"What we have here is a failure to communicate." This famous quote from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, characterizes the plight of the characters in the short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. "A Temporary Matter," "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," and "Interpreter of Maladies", three stories in Lahiri's book Interpreter of Maladies, demonstrate how a failure to communicate dooms the relationships between the characters in each story. Not every breakdown in communication is for the same reason, but it is usually neglect for the partner's interests. This failure of the relationships is portrayed in these stories as due to a failure of one or both of the partners of the relationship to realize the needs and desires of the other. Lahiri portrays her characters as oblivious to the other partner's feelings or self-directed, only focusing on their own situation. In Lahiri's stories she lets us walk in the shoes of another person where she points out the obvious flaws that the protagonists seem to miss.
The story, "A Temporary Matter," begins with a notice that for five day electricity would be cut off for an hour in the neighborhood of Shukumar and Shoba, a young Indian couple. After the death of their baby, who died at birth, the two are going through depressions. They constantly avoid each other, only meeting up to have a silent dinner or have an awkward check-up on the other. The love in their relationship had become none-existent and the images of when they did love each other haunt Shukumar. Before the night of the first blackout Shukumar prepared dinner for Shoba, hoping to rekindle something between them. They had dinner by candle-light in silence, until Shoba brought up a little game where they had to tell each other something they had never told the other before. They did this every night until the first night after the blackouts. Shukumar had set up the dinner table as if the blackouts were still happening, but Shoba turned on the lights and brought up a serious subject. She revealed to Shukumar that she was preparing for a life without him. Shukumar then retorted with something that was equally as hurtful. Lahiri ends the story with the two sitting at the table weeping.
Lahiri uses her first story to illustrate to the reader how the neglect of one or both people in the relationship can cause it to fail; the inability to meet someone's needs or make sacrifices in a relationship ultimately dooms it. By the time of the nightly power outages, they had become "experts at avoiding each other," neither Shukumar nor Shoba was willing to face the other for fear of having to deal with the tragic loss of their baby (4). In their mutual depression they are both unwilling to help themselves and unable to relieve the stress they are living under, much less helping each other. They refused to let go of this tragedy, "The film in his camera still contained pictures of Shoba, in the yard, when she was pregnant" (15). The pictures represent a happier, idealized time in their relationship, and by keeping the pictures in his camera it shows that he is unwilling let go of this image and face the reality of the present. He cannot accept that their relationship is failing and neither can Shoba. They are unwilling and unable to move forward, dragged back into depression by the constant reminders of the death of their baby. The more they could not help themselves move on, the more they could not help the partner. Shukumar is stuck in a malaise and Shoba does everything to distract herself. They did not have the ability or the willpower to help themselves or each other; therefore they were stuck in a dying relationship.
To illustrate the fact that Shukumar and Shoba are too busy wallowing in their self-centered misery Lahiri snuck in the image of the dying plant in dried up dirt in the midst of all this misery, "Even though the plant was inches away from the tap, the soil was so dryâ€¦ he had to water it first before the candle would stand straight" (10). The plant and soil are a metaphor for the relationship. His relationship had life and many chances, but he neglected those chances. He was unwilling to water the plant, just like he unwilling to help his relationship. Even at the end, the plant is dead but he is still using the soil. He does not even watering the plant for the plant's sake, but using it for his own needs; just like when they have these intimate moments during the blackouts, he is not to keep his marriage alive, he is doing it to get his doubts and secrets off his chest, "It happened over fifteen years ago. He felt relief now, having told her" (17). These confessions were not meant to help mend the relationship but were used instead to relieve their conscience and ultimately ended up hurting each other, "Our baby was a boyâ€¦ he promised himself that day (the day the baby was born) he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then" (22). He knew this would hurt Shoba, but now he did it for personal gain and vengeance. Their self-centered attitude toward their relationship ultimately drove them apart.
