edges and a knee-length silk robe. Instead of the pantyhose she normally wore to work, she found sheer stockings with a seam. She searched through piles and wandered through racks, pressing back hanger after hanger, until she found a cocktail dress made of a slinky silvery material that matched her eyes, with little chains for straps. (S 46)

    Becoming a mistress takes a lot of work. All that shopping…we're worn out just thinking about it. Too bad Dev doesn't even notice all of Miranda's effort.

    Here, in this place where Mr. Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence. (MS 15)

    Mrs. Sen's dreams don't seem to include moving to a new country far away from her large family and circle of friends in India. In several of our stories, the wife's life becomes just a "side effect" of her husband's career plans.

    She would never put it in her study, he knew. For the rest of their days together she would keep it 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. He gazed at the crushed rose petals in her hair, at the pearl and sapphire choker at her throat, at the sparkly crimson polish on her toes. He decided these were among the things that made Prabal think she was wow. His head ached from gin and his arms ached from the weight of the statue. He said, "I put your shoes in the bedroom."

    "Thanks. But my feet are killing me." Twinkle gave his elbow a little squeeze and headed for the living room. Sanjeev pressed the massive silver face to his ribs, careful not to let the feather hat slip, and followed her. (TBH 124-126)

    This scene shows us how Sanjeev learns to compromise his hopes and dreams for a more traditional and typical wife and learns to be more accepting of Twinkle. (Maybe he just read our previous comment…)

    Needless to say, Bibi was delighted by the diagnosis, and began at once to prepare for conjugal life. With some damaged merchandise from Haldar's shop she polished her toenails and softened her elbows. Neglecting the new shipments delivered to the storage room, she began hounding us for recipes, for vermicelli pudding and papaya stew, and inscribed them in crooked letters in the pages of her inventory ledger. She made guest lists, dessert lists, listed lands in which she intended to honeymoon. She applied glycerine to smooth her lips, resisted sweets to reduce her measurements. (TBH 10)

    Bibi plunges right into her wedding planning as soon as her doctor suggests that "relations" might cure her illness. True, she doesn't have a fiancé yet, but is Bibi all that different from your average woman who gets a monthly wax or pedicure and buys a sexy dress, all in anticipation of meeting a guy who might turn out to be "The One"?

    A few days after receiving the letter, as I was walking to work in the morning, I saw an Indian woman on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue, wearing a sari with its free end nearly dragging on the footpath, and pushing a child in a stroller. An American woman with a small black dog on a leash was walking to one side of her. Suddenly the dog began barking. From the other side of the street I watched as the Indian woman, startled, stopped in her path, at which point the dog leapt up and seized the end of the sari between its teeth. The American woman scolded the dog, appeared to apologize, and walked quickly away, leaving the Indian woman to fix her sari in the middle of the footpath, and quiet her crying child. She did not see me standing there, and eventually she continued on her way. Such a mishap, I realized that morning, would soon be my concern. It was my duty to take care of Mala, to welcome her and protect her. (TFC 99)

    When you're a husband (or a wife), anything can remind you that your future well-being isn't yours alone to plan for anymore. The narrator is rare husband in the stories who sees the profound effect that his plans will have on his wife

  • Society and Class

    Shoba had thrown him a surprise birthday party last May. One hundred and twenty people had crammed into the house—all the friends and the friends of friends they now systematically avoided. Bottles of vinho verde had nested in a bed of ice in the bathtub. Shoba was in her fifth month, drinking ginger ale from a martini glass. She had made a vanilla cream cake with custard and spun sugar. (ATM 23)

    If you're drinking bottles of "vinho verde" (instead of, say, wine from a box) and you're able to throw a party for over a hundred people, you're not doing too badly. Thanks to Shoba, Shukumar is most definitely not a starving grad student.

    The grant was a great honor, but when converted into dollars it was not generous. As a result, Mr. Pirzada lived in a room in a graduate dormitory, and did not own a proper stove or a television set. And so he came to our house to eat dinner and watch the evening news. (WMPCTD 2)

    Such a great example of how class works in different places: here, we have Mr. Pirzada, a highly-educated academic, unable to afford much of anything in the States. In Pakistan, he's got a 3-story house.

