Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Foreignness and the "Other"

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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?

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