In the short story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," the title character, Mr. Pirzada, a botanist from Dacca, India, leaves his wife and six daughters behind to study plant life in New England. Ten year old Lilia and her parents, an Indian family, invite Mr. Pirzada to come over to have dinner with them. While in the U.S. a war broke out in India and Dacca was hit. Mr. Pirzada would come every night to the house of Lilia and eat dinner with them. One of those nights in October, Lilia began to accept his constant visits, and even carved a pumpkin with him. On Halloween night Lilia was about to venture out trick-or-treating for her first time alone until Mr. Pirzada got worried and asked if he should go. Fearing losing her independence she told him not to worry, he sulked back surprised into the doorway. They do not talk again, and the family does not hear from him for months until one day they receive a letter from Mr. Pirzada telling them that he found his family and all were safe.
When Mr. Pirzada finds that the communication between him and his family is flawed, he slowly opens channels with Lilia's family. Mr. Pirzada's need for communication was shown "Each week [when] Mr. Pirzada wrote a letter to his wife, and sent comic books for his seven daughters" (24). However this proves to be an unsatisfying way of communication because it is one way communication; therefore he looks toward Lilia and her family to fill the void of the lost relationship with his daughters and his family. As Mr. Pirzada begins to go to dinners, he starts to treat Lilia more and more like his daughter. The turning point in their relationship is the carving of the pumpkin, "'Yes, let's carve it,'â€¦ For the first time we all gathered around the dining table..." (35). Before the carving of the pumpkin the height of the interaction between Mr. Pirzada and Lilia was when he gave her candy each night. They realized that they had to give up a little bit of comfort for him. He accepted the family because they took him in during his time of need. The whole family and Mr. Pirzada gathering around that table represented that Mr. Pirzada was part of the family. Through Mr. Pirzada's interactions, Lahiri illustrates that when one loses a line of communication, they look for it somewhere else.
A relationship is doomed to failure if one of the sides of the relationship neglects the needs of the other side. On Halloween night, fearful of losing her independence, Lilia chooses to spend the night with her friend instead of spending it with Mr. Pirzada (something typical for the American culture, but difficult for Mr. Pirzada to understand), and tells him, "'Don't worry'" (38). Disregarding Mr. Pirzada's fear that he'll lose another "daughter", Lilia neglects his needs and his pains. This act shows that she lacks the understanding that in order to help Mr. Pirzada she needs to sacrifice some things in order to keep her relationship with him alive. The communication between the two is broken down due to her obliviousness to the causes of this self-centered act. As such, their relationship fails: "For a long time we did not hear from him. Our evenings went on as usual, with dinners in front of the news" (41). Through her failure in communication, their relationship disintegrated. Throughout the days with Lilia's family, Mr. Pirzada's ties with them deepen, but when Lilia becomes oblivious to his needs, the relationship fails.
In Lahiri's third story "Interpreter of Maladies," Mr. Kapasi is a working man in India with two jobs, an interpreter for a doctor and a tour guide. He is stuck in a dysfunctional relationship after the doctor could not prevent the death of his child. One day he is assigned the Das's, a young, irresponsible, and equally dysfunctional couple with nothing that holds them together except three children. Mr. Kapasi is made aware of this very early on in the story, with the Das's allowing their children to do whatever they want. Midway through the trip, Mr. Kapasi tells them about his job as an interpreter. Mrs. Das takes a sudden interest in Mr. Kapasi that she did not display with her husband or kids, saying that his job seems "â€¦so romantic" (50). Mr. Kapasi becomes deeply enamored with Mrs. Das, feeling that her interest means that she loves him. He spends the rest of the story fantasizing about how their friendship would bloom, and worrying about leaving Mrs. Das or losing her interest. In order to spend more time with the family, he takes the family to the Sun Temple. Once there Mrs. Das stays in the car with Mr. Kapasi, where Mrs. Das confesses her failing relationship, her inability to get her stress off her chest, her affair, and that her youngest is not actually Mr. Das's. She asks Mr. Kapasi for a cure to make her feel better and make the pain go away, but Mr. Kapasi asks her, "Is it really pain you feelâ€¦ or is it guilt?" (66). She becomes angered by this and storms off to her family, where she finds that her son has been beaten by the monkeys for his food. The story ends with Mrs. Das kneeling down to take care of her child as the paper with the address of Mr. Kapasi (that she was going to use to mail him) flutters out of her bag.
