INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE DIPLOMA PROGRAM
English Extended Essay
This English Extended Essay is objectively aimed at presenting a comprehensive analysis of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri which is “Interpretation of Maladies”. The choice of this novel was made primarily because it is a multitude of stories and an autobiographical tone of Jhumpa Lahiri. The writer won a Pulitzer Prize for his work of art. This compilation of short stories is believed to be essentially honest in portrayal of characters and emerging from the core of the heart of the novelist. This novel present important issues relating to cultural issues and the discrimination which the characters are confronted with when they migrate to European lands. The writer present in a subtle manner real life experiences in this novel and the tales are a source of inspiration to many.
The beauty which lies in this story are that the protagonists are real people and not larger than life characters and hence the readers can identify with them and emphasize with their plight. The reader is engrossed in the storyline to such an extent that he no longer remains a reader but a mute spectator in the story travelling with the characters. Such is the strength of presentation of the writer.
I find this story appealing as it has a message for everyone from differing walks of life. The story tells us to confront and situation and devise means of resolving it. It further educates us to never give up on ourselves in the face of trying circumstances.
In order to carry out analysis, I have used literary tools to understand and make a presentation of the effect of employment of literary devices such as stage settings, imagery and thematic presentation in order to present its effect on the storyline and purpose of this literary work of art.
The Interpreter of Maladies reflects the trauma of self-transformation through immigration which ends up being an attempt in futility as resultantly there is a series of broken identities that form “multiple anchorages.” Lahiri’s stories present the futile diasporic struggle to keep hold of culture as primary characters that of her stories create new lives in foreign cultures. Relationships, language, rituals, and religion all help these characters maintain their culture in new surroundings even as they build a “hybrid realization” as Asian Americans. But the lack of harmony and happiness ultimately makes the attempt a futile experience.
Interpretation of Maladies brings to light many of the issues with identity faced by the Diaspora community. The book contains the stories of first and second generation Indian immigrants, as well as a few stories involving ideas of otherness among communities in India. The stories revolve around the difficulties of relationships, communication and a loss of identity for those in diaspora. No matter where the story takes place, the characters struggle with the same feelings of exile and the struggle between the two worlds by which they are torn. The stories deal with the always shifting lines between gender, sexuality, and social status within a diaspora. Whether the character be a homeless woman from India or an Indian male student in the United States, all the characters display the effects of displacement in a diaspora.
The characters in her stories dwell with a sense of dissatisfaction on account of their personal lives and experiences. The settings, narration, the mindsets of the characters and the interaction characters have with each other assist the readers in comprehending their plight and the futility of the situation.
Findings and Analysis:
Interpreter of Maladies:
Jhumpa’s thematic presentation of futility in the Interpreter of Maladies is somewhat subtle yet effective. The setting is just about perfect with the character placement effectively facilitating the futility in their relationships and aspirations. The Central characters in this tale are Mr. and Mrs. Das and the tour guide Mr. Kapasi. The writer through the interactions of the Das couple with their children Tina, Bobby and Ronny present to us the fact that their relationship with their children lack perfection and to a great extent seems futile as the children do not seem to obey their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Das seem more of sibling to their children than their parents as they are constantly squabbling among themselves. Mrs. Das is evidently not interested in the relationship which seems futile to her and the very fact that she describes Mr. Kapasi’s job as an interpreter of maladies as a romantic one leads Mr. Kapasi to fantasize about her which eventually turns out to be a futile exercise. An aspect which does not fail to draw attention of the reader is the instance when the Das couple are engaged in an argument as to who would take Tina to the bathroom is indicative of each one desire to shun responsibility. Here, a sense of futility is existent in the parental relationship the couple share towards their children.
Jhumpa has utilized the lack of communication as an aspect to present the futility of the relationship all the characters are dwelling in. Mr. Das is presented as a character always buried in his guide book while Mrs. Das hides her inner self behind her sunglasses. Mr. Kapasi is trapped in a loveless futile marriage spending lonely nights drinking tea by himself.
