Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“Mrs. Sen’s”

Another babysitter, another boy charge – this time the boy, Eliot, is American, and the caretaker, Mrs. Sen, is an Indian living in America with her husband. Mrs. Sen suffers the slings and arrows of living in a foreign country with quiet dignity.

The boy’s mother displays a not-so subtle distaste for anything Indian. She seems almost to be self-righteous about it. She wants the simplicity of the standard American servant/employer relationship. Mrs. Sen prevents this by offering the mother food, insisting she come into the apartment, and by letting the mother know that in India, “we have a driver.”

Eliot observed as Mrs. Sen “paced the apartment, staring at the plastic-covered lampshades as if noticing them for the first time.” She also listens to tapes of her family members speaking. I wondered, since Eliot betrays no feelings throughout the story, if he finds Mrs. Sen and her home life as sad as I do. Did you feel sad reading of Mrs. Sen’s daily routines?

I predicted that Mrs. Sen would have a car accident. Did you? Do you see a predictable plot twist as a flaw in a story? Should a story be unpredictable?

What does the fresh fish represent for Mrs. Sen? Her husband? Eliot? How did you feel when Mrs. Sen was reprimanded by the bus driver/ passenger because of the fish’s odor?

What impression will Mrs. Sen have on Eliot in the long term? Do you think he will remember the time he spent with her? Did it mean anything to him?

Monday, September 17, 2007


Miranda, a twenty-something American woman, is having an affair with Dev, a Bengali-American man. Miranda's co-worker Laxmi obsesses about her cousin, recently deserted by her husband for a another woman.

One idea presented here is that some people are not interested in geography until they become involved with someone from a particular part of the world. Then they want to know more, and the "foreign land" becomes fetishized. Miranda is using Dev like a tourist to “experience” her idea of India:
“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.”

Do you think Lahiri has any sympathy for Miranda? (I wondered if Lahiri had encountered Miranda in America, in real life.) On one hand, Miranda seems to embody a certain type of person: she means well in the way she relates to people of other races, but gets it all wrong. At the same time, she displays an admirable strength for a woman in the throws of a passionate, doomed affair; she is able to pull herself out before her heart is broken.

Rohin, the young boy, makes me uncomfortable with his behavior. Why doesn’t he make Miranda uncomfortable? Why doesn’t she explain normal boundaries to him, the way another adult caretaker would?

Why IS Miranda so able to let go of Dev? Did that surprise you? How did her interaction with Rohin help her to move on?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

“ A Real Durwan”

Boori Ma, Sweeper of the Stairwell, like Mr. Pirzada, is a victim of Partition and has been deported to Calcutta as a result. She sleeps under the stairs of the building where she is allowed to live, functioning as a doorman, or durwan, for the building. Boori Ma is a character, but she’s hard to like, as are the people in her building. Boori Ma wants to be special, as evidenced in her reaction to finding herself terribly itchy one morning:
“Boori Ma preferred to think that what irritated her bed, what stole her sleep, what burned like peppers across her thinning scalp and skin, was of a less mundane origin.”

Do you believe that Boori Ma was truly rich before partition?

Did Boori Ma’s neighbors view her as a human being? Do you think she makes them uncomfortable, and if so, for what reasons?

When the neighbor tries to help Boori Ma by offering to buy her new bedding, what is her motivation?

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Interpreter of Maladies"

Young parents Mina and Raj Das, of New Brunswick, NJ, travel in India with their three children. Their tour guide is Mr. Kapasi, also employed as an “interpreter of maladies” for Gujarati patients who speak a language different from their doctor. Mrs. Das takes an interest in Mr. Kapasi, and vice versa. Mrs. Das uses Mr. Kapasi to express her frustration with her husband and her life, while Mr. Kapasi imagines she actually cares for him and that they will keep in touch after the Das family leaves India.

The first line of this story is “At the tea stall Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet.” Since neither Mr. or Mrs. Das is physically disabled, this says terrible things about these two as parents. Who could argue about such a task while a child waits to relieve him or herself? What better way to make a child feel like an unwanted nuisance?

In this story, American children of Indian immigrants visit India and act like “ugly American” tourists. They treat “the help” condescendingly. They set bad examples for their children. Have you witnessed behavior like this – in parents, adults, employees, employers? Ever been on either end of the equation? What happened?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”

This story takes place in the autumn of 1971, and is narrated by a young girl. Lilia’s Indian-born parents play host to a man who is temporarily working in the U.S. Political strife in his native East Pakistan keeps Mr. Pirzada in the dark about his family’s whereabouts. Mr. Pirzada finds a substitute daughter in Lilia, who indulges his gifts of candy and his concern for her on the American holiday Halloween.

Lilia’s parents, from India, circle “familiar” surnames in their university directory and contact the people for social purposes. Did you have any reaction to this practice? Have you ever known anyone who did this?

What are other ways that first or second-generation Americans connect with people of the same race, religion or nationality?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies: “A Temporary Matter”

In “A Temporary Matter,” a couple’s world is altered when the electricity and water in their apartment are shut off every evening for one hour. By the end, both aknowledge their detachment from each other and reveal secret betrayals.

It seems inconceivable that couples who commit to spending their lives together find themselves unable even to make conversation. Yet this seems to be a common type of marital strife. What keeps Shoba and Shukumar– and perhaps other couples in reality - from discussing their feelings?

Why are Shoba and Shukumar seemingly able to remember their love for each other in the darkness each night? Or is something else taking place?

Do you think Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage could have been saved had they voiced their frustrations before this week?

Interpreter of Maladies: Introduction


Today we begin a month-long discussion of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Here is some biographical information about the author:

Jhumpa Lahiri was born 1967 in London, England, and raised in Rhode Island. She is a graduate of Barnard College, where she received a B.A. in English literature, and of Boston University, where she received an M.A. in English, M.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was translated into twenty-nine languages and became a bestseller both in the United States and abroad. In addition to the Pulitzer, it received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Lahiri was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. The Namesake (2003) is Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel. She lives in New York with her husband and son. (source)

The stories in Interpreter of Maladies feature many recurring themes and situations, including:
-Interactions between Indian immigrants or Indian-Americans and white Americans.
-Various relationships are explored: employer/ employee, husband/wife, married/
unmarried lovers, tour guide/tourists, babysitter/mother/child.
-Precocious boys left in the care of unfamiliar women.
-The home life (and vacation life) of young, dissatisfied Indian or Indian-American
-Pitiful individuals are kept at a distance, either by choice or by marginalization.
-The role of one’s nationality in a foreign or adopted country.

Naturally, the stories in Interpreter are fraught with ideas and tensions. I’ve come up with observations and questions about each story, and will post entries about each story in the same order that they appear in the book. I hope we will draw comparisons and liasons between the stories and analyze the book on the whole. I look forward to your participation!