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Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (thoughts on rereading)

November 30, 2011

I read this book for the first time in high school, I think when I was a junior and thus 15. The spring semester of that year, my health had gotten so bad that rather than attend my regular high school, I had to join a homebound program offered by my school district. I had a teacher come three times a week for English/social studies/science and another one once a week for math. This left me with a lot of free time, all of which was spent at home as I didn’t drive and lived in a massive chunk of suburb that made walking anywhere out of the question. One of the things I did was draw up lists of books I wanted to read; once every week or two, my mom would drive me to the giant downtown library (this was before the online hold system came into existence), and I would wander all six floors finding books from my list to bring home with me. If only book blogging had existed back in 2002! Anyway, somehow Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahira ended up in my library bag (I’m guessing because it won a Pulitzer and I was very into short story collections), and I have a very distinct memory of sitting on our backyard patio and being blown away.

Unfortunately, I found upon revisiting it that my youthful ardour has cooled a bit. Since then, I’ve read a lot more works by authors with M.F.A.’s in creative writing, so Lahiri’s style no longer feels terribly fresh to me. While some of the stories were as good as I remembered, a few made me a bit bored. Funnily enough, what stood out to me most this time was the food! Almost every story has characters cooking complex, lovingly detailed dishes, and the others still include scenes of snacking or eating. It made me wish that I had more knowledge of Indian cooking (I only make five or six dishes regularly), or at least that I could get some take out! ;) Based on her descriptive talents, I think she should release a collection of foodie essays!

While I didn’t quite love the whole collection, when Lahiri is on, she’s on. The first story, entitled “A Temporary Matter” is the one that my fifteen-year-old self loved the most, and I still found it powerful. But I also found my twenty-five-year old self most drawn to those stories featuring unusual women. “This Blessed House” looks at Twinkle through the eyes of her new husband. She’s anything but a typical Indian immigrant, and I couldn’t help smiling at her antics. I’d love to read a whole novel about her! “The Third and Final Continent,” meanwhile includes a landlady who is one hundred and three. She only plays a minor role in the story, but it wonderful to read about. I also completely emphathised with “Mrs. Sen,” and her troubles learning to drive. I didn’t learn until I was eighteen, and even then it was under duress! None of it came naturally to me, and if there was any kind of decent local public transportation system, I’d happily never drive again. And in “Sexy,” I felt pity, and almost maternal concern, for the twenty-two-year-old protagonist, drawn into an affair with a wealthy, older, married man. My teenage self had a Puritanical streak and thought such women (as I thought of them then; now she seems like just a girl) deserved far worse than a heartbreak or two. As you can see, there’s a lot of scope for emotional engagement in the book, and one of Lahiri’s best talents is creating realistic and intriguing characters.

I suppose the danger of rereading is that books, and indeed authors, might lose a bit their lustre. I would still recommend this book (it is very, very good), and Lahiri in general, but not quite as enthusiastically as my younger self would have. I remember being disappointed back in 2008 when I read her then-newly released collection Unaccustomed Earth for similar reasons of the stories feeling a bit repetitive. Now I’m now curious to see if I’ll feel similarly about The Namesake, but I shall probably wait awhile to find out. Even if Lahiri is no longer one of my very favourite authors, I still owe her a great debt: she is what started my fascination with Indian literature, a fascination that has provided me with many wonderful reads over the years. And the disappointment I felt was quite slight: I’m still happy to have reread this!

Suggested Companion Reads

21 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2011 6:42 am

    I join you in enjoyment of India literature. There are Indian writers who write in English, that is, you are reading in and of the Indian culture, but it is not a translation. I recommend A Suitable Boy (sorry, the author’s name escapes me just now) and anything by Rohinton Mistry, especially A Fine Balance.

    • December 15, 2011 11:40 pm

      I’ve actually read both of those! I loved A Suitable Boy & had mixed feelings on A Fine Balance, but it was a well written book. If I hadn’t read them already, they’d both be great recs, so thanks! :)

  2. November 30, 2011 7:52 am

    This one is on the TBR, waiting its turn. I know what you mean about the risk of lost “lustre”. I’m afraid to pick up Garcia Marquez after about 15 years exactly because of that.

  3. November 30, 2011 7:55 am

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on rereading this one. I too loved this book when I read it the first time years ago, but then again I also quite enjoyed Unaccustomed Earth. My favorite of her three books, though, is The Namesake so I would still recommend you try it. If you think Lahiri can create interesting characters in short stories, you would love to see what she can do with characters in a full novel. Although I read The Namesake YEARS ago so my opinion of that might have changed too!