The futility of the relationship the Das family is in is very evident in the action of Mrs Das especially when she fails to offer puffed rice which she was gorging on by herself. The element of family sharing a meal fails to be present. This action of Mrs. Das indicates indifference and an underlying sense of hostility towards her spouse and children. The relationships they share is thus understood as being a futile relationship.
Mr Kapasi reveals the futility of his existence as he is working as an interpreter feels that his job is a failure as he is a scholar of many languages. The dissatisfaction he experiences in the job of an interpreter leads to a sense of futility within him. Futility is further expressed by the character when he states that the job of an interpreter was taken to pay of medical bills of his son who had contracted thyroid. His son’s death made his sacrifice of sorts a futile effort.
Mr. Kapasi’s fantasy ride commences with Mrs. Das. It becomes very evident to Mr. Kapasi that the Das Couple’s relationship lacks charm and harmony and is futile. He begins to fantasize about Mrs. Das when she admires his job as that of an interpreter. His fantasy leads to a peak when he and Mrs. Das are conversing while staring at the nudity depicted in the form of temple carvings. The sensuality of the situation is well created by the writer by placing her characters in a setting which is erotic leading to temptation but futile desires.
He decided to begin with the most obvious question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked,
“Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”
This quote appears towards the end of the story where Mrs. Das reveals the fact that Bobby is the son of a friend of Mr. Das whom she was intimate with while her husband was away. Mr. Kapasi questions her about her feeling and Mr. Kapasi makes one final interpretation. Mr. Kapasi feels that Mrs. Das desires absolution and not questioning, relief and not reflection. She and Mr. Kapasi are both lonely but the fact that they have differences keeps them apart thus making the possibility of a relationship futile.
Revelation leads to futility. The revelation made by Mrs Das about the legitimacy of her child to Mr. Kapasi was the blow which tarnishes the fantasy of Mr. Kapasi. For a short spell of time, Mr. Kapasi was on an imaginative trip which proved baseless and futile as he failed to accept the person who he was daydreaming about to have a scandalous past as such.
The revelation of Mrs. Das proves her infidelity further shattering the image of the Das family proving the fact that the relationship is more of an arrangement than a bonding of love.
The writer has aptly used setting to bring all her vital characters in the scene and weaving a storyline in a natural way facilitating the flow of human emotions at their various moment of interaction. The writer crafts every character in a natural and believable manner leading us to realize the fact that there are several relationships where people are bound together for the sake of fulfilling an arrangement commenced to fulfill a certain purpose but the lack of depth and gravity of the relationship proves the relationship to be a futile on as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Das and their relationship, Mr. Kapasi and his profession as an interpreter and a tour guide and his fascination for Mrs. Das which later on sours as he learns about her “real” self.
With regards to being in India, Mr. and Mrs. Das fail to connect with the country India as their home but have a tourists’ perspective which is very evident when Mr. Das snaps away a picture of the starving peasant instead of helping him. When Bobby is need of help when surrounded by monkeys, Mr. Das is excited about the picture he clicks instead of immediately helping the boy. This indicates a lack of understanding and connection with each other and the country they are in which they understand as being home. Thus the trip too can be safely understood as being an exercise in futility.
The camera of Mr. Das is symbolically employed by the writer to present the fact that Mr. Das view the world through his camera and in not in direct touch with reality. The camera proves to be an obstruction and proves to be a futile aspect blocking Mr. Das’s chance to view the real world devoid his camera.
“Interpreter of Maladies” is a story with a setting and dialogues which may not be larger than life but is as close and real as life could be though the writer presents her work as a fictionalized account of her imagination and creativity.