    Mr. Kapasi felt insulted that Mrs. Das should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret. She did not resemble the patients in the doctor's office, those who came glassy-eyed and desperate, unable to sleep or breathe or urinate with ease, unable, above all, to give words to their pains. (IM 161)

    The phrase "first world problems" comes to mind here when we think about Mrs. Das. Mr. Kapasi is a bit stunned by Mrs. Das's lack of perspective.

    She opened her mouth to say something, but as she glared at Mr. Kapasi some certain knowledge seemed to pass before her eyes, and she stopped. It crushed him; he knew at that moment that he was not even important enough to be properly insulted. (IM 162)

    One glance from Mrs. Das put Mr. Kapasi back in his place—as the inferior "other" rather than valued confidante.

    On certain afternoons Boori Ma visited her fellow residents. She enjoyed drifting in and out of the various households. The residents, for their part, assured Boori Ma that she was always welcome; they never drew the latch bars across their doors except at night. They went about their business, scolding children or adding up expenses or picking stones out of the evening rice. From time to time she was handed a glass of tea, the cracker tin was passed in her direction, and she helped children shoot chips across the carom board. Knowing not to sit on the furniture, she crouched, instead, in doorways and hallways, and observed gestures and manners in the same way a person tends to watch traffic in a foreign city. (ARD 37)

    We're just going to point out the obvious here. Even though these residents aren't even in an upper social class, there are clearly some boundaries between them and Boori Ma that Boori Ma can't cross (like sitting on furniture for instance). On one hand, Boori Ma complains loudly to anyone who'll listen about her sorrows since her deportation. On the other hand, she somehow now seems to accept the boundaries between her and the other residents.

    Miranda and Dev didn't argue. They went to movies at the Nickelodeon and kissed the whole time. They ate pulled pork and cornbread in Davis Square, a paper napkin tucked like a cravat into the collar of Dev's shirt. They sipped sangria at the bar of a Spanish restaurant, a grinning pig's head presiding over their conversation. They went to the MFA and picked out a poster of water lilies for her bedroom. One Saturday, following an afternoon concert at Symphony Hall, he showed her his favorite place in the city, the Mapparium at the Christian Science center, where they stood inside a room made of glowing stained-glass panels, which was shaped like the inside of a globe, but looked like the outside of one. (S 36)

    We're guessing that part of Dev's appeal is that he gives Miranda, a Midwestern girl, a taste (literally) of the good life. Pulled pork; sangria; the MFA; the symphony. No wonder Miranda goes all in for the affair. Who knows when she'll meet another guy who'll take her out like this?

    "Yes," Mrs. Sen replied. The mention of the word seemed to release something in her. She neatened the border of her sari where it rose diagonally across her chest. She, too, looked around the room, as if she noticed in the lampshades, in the teapot, in the shadows frozen on the carpet, something the rest of them could not. "Everything is there." (MS 7-11)

    Clearly, Mrs. Sen had a more luxurious life in India. Missing all those things from her upper-class life in India makes immigrating to America, as the wife of a modestly-paid professor, especially difficult. Like Mr. Pirzada, this family experienced a drastic change in social class after immigration.

    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)

    This house is awesome. It's so "impressive" that Lahiri needs to use the word twice to describe it. Excessive? Maybe. The point seems to be that Sanjeev's "made it."

    That morning in the storage room, Bibi wept. "She says I'm contagious, like the pox. She says I'll spoil the baby." She was breathing heavily, her pupils fixed to a peeling spot on the wall. "What will become of me?" There was still no response to the advertisement in the newspaper. "Is it not punishment enough that I bear this curse alone? Must I also be blamed for infecting another?" Dissent within the Haldar household grew. The wife, convinced that Bibi's presence would infect the unborn child, began to wrap woolen shawls around her tumid belly. In the bathroom Bibi was given separate soaps and towels. According to the scullery maid, Bibi's plates were not washed with the others. (TBH 22)

    This is about as close as Lahiri gets to describing someone who's "untouchable." Bibi isn't actually a member of the minority group typically seen as "untouchable" (the lowest social caste). But her illness makes her more or less untouchable, and that makes the whole "treatment" of Bibi seem even more unfair and cruel.

