Interpreter of Maladies is all about gaps in communication, even between people who speak the same language. But that doesn't mean characters don't communicate in Lahiri's stories; they just often struggle to do it. That's because these characters are all balancing huge cultural differences from their Bengali/Indian and American backgrounds. For them, there's no such thing as "regular" speech.
The biggest communication gap isn't between white Americans and Bengali or Indian immigrants in this book: it's between the second-generation Bengali/Indian-American married couples.
Too much talking leads to greater misunderstandings between people.
If you're looking for stories of marital bliss, you might want to move on. There are few successful marriages in the collection. The most troubled marriages in Interpreter of Maladies tend to look from the outside like they've got it all, and by "all," we mean a house in the suburbs and financial security. These stories force you to consider the American dream as a misguided aim of marriage. (Well, except the last story. That one's special.)
Arranged marriages are based on a more mature set of reasons than marriages by choice.
It's not racial or cultural differences that make marriage challenging; it's the differences in personality between spouses that can turn marriage into a war zone.
"Family first": that's what motivates and breaks the characters in Interpreter of Maladies. Why? Because "family" is all about responsibilities and (failed) expectations—what a son should do for his mother; what a husband should do for his wife; what a parent should do for a child. In fact, when you think of "family" in this book, your code word is "should." No fun-filled family outings to Six Flags here.
Families can break apart because the expectations of family members are too high and demanding.
If you don't have a secure financial background, you can't expect to have a happy family.
Dreams, hopes and plans don't just get "deferred" in Interpreter of Maladies. They disappear, fracture, even change midway through a character's story. What's the point? Dreams, hopes and plans are all about the future, and in Interpreter of Maladies, the future is inherently unstable and unknown, especially for the characters based in India. That's because life—in politics, economics, and society—get in the way of these characters' individual goals.
America's economic and political stability make Lahiri's America-based characters more successful at realizing their dreams than her India-based characters.
Lahiri's India-based characters are more flexible about their plans for the future than her American-based characters.
All you need to know about society and class in Interpreter of Maladies are these two things: the American Dream and the Indian caste system. Think of the American Dream and the caste system as ideas that control the values, philosophies and class outcomes of Lahiri's different characters. Their influences are everywhere and, and those influences aren't really beneficial in most of our stories.
The caste system and the American Dream produce a lot of class division and strife.
Having divisions in class (and knowing one's place in society) can actually help maintain social harmony.
Sometimes getting what you want isn't such a great thing. That's the situation for some of the characters in Interpreter of Maladies; they seem to fulfill their dreams and then—lo and behold—they find out that they're unhappy. That's because reality tends to turn these characters' dreams into less than they expected. Kind of like buying a Louis Vuitton bag and finding out that it's a fake.
Dissatisfied characters make for more interesting stories.
Materialism is the root cause for dissatisfaction in Lahiri's characters.
Generally speaking, the past isn't exactly a happy place for most of the characters in these stories. In fact, it's usually a portal to some pretty traumatic memories. What triggers these memories? For most of our characters, it's leaving their home country. The experience of immigration creates all sorts of difficult memories in Interpreter of Maladies.
To be a successful immigrant, you have to treat your homeland as something that's fully in the past.
To be a successful immigrant, you have to integrate memories of your homeland with your present life.
In Interpreter of Maladies, there aren't just two regions to think about. There are (at least) three to compare to each other: America, India and Pakistan. Why is the theme so complex? Because in this book, most of the key characters have made at least one or two major moves, usually across nations, due to war, politics, and economic need. One thread that runs through many of these stories is the forging of an identity when a person has left their native culture to live in another. All immigrant cultures in the U.S. have experienced the challenges of becoming American while maintaining ties to their heritage by their language, dress, cuisine, or religious customs.
Being from several different places means you're more socially and culturally adaptable.
Traumatic moves across countries can actually make you less socially and culturally adaptable
You know how sometimes you're just really curious about that other person who's different from you? In the world of Interpreter of Maladies, everyone ends up appearing "foreign" or "other" and, in fact, being an "other" is just an invitation to get to know that person more (and sometimes intimately). So if you're expecting this theme to be about how Bengali-Indian immigrants have it rough as the "Other," Lahiri makes it more complex than that.
Anyone can appear "foreign"; it just depends on your perspective.
Only the Bengali/Indian characters truly experience that feeling of being "Other" in this book.
Who exactly makes up a community anyway? It turns out that, in Interpreter of Maladies, the answer changes depending on where you are in the world. If you're in India, there's a good chance that the answer is your large group of neighbors. And if you're in America, you're either a singleton or your community is limited to your family. (Here's an interesting take on that.) That doesn't mean that Americans are lonelier than the Bengalis/Indians in this book, though. In fact, being in a community doesn't seem to affect a character's ability to feel lost and alone; it might even make the feeling worse.
In Lahiri's India, you can't escape your community because people are everywhere.
The idea of needing "personal space" would make no sense in some cultures.