A Temporary Matter:
In this tale, the writer in all clarity wishes to point out that lack of trust and deceit in a relationship makes the existence of that relationship futile. The futility of the relationship of Shukumar and Shoba is visible through the game that Shoba and Shukumar play of revealing secrets; readers learn that deception has been a theme in their relationship which deteriorates the relationship. They have lied to each other, and the lies have been selfish ones-told not to spare the other’s feelings but to allow the person telling the lie to escape some discomfort or sacrifice. To avoid having dinner with Shukumar’s mother, Shoba lied and said she had to work late. Shukumar told Shoba that he lost a sweater she had given him, when in reality he returned the sweater and used the money to get drunk.
As these examples of deception are revealed throughout the story, it is clear that Shoba and Shukumar’s emotional estrangement began before the loss of their baby. They have always dealt with difficult situations and unpleasant emotions by lying and keeping secrets. When Shoba breaks the stalemate that their grief has caused by initiating a deceptive game, she is following an established pattern. Throughout the week of power outages, Shoba appears to be reaching out to Shukumar. In truth, she is engineering her final separation from him.
At the same time, the game that appears to be drawing them together also reveals a past filled with deception. Things have not always been as they seemed between these two people. In addition, readers learn early in the story that Shoba has always been one to plan ahead and that she keeps a separate bank account. Readers are left to wonder whether the pattern of deception will be broken or intensified.
The balance seems to shift decisively in favor of a happy ending when, on the fifth evening, the narrator declares, “They had survived a difficult time.” Shoba’s silence that evening has been interpreted as the calm after a storm. But that interpretation is as misleading as Shoba’s behavior has been. Readers, like Shukumar, have been given mixed signals and only learn at the end which set of clues was reliable.
The stage setting adds to the realm of the story. To depict futility of the relationship of the protagonists, the writer places the Bradford couple as neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Bradford are neighbors of Shoba and Shukumar. Shoba and Shukumar see them walking by, arm in arm, on their way to the bookstore on the second night of the power outage. The Bradfords seem to be a happily married couple and as such provide a contrast to Shoba and Shukumar. The narrator mentions that the Bradfords placed a sympathy card in Shoba and Shukumar’s mailbox when they lost their baby.
The light and dark stage setting present a realistic scenario where the reader can identify with the inner feeling of the characters. As the primary characters have their conflicts within their selves and with each other, the lightning assists in quick identification of their inert feeling. Here the writer, I opine has very meticulously employed the element of light and darkness to reveal the thought, apprehensions and turmoil of the characters making the presentation of the entire story line noteworthy.
“You went to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your mother, and I figured it would be a long call. I wanted to know if you’d promoted me from the margins of your newspaper.”
Instead of looking for clues about her future husband or finding something of earth-shattering importance, she looks to see if she is making up the little details of Shukumar’s life. Again, it is clear that the little things mask the greater realities.
Alienation further triggers of futility of the relationship. Shoba and Shukumar’s grief has led them to withdraw from each other. Until the nightly power outages began, they avoided each other. Shoba leaves for work early each morning, returns late, and often brings home extra work to occupy her evenings and weekends. When Shoba is home, Shukumar retreats to his computer and pretends to work on his dissertation. He has put the computer in the room that was to be the nursery because he knows that Shoba avoids that room. She comes in briefly each evening to tell him goodnight. He resents even this brief interaction, which Shoba initiates only out of a sense of obligation.
Shoba and Shukumar do not attempt to comfort or support each other. Each withdraws from the relationship, and they endure their grief as if they were two strangers living in a boardinghouse.
An important aspect to be noted about this story is the fact that the writer’s tone in presentation of this tale of grief, tragedy and deception is in totality neutral. This neutral tone is essentially employed to by the writer as the writer, I believe desires the readers form their own individual perspectives of each character and decide who and why they wish to empathize with. This style of presentation makes provision for an unbiased formation of a point of view on the part of the reader facilitated primarily by the writer. Many a times, writer tend to shadow their narrative with their personal and judgmental opinion which I believe that the writer here has refrained from doing so making this an exemplary work of art.
