In the title story of this wonderful collection of short stories, Mr Das, a tour guide and taxi driver in India muses on his abandoned career plans.
He had dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides.
Ideas of interpretation and misinterpretation, and the need to reach a point of understanding dominate this collection, which features Asian characters, many of whom have come to America from India for school, relationships, work or to escape political upheaval. They attempt to assimilate, to leave behind the cultural and literal borders they have passed through, but some are more successful than others. What makes this collection so successful is that Lahore herself transcends the borders she writes about. Her work illuminates not only the Indian- American experience, but human nature in general and how, no matter where we have come from, we yearn for connection and understanding.
What is striking in a collection that has such emotional heft is that Lahore’s characters are, in general, ordinary. Often quiet, or even passive, they appear at the outset to be undramatic. The prose style echoes this – there is little in the way of metaphor or stylistic tricks, the stories appear simply written, but instead accumulate details to become incredibly multi-layered and complex, creating a deep emotional charge.
In the flawless A Temporary Matter, a couple, who have grown apart since their first child was stillborn, enter into a confessional game during a power cut. A reunion and reconnection seems imminent until both share one secret too many. In ‘Sexy’ a young woman enters into an affair with an older, married Indian man and it is not until she acts as babysitter for a boy whose own parents are splitting up that she understands the reality of her situation.
This gap between the memories of the past and the reality of the present run through all the stories. There is a sense of a cultural transition that has been undergone, a transition that has brought a loss. The couple in Sexy visit an exhibit and stand at either side of a transparent bridge – and all Lahore’s characters feel as if that bridge is always there, pulling them back to India. Mrs Sen a young Indian woman who babysits while her husband works at the University says of India ‘everything is there’, but now in Boston, her isolation is keenly felt.
‘Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?’
Eliot shrugged. ‘Maybe.’
‘At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit to express grief or joy of any kind, and the whole neighbourhood and half of another has come to share the news’
Unable to reconcile where she is now, with where she has come from, Mrs Sen instead must make do with occasional trips to the market to buy the fresh fish she misses so much.
Food is a talisman throughout Interpreter of Maladies, bringing reassurance and memories of happier times.
From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open and crush into their food.
Food is given as a sign of friendship (When Mr Pirzada Came to Dinner), acceptance (Interpreter of Maladies) or forgiveness (This Blessed House) and is always at the centre of a story. How after all are we to express our culture but through the food we prepare and eat? The ritual of eating is emphasised and in When Mr Pirzada Came to Dinner, a young girl comes to equate candy with praying and offers up sweets for the safety of her friend’s family.
While Lahore’s book does touch on the political situation in the East, she does not dwell on it. Hers is a world of human beings, who are often happy to be adjusting to a new life while at the same time regretting what is being lost.
The writing is never sentimental, or calculated, but the simple uncluttered prose creates wonderful moments in time and teases us with characters about whom you could happily read a whole novel.
Beautifully constructed and effortlessly told, these stories are deceiving. They may not appear to, but they contain the world.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 148