    • December 15, 2011 11:41 pm

      I should have been clearer in my post! I’ve already read The Namesake (loved it then), so I’m curious to see what I’ll think on a reread.

  4. Ruthiella permalink
    November 30, 2011 11:20 am

    I also read Interpreter of Maladies first and was blown away. I have this idea that I don’t like short stories. But apparently, sometimes I do. I quickly picked up the Namesake a few months later. I liked it a lot. I hope you will too.

  5. November 30, 2011 11:45 am

    I read this one the month before I began my project, so I wonder how I would react to it now with a little more literature experience under my belt. :) But I do remember liking a few of the stories more than others, and I also remember the food descriptions. I think that she does a great job of capturing that essence very clear!

    • December 15, 2011 11:41 pm

      As I said to Heather, I should have been clearer: I read The Namesake back in high school and loved it. :)

  6. November 30, 2011 12:19 pm

    I actually have some books I refuse to reread because I am worried they won’t be as good another time through. And, sometimes I sit down with a book I loved, but never seem to get myself to crack the spine. I start worrying that it won’t be as good and what if I ruin the experience I had with it the first time. This is why I don’t reread a lot…

    • December 15, 2011 11:41 pm

      But this is the exception! Most of my rereading makes me love a book more. :)

  7. November 30, 2011 12:25 pm

    Its interesting how your thoughts and interpretations change over time. I read this book a few years back and remember loving it. But it would be interesting to see if I still love it.

  8. November 30, 2011 1:48 pm

    I’ve picked up a Lahiri book here and there, particularly when I was at the height of my Indian lit phase 4-5 years ago, and from reading a story or a chapter I was never particularly impressed. As you said, it seemed like standard-issue contemporary MFA stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it didn’t motivate me to read further. But I recognize I don’t have a very firm foundation on which to judge. Glad this retained some of its appeal for you, even if it lost a bit of its lustre. :-)

  9. November 30, 2011 3:43 pm

    I loved this collection when I first reads it years ago. Maybe time would be ripe for a reread. :)
    We read Namesake in my reading group and everybody loved the novel.

  10. November 30, 2011 5:46 pm

    >>I suppose the danger of rereading is that books, and indeed authors, might lose a bit their lustre.

    Okay, yes, sometimes, but more often I’ve found rereading is the way I come to love authors and books more and more and more. I love Dorothy Sayers more every time I reread her Harriet Vane books. Every single time. It’s great when a book becomes comfortable.

    Also, if it ever becomes necessary for you to drive a lot, I recommend the strategy I employed, which is this: All day and at every opportunity, say “I love driving! Driving is my favorite thing!” This is what I did when I was learning to drive, because I hated it and my driver’s ed teacher was horrible and mean and made me cry, and it TOTALLY WORKED. Totally worked. I love driving now. Before I moved to New York, driving was one of the things I did to make myself feel better when I was sad. Just wanted to put that out there.

  11. Zoya permalink
    December 1, 2011 7:14 am

    Eva – I liked Interpreter of Maladies when I read for the first time..but on re-reading I didn’t enjoy it so much because by then there were many more short stories with better content that I came across. Namesake I guess will be a timeless piece in Indian literature as it tackles a unique subject that is more frequent in India – immigrants and their struggle to associate with their native country.

    Not sure if you’ve already read books by Rabindranath Tagore, but I recommend Tagore’s short stories. Another book that is more interesting is Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayanan. I was in 2 minds about Eating India by Chitrita Banerjee until I saw your review. So its now in my TBR pile :)

    You might also wanna try Palace of Illusions by Chitrita Banerjee and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.

    • December 15, 2011 11:43 pm

      I’ve read one of Narayanan’s books and A Suitable Boy but haven’t tried Tagore yet or Palace of Illusions, so thanks!

  12. December 2, 2011 11:03 am

    I’ve realized that I don’t enjoy re-reading short stories. There is less scope for discovering something new/complex that was missed earlier.

    • December 15, 2011 11:44 pm

      Ohhh: I’ll have to try rereading some more short story collections now to see if maybe that was the issue!

  13. December 4, 2011 1:40 pm

    I loved this book when I read it eva ,link to the tradition of narayan of simple stories well told,of recent indain I m just reading tejpal his book on asian booker longlist a very unusal read ,all the best stu ,

  14. December 16, 2011 1:59 pm

    Read it a long time ago and have very fond memories of it. In fact, I lent it to my mum last month and she enjoyed it also. I have it down as a reread for next year so I’ll not you know if it stands up to a reexamination.

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