    Mala and I live in a town about twenty miles from Boston, on a tree-lined street much like Mrs. Croft's, in a house we own, with a garden that saves us from buying tomatoes in summer, and room for guests. We are American citizens now, so that we can collect social security when it is time. Though we visit Calcutta every few years, we have decided to grow old here. I work in a small college library. We have a son who attends Harvard University. (TFC 150)

    This passage illustrates very clearly the ideal upward trajectory for immigrants towards financial security and a better life for the next generation.

  • Dissatisfaction

    In the beginning he 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. But it wasn't a consolation. 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)

    That empty mug on the countertop seems like a pretty good sign of the mutual emptiness both Shoba and Shukumar feel about themselves, their marriage, and their family in general.

    "Isn't this an air-conditioned car?" she asked, still blowing on her hand. The window on Tina's side was broken and could not be rolled down.

    "Quit complaining," Mr. Das said. "It isn't so hot."

    "I told you to get a car with air-conditioning," Mrs. Das continued. "Why do you do this, Raj, just to save a few stupid rupees. What are you saving us, fifty cents?" (IM 46-48)

    Suffice it to say, Mrs. Das is a whiner. Nothing seems to satisfy her, not her kids, not her marriage, not her life in America. Maybe this is why she looks for a magical solution to her problems by confessing her sins to Mr. Kapasi.

    "About what I've just told you. About my secret, and about how terrible it makes me feel. I feel terrible looking at my children, and at Raj, always terrible. I have terrible urges, Mr. Kapasi, to throw things away. One day I had the urge to throw everything I own out the window, the television, the children, everything. Don't you think it's unhealthy?" (Interpreter of Maladies 152)

    This is Mrs. Das going on and on about her "malady" to Mr. Kapasi. Notice how she says "terrible" so many times? Makes us wonder whether she actually enjoys how horrible she is and how awful she feels. Do you think that some people are really invested in being unhappy? That they are getting something out of it?

    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)

    Oh, the lure of private property…the wives can't be satisfied with what the Dalals have given the community. Can anything really satisfy the wives? It sounds like this might be the beginning of an endless striving more and more. A game of "keeping up with the Dalals."

    As she turned the pages she imagined the quarrels Rohin had overheard in his house in Montreal. "Is she pretty?" his mother would have asked his father, wearing the same bathrobe she'd worn for weeks, her own pretty face turning spiteful. "Is she sexy?" His father would deny it at first, try to change the subject. "Tell me," Rohin's mother would shriek, "tell me if she's sexy." In the end his father would admit that she was, and his mother would cry and cry, in a bed surrounded by a tangle of clothes, her eyes puffing up like bullfrogs. "How could you," she'd ask, sobbing, "how could you love a woman you don't even know?" (S 171)

    This is a significant scene even though it takes place in Miranda's imagination. This is the first time Miranda fully imagines what it's like to be in a dead-end marriage with a cheating husband. Neither husband nor wife finds satisfaction with each other, let alone happiness. Good thing Miranda drops Dev soon after like the bad habit he is. Who wants to be satisfied with so little?

    She told Eliot to put on his shoes and his jacket, and then she called Mr. Sen at the university. Eliot tied his sneakers by the bookcase and waited for her to join him, to choose from her row of slippers. After a few minutes he called out her name. When Mrs. Sen did not reply, he untied his sneakers and returned to the living room, where he found her on the sofa, weeping. Her face was in her hands and tears dripped through her fingers. Through them she murmured something about a meeting Mr. Sen was required to attend. Slowly she stood up and rearranged the cloth over the telephone. Eliot followed her, walking for the first time in his sneakers across the pear-colored carpet. She stared at him. Her lower eyelids were swollen into thin pink crests. "Tell me, Eliot. Is it too much to ask?" (MS 64)

    Is it too much to ask? Is Mrs. Sen being unreasonably demanding to expect Mr. Sen to drive her to the fish market and pick up some fresh fish in the middle of his work day? After all, she did give up everything to move halfway across the world to be with him. Tough call—what do you think?

    He was getting nowhere with her, with this woman whom he had known for only four months and whom he had married, this woman with whom he now shared his life. He thought with a flicker of regret of the snapshots his mother used to send him from Calcutta, of prospective brides who could sing and sew and season lentils without consulting a cookbook. Sanjeev had considered these women, had even ranked them in order of preference, but then he had met Twinkle. (TBH 62)

    She does cook, even if it's not in a traditional way. Seriously—what's not to like?