Mrs. Sen, the titular character of Lahiri’s story demonstrates the power that physical objects have over the human experience. This aspect is employed by the writer to display a sense of futility in the thoughts and existence of the titular character. During the entire story, Mrs. Sen is preoccupied with the presence or lack of material objects that she once had. Physically though Mrs. Sen is there where she is but mentally or rather emotionally she seems to be dwelling in another world, a world of the past. Whether it is fish from her native Calcutta or her special vegetable cutting blade, she has the tendency to cling to the material possessions that she is accustomed to, while firmly rejecting new experiences such as canned fish or even something as mundane as driving a car.
“‘At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements”
This moment illustrates that Mrs. Sen is referring to her neighborhood at home as a much more closely-knit community than that of the area where Eliot lives. Here she uses a slightly superior attitude when referring to her culture as opposed to Eliot’s, which helps her remain confident about staying true to her Indian roots while she physically lives in a different place.
Lack of the ability of the central character of Mrs. Sen to transcend successfully and accept her new world presents the futility of the situation. While her homesickness is certainly comprehensible given her lack of meaningful social connections, her item-centric nostalgia only accentuates the fact that the people she meets in America are no barrier to her acclimation. The man at the fish market takes the time to call Mrs. Sen and reserve her special fish. The policeman who questions Mrs. Sen after her automobile accident does not indict her. For all intents and purposes, the people in the story make it easy for Mrs. Sen to embrace life in America. But despite this, Mrs. Sen refuses to assimilate to any degree, continuing to wrap herself in saris, serving Indian canapés to Eliot’s mother, and putting off the prospect of driving. By living her life vicariously through remembered stories imprinted on her blade, her saris, and her grainy aerograms, Mrs. Sen resists assimilation through the power of material objects and the meaning they hold for her.
In this story, 11-year old Eliot begins staying with Mrs. Sen – a university professor’s wife – after school. The caretaker, Mrs. Sen, chops and prepares food as she tells Elliot stories of her past life in Calcutta, helping to craft her identity. Like “A Temporary Matter,” this story is filled with lists of produce, catalogs of ingredients, and descriptions of recipes. Emphasis is placed on ingredients and the act of preparation. Other objects are emphasized as well, such as Mrs. Sen’s colorful collection of saris from her native India. Much of the plot revolves around Mrs. Sen’s tradition of purchasing fish from a local seafood market. This fish reminds Mrs. Sen of her home and holds great significance for her. However, reaching the seafood market requires driving, a skill that Mrs. Sen has not learned and resists learning. At the end of the story, Mrs. Sen attempts to drive to the market without her husband, and ends up in an automobile accident. Eliot soon stops staying with Mrs. Sen thereafter.
To conclude with, I am of the conviction that Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer prize winner for this literary work of art “The Interpretation of Maladies” has undoubtedly excelled in creating a work of literary expression which presents human emotion and interaction in its rawest form. This makes each story believable and close to the readers heart. She has very well employed the human emotion of sorrow in most of the stories as this I believe is one emotion which every individual can deeply identify with and relate to. Her characters such as that of Mrs. Sen, Shoba, Sukumar, Mrs Das and the others are very realistic as they are presented as ordinary humans with issues which every other individual deals with. The added aspect to this realistic presentation is the fact that her characters are primarily migrants finding it hard to get acquainted to a European culture and are being confronted with culture issues and discrimination. She has woven a beautiful story line in each story and the readers are drawn enigmatically into her world and her style of storytelling which is essentially different in a unique way than their contemporaries.
The stage setting employed in each story differs and is highly apt to the story complementing the story and presenting the characters in a comprehensive way. The Temporary Matter, Mrs. Sen, Interpretation of Maladies etc. has stage setting which make the story realistic and not deviate the attention of the writer. This is an important aspect which can be understood in her works.
The language employed by the writer to present her characters is another vital aspect. The language is simple and precise without being dramatic. More importantly the body language of the character plays vital part in communicating the essence and the feeling within the characters.
Each story of hers has message or a theme which is learnt by the reader in the process of acquainting himself in her stories. Her bring out themes of deception, love, tragedy, discrimination in a manner most beautiful and subtle.
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