Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Community

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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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.

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