Lahiri brings these two dysfunctional relationships together to display the different types of neglect: neglecting another and neglecting one's self. Through these two different types of neglect, she shows that without neglect a relationship is much more functional. In the very beginning Mr. Kapasi realizes that "Mr. and Mrs. Das were a bad match, just as he and his wife wereâ€¦ the bickering, the indifference, the protracted silenceâ€¦" (53). Although we see Mr. Kapasi care for and try to help his depression stricken wife, "The countless other ways he tried to console his wife and to keep her from crying in her sleepâ€¦," he " knew that his wife had little regard for his careerâ€¦" (53). Lahiri brings up the point that it only takes one to neglect and ruin a relationship. He began to understand that the reason he does not get along with his wife is because she neglects his feelings and help. The indifference for his job and the constant bickering is due to the wife's jealousy and self-centered thinking, "she resented the other lives he helpedâ€¦" (53). This is why Mr. Kapasi is love-stricken by Mrs. Das, "When Mr. Kapasi thought once again about how she had said, 'romantic,' the feeling of intoxication grew," because she seems to respect him and seems to makes him feel like his job is actually something worthwhile (53). The bickering, indifference, and silence was non-existent; she seemed genuinely interested in him. He feels like she realizes his troubles and does not neglect them like his wife does, therefore his affection grew. Due to the fact that his wife neglects his needs for respect, he looks for a new relationship elsewhere.
However in the same story, Lahiri reveals the other side of the spectrum: how neglecting one's self can tear apart a relationship. Mrs. Das reveals her unwillingness to reach out and search for an outlet or a friend, when she tells Mr. Kapasi that "â€¦she did not make many close friends. There was no one to confide in about [her husband] at the end of a difficult day, or share a passing thought or worry" (63). Simply put, she neglected her own needs. Instead of going to the trouble of finding someone to fill this need, she decided to cheat. She felt the ability to relieve herself of some of her stress, but this is ultimately unsatisfactory. In her continuing effort to relieve stress, she tells Mr. Kapasi some of her stories and secrets. It is only after the talk with Mr. Kapasi, she realizes that she is neglecting her own needs and neglecting the needs of her family, "When she whipped out the hair-brush, the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi's address on it fluttered away in the windâ€¦" (69). She realizes that she needs a loving family and he children need her. She stops neglecting her children by the act of brushing the hair of her beaten boy. It is clear that the communication had been rekindled between her and her family from there. The paper fluttering away represents that Mr. Kapasi will be unneeded as an outlet for communication because now she has her family. She is no longer oblivious to the fact that she needs her family as an outlet. Mrs. Das realizes that due to her neglecting herself she is neglecting her family, and therefore chooses to fix her problem of communication by reviving the relationship with her family.
In these three stories by Lahiri, failure of communication is caused by neglect. This is demonstrated by either one or both of the characters in the relationship acting oblivious to the other person's needs and/or is self-centered enough to not care. Oblivious neglect is the inability to recognize the needs of another and self-centered neglect is when one is unwilling to help or recognize these needs. The communication between Shukumar and Shoba breaks down due to their inability and unwillingness to help themselves or each other. The relationship between Lilia and Mr. Pirzada fails due to Lilia's obliviousness to the effects of her self-centered want for independence from Mr. Pirzada and her family. The failure between Mrs. Das and her family was caused by her obliviousness to her own need for an outlet of stress, while Mr. Kapasi failing relationship is due to his wife's selfishness and unwillingness to let Mr. Kapasi help her. Each of these relationships is different, yet the common thread is communication, or the lack thereof.