This collection of nine short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999. The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is of Indian descent, born in London and currently lives in New York, so each story is a look into a different part of Indian culture or into Indian people and their way of life. The first three stories were great and the title story was my favorite. The man literally is an interpreter of maladies, who works at a hospital translating patients’ symptoms to the doctor and in this it is revealed he has a lot of power and obligation in telling the doctor exactly what the patient is suffering from so the correct diagnosis can be given. After this story, I found the rest of book slow, kind of boring, and the stories just weren’t as engaging.
What started to annoy me as a I progressed through the book was that here you have a no doubt rich and well educated Indian woman who went to very good schools, lived in a good home in England, went to a good writing school for her MFA – probably in New York – and proceeded to publish her work in prestigious magazines like the New Yorker, and yet she is writing about Indian life and how hard it is for most people, especially those not as well off, and it just really got to me that she had succeeded in this way writing about a way of life she’d never experienced.
Now, having finished the book, my thoughts towards Lahiri have changed a little. For with her upbringing she was never able to experience Indian culture as an Indian living in India. This was no doubt a big deal to her, and is to Indian culture. A friend at work, who is of Indian decent, but born here, told me the other day that Indians don’t consider him Indian because he was born here. I realize now that this was probably the very thing that changed my mind about this book. It helped me realize that in writing these stories, Lahiri is living the lives of these people, getting the experiences that she was never able to, and in doing so is helping her to define her Indian heritage better.
The result is a collection of interesting and unique stories – perhaps not quite deserving of the Pulitzer — about Indian people trying to live ordinary Indian lives.
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Originally written on September 16th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.