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Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)

February 8, 2010

I read two short stories from this collection: “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Third and Final Continent.”

“Interpreter of Maladies” seems to be doing something interesting with its use of monkeys. There are monkeys all over the city, and as the story progresses they play an increasingly important role. At first, the Das family is entertained by them — the kids get excited, and Mr. Das asks Mr. Kapasi to stop the car so he can photograph them. He explains that the children have only ever seen monkeys in the zoo. The monkeys, which are an ordinary part of life in Puri, are objects of fascination and entertainment for the American tourists. They reappear in the final scene as well. Mr. Kapasi warns the family that the monkeys are relatively safe as long as they don’t tempt them with food. When Mina Das storms out of the car and goes to rejoin her family, she leaves a trail of food in her wake (a sign of her excess?), and the monkeys begin to trail her. However, rather than attacking her (because Mr. Kapasi follows her, preventing them from doing her any harm), they surround and attack Bobby. It’s significant that they choose Bobby, who is not actually Raj Das’ biological child, and that they beat him with the same stick that he provided them with. I’m not secure with my reading of this, but my thoughts are thus: Bobby, an American who represents the desecration of traditional family values (he’s the product of a loveless affair, his parents have a loveless marriage, and he’s the weakest child — always having to be looked out for by his older brother) provides an Indian monkey with a stick. That monkey turns against him because of his mother’s excesses, and becomes violent. The only person who can save him is Indian himself, and does so reluctantly (only acting after Mrs. Das begs him in a panic). Hm, I thought I had something more concrete to say, but I guess I’m still working it out in my mind.

As for “The Third and Final Continent” I think there’s a really interesting thing happening with mothers. The narrator’s mother, who we never meet, died before he ever left India. She was a widow, and slowly lost her mind. Her children had to take care of her, and when she finally died it was also a relief. When the narrator goes to America, he rents a room in Mrs. Croft’s house and she becomes a kind of surrogate mother-figure for him. She treats him sort of like a child, and when he does something right she expresses her approval. While she has lost some of her coherence (repeating her awe at the fact that there’s an American flag on the moon for several evenings in a row), she has not lost her mind. When the narrator finds out her true age (103), he begins to not only respect her, but also show concern for her. In fact, when Mala finally joins him, he continues feeling distanced and detached from her until he takes her to Mrs. Croft’s house and she is subjected to the old woman’s scrutiny. While Mrs. Croft is scrutinizing her, he begins to sympathize with Mala and finally starts to feel like they have a connection — a connection based on being subjected to the Western world and its gaze. Once she has given her approval, saying that Mala is a “perfect lady,” the narrator finally warms to his wife. In many ways, his reaction is like that of a child seeking his mother’s approval. It’s only once he gains that approval that he can invest himself in the very thing he sought approval for: his wife.

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