    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….In this manner she raised the boy and ran a business in the storage room, and we did what we could to help. (TBH 52)

    You would think that getting raped and then getting pregnant from the rape would be more than enough reason for Bibi to check out from the world or complain, for the rest of her days, about her life. But Bibi totally surprises—she does the opposite of what you'd expect. Instead of griping, she gets down to business—for real—and makes a solid life for herself and her kid.

    I was not touched by her words. We had spent only a handful of days in each other's company. And yet we were bound together; for six weeks she had worn an iron bangle on her wrist, and applied vermilion powder to the part in her hair, to signify to the world that she was a bride. In those six weeks I regarded her arrival as I would the arrival of a coming month, or season—something inevitable, but meaningless at the time. (TFC 78)

    Here's our last narrator, at first emotionally unaffected by his new wife, Mala. Maybe starting out dissatisfied is actually a good thing? Maybe if you have no expectations, like our narrator, there's a higher likelihood of things turning out better than you expected?

  • Memory and the Past

    When the cab pulled away that morning for the airport, Shoba stood waving good-bye in her robe, with one arm resting on the mound of her belly as if it were a perfectly natural part of her body. Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. (ATM 8-9)

    This is one of the last (if not the last) happy memories Shukumar has of Shoba and him, because Shoba is still pregnant. It's a vivid memory he returns to often. Side note: we think it's pretty cool of Lahiri to show how comfortable Shoba is in her totally huge, pregnant self compared to how insecure and uncomfortable Shukumar is in his body.

    He had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise. (ATM 103)

    What's really cruel about this memory? It's Shukumar's painful memory, and he eventually forces Shoba to share it with him.

    I have no memory of his first visit, or of his second or his third, but by the end of September I had grown so accustomed to Mr. Pirzada's presence in our living room that one evening, as I was dropping ice cubes into the water pitcher, I asked my mother to hand me a fourth glass from a cupboard still out of my reach. (WMPCTD 4)

    This quote reveals how memories are often created in childhood. Who says kids remember everything at first sight? Try repetition instead, lots of repetition.

    He watched as [the slip of paper] rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below. Mr. Kapasi observed it too, knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve forever in his mind. (IM 69)

    This scene is so striking to Mr. Kapasi that he seems to be taking a mental picture of it, knowing that it would become his final impression of the Das family after the other memories faded.

    "Boori Ma's mouth is full of ashes. But that is nothing new. What is new is the face of this building. What a building like this needs is a real durwan." 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. All were eager to begin their search for a real durwan. (ARD 74-75)

    Out with the old, in with the new…sounds simple and harmless until you're dealing with an actual person. As a symbol of the old, the past, Boori Ma's presence has to be obliterated for the residents to see themselves as moving forward with progress.

    But the next Sunday it snowed, so much so that Dev couldn't tell his wife he was going running along the Charles. The Sunday after that, the snow had melted, but Miranda made plans to go to the movies with Laxmi, and when she told Dev this over the phone, he didn't ask her to cancel them. The third Sunday she got up early and went out for a walk. (S 190)

    This is how the past is made…Sunday by passing Sunday. It's a good thing time moves on. Some memories aren't meant to be held onto.

    "My sister has had a baby girl. By the time I see her, depending if Mr. Sen gets his tenure, she will be three years old. Her own aunt will be a stranger. If we sit side by side on a train she will not know my face." (MS 54)

    Mrs. Sen can't help projecting what the future will become: a past full of regret and lack of family connection.

    They had met only four months before. Her parents, who lived in California, and his, who still lived in Calcutta, were old friends, and across continents they had arranged the occasion at which Twinkle and Sanjeev were introduced—a sixteenth birthday party for a daughter in their circle—when Sanjeev was in Palo Alto on business. At the restaurant they were seated side by side at a round table with a revolving platter of spareribs and egg rolls and chicken wings, which, they concurred, all tasted the same. They had concurred too on their adolescent but still persistent fondness for Wodehouse novels, and their dislike for the sitar, and later Twinkle confessed that she was charmed by the way Sanjeev had dutifully refilled her teacup during their conversation. (TBH 36)

    Sanjeev already sounds nostalgic for the past, like he and Twinkle have been married for years. Note: if you feel like getting married to the person you just met, wait a little longer. It might save you from being like Sanjeev: wishing for a do-over.

