Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Contrasting Regions and Cultural Identity

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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.

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