Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Memory and the Past

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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?

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