    Things had not been so bad for Bibi before her father died. (The mother had not survived beyond the birth of the girl.) In his final years, the old man, a teacher of mathematics in our elementary schools, had kept assiduous track of Bibi's illness in hopes of determining some logic to her condition. "To every problem there is a solution," he would reply whenever we inquired after his progress. He reassured Bibi. For a time he reassured us all. (TBH 19)

    Bibi was once loved. The community remembers this. Does Bibi?

    Whenever we make that drive, I always make it a point to take Massachusetts Avenue, in spite of the traffic. I barely recognize the buildings now, but each time I am there I return instantly to those six weeks as if they were only the other day, and I slow down and point to Mrs. Croft's street, saying to my son, here was my first home in America, where I lived with a woman who was 103. "Remember?" Mala says, and smiles, amazed, as I am, that there was ever a time that we were strangers. My son always expresses his astonishment, not at Mrs. Croft's age, but at how little I paid in rent, a fact nearly as inconceivable to him as a flag on the moon to a woman born in 1866. (TFC 151)

    This is a rare passage in the book where a character looks back with warm and happy memories of a past time, uncomplicated by trauma or regret. Is this related to the narrator's age at this point in the story? Do we see the past differently in middle age?

  • Contrasting Regions and Cultural Identity

    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)

    The Bradfords are presented here as basically your perfect, suburban American couple. Even though Shoba and Shukumar live in the same neighborhood as the Bradfords though, you might as well think of Shoba and Shukumar as a couple from a totally different planet. They're that different from the Bradfords and they feel it. Is it a cultural difference? Does it matter that Shoba and Shukumar are Indian-American? Or is it the experience of losing their baby that sets them apart?

    "Lilia has plenty to learn at school," my mother said. "We live here now, she was born here"

    "How can you possibly expect her to know about Partition? Put those nuts away."

    "But what does she learn about the world?" My father rattled the cashew can in his hand. "What is she learning?"

    We learned American history, of course, and American geography. (WMPCTD 13-15)

    Does it seem strange that a child of Indian immigrants knows so little about India's history? Her mother recognizes that Lilia identifies with American culture now, but her father wants her to understand and care about what is happening in India and Pakistan.

    Lilia watches (on TV) the events unfolding in Pakistan with detachment. Do you think that the second generation (Lilia's future children, e.g.) will care about their history?

    Now that I had learned Mr. Pirzada was not an Indian, I began to study him with extra care, to try to figure out what made him different. I decided that the pocket watch was one of those things. When I saw it that night, as he wound it and arranged it on the coffee table, an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being in lived in Dacca first. I imagined Mr. Pirzada's daughters rising from sleep, tying ribbons in their hair, anticipating breakfast, preparing for school. Our meals, our actions, were only a shadow of what had already happened there, a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really belonged. (WMPCTD 28)

    We're just amazed by how Lahiri can make a simple difference in time zones (US eastern time vs. Pakistani time) seem like an entirely different reality. For Mr. Pirzada, it is. That's his real life. It makes sense. Wouldn't you be living according to the time of your homeland if your family were still there trying to survive a war?

    As they waited at the tea stall, Ronny, who looked like the older of the two boys, clambered suddenly out of the back seat, intrigued by a goat tied to a stake in the ground.

    "Don't touch it," Mr. Das said. He glanced up from his paperback tour book, which said "INDIA" in yellow letters and looked as if it had been published abroad. (IM 3-4)

    Note the irony here: a guy who looks Indian with an Indian last name needs a tour book in order to experience "INDIA," a tour book that isn't even published in India. Mr. Das and his family might as well not be Indian at all. At least, that's what Mr. Kapasi thinks.

    The freezer case was stuffed with bags of pita bread and vegetables she didn't recognize. The only thing she recognized was a rack lined with bags and bags of the Hot Mix that Laxmi was always eating. She thought about buying some for Laxmi, then hesitated, wondering how to explain what she'd been doing in an Indian grocery.

