Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Society and Class

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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.

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