    "Very spicy," the man said, shaking his head, his eyes traveling across Miranda's body. "Too spicy for you." (S 69-70)

    How does the store owner know that the Hot Mix is too spicy for Miranda? Just because she isn't Indian doesn't mean she can't enjoy a little Hot Mix too. But we see how far she has to go to learn about Dev's culture. She can't even identify the vegetables in the grocery's freezer. Miranda in the Indian grocery is an ideal image of the meeting of two cultures and the misunderstandings that can happen.

    He especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things, seated on newspapers on the living room floor. Instead of a knife she used a blade that curved like the prow of a Viking ship, sailing to battle in distant seas. The blade was hinged at one end to a narrow wooden base. The steel, more black than silver, lacked a uniform polish, and had a serrated crest, she told Eliot, for grating. Each afternoon Mrs. Sen lifted the blade and locked it into place, so that it met the base at an angle. Facing the sharp edge without ever touching it, she took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. (MS 13)

    We think it's pretty cool how Eliot's just fascinated by the different chopping tool and techniques Mrs. Sen brings to his little New England world. It gives us an unbiased view of the contrast between their worlds. Being young and naïve, Eliot simply observes and notices, without making assumptions or judgments, like his mother has done. This is similar to how Lilia observes Mr. Pirzada—watching and remembering.

    "I hope you don't mind my asking," Douglas said, "but I noticed the statue outside, and are you guys Christian? I thought you were Indian."

    "There are Christians in India," Sanjeev replied, "but we're not." (TBH 91-92)

    Douglas' question is probably Sanjeev's worst nightmare. It's exactly the reaction he wanted to avoid, what with all the Christian knick-knacks Twinkle's dug up from around the house. Why is Sanjeev so worried about being seen as Christian? He's Hindu, but so is Twinkle and she doesn't seem to care. Is he worried about appearing non-Indian (even though there are, as he says, Christians in India)? Do he and Twinkle have different views about maintaining their cultural and religious identities?

    Like the rest of us, she wanted to serve suppers, and scold servants, and set aside money in her almari to have her eyebrows threaded every three weeks at the Chinese beauty parlor. (TBH 5)

    This is a small detail, but it shows how unexpectedly international Bibi's neighborhood is. Her India is a pretty global India already, with a Chinese beauty parlor around the corner. It makes Bibi's world seem a little less small, and maybe even a little more familiar to those of us in the States.

    I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name. For three weeks I sailed on the SS Roma, an Italian cargo vessel, in a cabin next to the ship's engine, across the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and finally to England. I lived in north London, in Finsbury Park, in a house occupied entirely by penniless Bengali bachelors like myself, at least a dozen and sometimes more, all struggling to educate and establish ourselves abroad. (TFC 1)

    It's kind of amazing how many borders our narrator has to cross in order to finally end up in America. In London, he seeks out other Bengalis to live with, young men who eat the same food and listen to the same music. This gives him a sense of belonging after having made a pretty daunting move to emigrate.

    Because India had been part of the British Empire, England was a common destination for Indian immigrants seeking education and employment. (Source)

    Instead she commanded, "Say 'splendid'!" I was both baffled and somewhat insulted by the request. It reminded me of the way I was taught multiplication tables as a child, repeating after the master, sitting cross-legged, without shoes or pencils, on the floor of my one-room Tollygunge school. It also reminded me of my wedding, when I had repeated endless Sanskrit verses after the priest, verses I barely understood, which joined me to my wife. I said nothing. (TFC 29-30)

    The narrator's meetings with Mrs. Croft are also good images of encounters of very different cultures. Although even with this woman so different from him, he sees similarities to other events in his life. There are "Mrs. Crofts" everywhere.

  • Foreignness and the "Other"

    Shukumar hadn't spent as much time in India as Shoba had. His parents, who settled in New Hampshire, used to go back without him. The first time he'd gone as an infant he'd nearly died of amoebic dysentery. His father, a nervous type, was afraid to take him again, in case something were to happen, and left him with his aunt and uncle in Concord. As a teenager he preferred sailing camp or scooping ice cream during the summers to going to Calcutta. It wasn't until after his father died, in his last year of college, that the country began to interest him, and he studied its history from course books as if it were any other subject. He wished now that he had his own childhood story of India. (ATM 44)

    Here's something to think about: is it possible that even Shukumar views India as an exotic "other" place?

    Now that I had learned Mr. Pirzada was not an Indian, I began to study him with extra care, to try to figure out what made him different. I decided that the pocket watch was one of those things. When I saw it that night, as he wound it and arranged it on the coffee table, an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first. (WMPCTD 28)

    Lilia's just reminding us here that, to a child, everyone who's even a little bit different can seem like a foreign "other." Even though Mr. Pirzada is Pakistani only because of a political decision to partition the country, her parents make it clear that he is not Indian or Hindu. Like children often do, she focuses on a small detail that seems to make him different—his pocket watch.

    The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did, the children in stiff, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors. Mr. Kapasi was accustomed to foreign tourists; he was assigned to them regularly because he could speak English. (IM 2)

    Despite looking Indian, Mr. Kapasi refers to the Das family as foreign tourists. Earlier, Mr. Das had made a point of telling him proudly that he and Mrs. Das were born in the U.S. (Interpreter of Maladies 10) Mr. Kapasi sees through their ethnicity to what really makes them foreign—their dress, attitudes, and behavior.

    It was this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition. At that time, she maintained, the turmoil had separated her from a husband, four daughters, a two-story brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffer boxes whose skeleton keys she still wore, along with her life savings, tied to the free end of her sari. (ARD 2)

    We're wondering if Boori Ma makes herself seem even more foreign and exotic to the residents in the building by telling these tales about her time before Calcutta.

    For months afterward, [Miranda] had been too frightened even to walk on the same side of the streets as the Dixits' house…for a while, she even held her breath until she reached the next lawn, just as she did when the school bus passed a cemetery. (S 59)

    As a child, Miranda was so frightened by the "other-ness" of the foods, aromas, and decorations in the Dixit family's house that she avoided it altogether. We can probably assume that her own family didn't do much to explain the Dixits' culture or reach out to the family.

    It shamed her now. Now, when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon. One Saturday, having nothing else to do, she walked all the way to Central Square, to an Indian restaurant, and ordered a plate of tandoori chicken. As she ate she tried to memorize phrases printed at the bottom of the menu, for things like "delicious" and "water" and "check, please." The phrases didn't stick in her mind, and so she began to stop from time to time in the foreign-language section of a bookstore in Kenmore Square, where she studied the Bengali alphabet in the Teach Yourself series. Once she went so far as to try to transcribe the Indian part of her name, "Mira," into her Filofax, her hand moving in unfamiliar directions, stopping and turning and picking up her pen when she least expected to. (S 60)

    It may be easy to criticize Miranda for succumbing to the whole exotic-Indian thing. Dev's other-ness is very attractive and exciting to her. But here's another way to look at it: isn't it good that Miranda tries to learn about what she thinks is "Indian" culture? True, she's totally stumbling around, but she's trying to be open to learning about it.

    People evolve. As an adult, Miranda's ashamed of how she felt about her neighbors, the Dixits. Could the affair with Dev also be a way to work out some old guilt?

    "That word. 'Sexy.' What does it mean?"

    He looked down, suddenly shy. "I can't tell you."

    "Why not?"

    "It's a secret."

    He cupped his hands around his mouth, and then he whispered, "It means loving someone you don't know." (S 160-167)

    You know what they say, "Out of the mouths of babes…" Rohin brings up a really good point (whether he knows it or not): does being foreign and different make a person more potentially sexy? That, at least, seems to be the case for both Miranda and Dev.

    She had a small gap between her teeth and faded pockmarks on her chin, yet her eyes were beautiful, with thick, flaring brows and liquid flourishes that extended beyond the natural width of the lids. She wore a shimmering white sari patterned with orange paisleys, more suitable for an evening affair than for that quiet, faintly drizzling August afternoon. Her lips were coated in a complementary coral gloss, and a bit of the color had strayed beyond the borders.

    Yet it was his mother, Eliot had thought, in her cuffed, beige shorts and her rope-soled shoes, who looked odd. (MS 3-4)

    Reason #1201 for why Lahiri is awesome: she can totally subvert your expectations. Here, she leads you to think that Eliot views Mrs. Sen as this exotic creature, when in fact, Eliot sees Mrs. Sen as totally appropriate in her own setting. It's his mother that seems out of place. In contrast to Miranda, he's not afraid of someone different.

    Nearly a week had passed before they discovered, one Saturday afternoon, a larger-than-life-sized watercolor poster of Christ, weeping translucent tears the size of peanut shells and sporting a crown of thorns, rolled up behind a radiator in the guest bedroom. Sanjeev had mistaken it for a window shade.

    "Oh, we must, we simply must put it up. It's too spectacular." (TBH 22-23)

    Here's an example of someone being open to enjoying something from another culture, even if she thinks it's tacky. Sanjeev, as we learned before, can't deal with it. He doesn't want it casting doubt on his Indian and Hindu identity.

    "It's Bibi," the wife wailed. "She's done it, she's infected our child. We should never have let her back down here. We should never have let her back into this house."

    And so Bibi started to spend her nights in the storage room again. At the wife's insistence Haldar even moved her camp cot up there, along with a tin trunk that contained her belongings. Her meals were left covered with a colander at the top of the stairs. (TBH 41-42)

    Here, Bibi is very much the "other" even within her own family. She gets treated more like an animal than a person.

    She looked at me, noticing my bare feet (I still felt strange wearing shoes indoors, and always removed them before entering my room). "Are you new to Boston?"

    "New to America, madame."

    "From?" She raised her eyebrows.

    "I am from Calcutta, India."

    "Is that right? We had a Brazilian fellow, about a year ago. You'll find Cambridge a very international city." (TFC 66-70)

    Why does Mrs. Croft's daughter feel the need to say that they had a Brazilian boarder once?

  • Community

    Shoba had thrown him a surprise birthday party last May. One hundred and twenty people had crammed into the house—all the friends and the friends of friends they now systematically avoided…

    Since September their only guest had been Shoba's mother. (ATM 23-24)

    It's not surprising that Shoba and Shukumar avoid most of their friends after their baby dies. The story's definitely a far cry from the way the community is featured in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," although Bibi retreats, too, after her trauma.

    The supermarket did not carry mustard oil, doctors did not make house calls, neighbors never dropped by without an invitation, and of these things, every so often, my parents complained. In search of compatriots, they used to trail their fingers, at the start of each new semester, through the columns of the university directory, circling surnames familiar to their part of the world. It was in this manner that they discovered Mr. Pirzada, and phoned him, and invited him to our home. (WMPCTD 3)

    This shows the lengths some immigrants might go to in order to recreate a sense of "home" and community. Like searching randomly through a phonebook for foreign names that sound familiar. Clearly, this is way before Facebook, but even today, it's not unusual for immigrant groups to cluster in particular neighborhoods in cities and establish shops where you can buy familiar foods and other items. Think Chinatown, "Little Italy," etc.

    Most of all, the residents liked that Boori Ma, who slept each night behind the collapsible gate, stood guard between them and the outside world. (ARD 12)

    Just a reminder that the residents once liked Boori Ma because she was useful to the community. What's ironic is that she eventually becomes of those that they felt they needed to be guarded from. The lines around this community were very clearly drawn, even within what was probably a pretty homogeneous neighborhood.

    On certain afternoons Boori Ma visited her fellow residents. She enjoyed drifting in and out of the various households. The residents, for their part, assured Boori Ma that she was always welcome; they never drew the latch bars across their doors except at night. They went about their business, scolding children or adding up expenses or picking stones out of the evening rice. From time to time she was handed a glass of tea, the cracker tin was passed in her direction, and she helped children shoot chips across the carom board. Knowing not to sit on the furniture, she crouched, instead, in doorways and hallways, and observed gestures and manners in the same way a person tends to watch traffic in a foreign city. (ARD 37)

    Boori Ma gets to drift in an out of the residents' households pretty freely, but it doesn't seem like she's all that welcome. What kind of community does Boori Ma really have?

    Before the coldest weeks set in, we had the shutters of the storage room repaired and attached a sheet of tin to the doorframe, so that she would at least have some privacy. Someone donated a kerosene lamp; another gave her some old mosquito netting and a pair of socks without heels. At every opportunity we reminded her that we surrounded her, that she could come to us if she ever needed advice or aid of any kind. For a time we sent our children to play on the roof in the afternoons, so that they could alert us if she was having another attack. But each night we left her alone. (TBH 47)

    As amazing as Bibi's friends are, they can't protect her at night, which leaves her vulnerable. But even so, this community goes above and beyond to help Bibi out. The community is the real star of this story.