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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri And The Malady of Writing

Writing is not an easy task at all. Often ideas come to you like flashes, the wisp of a thought wrapping itself around you in the dead of night. You think you might remember its grasp, but it is not the nature of lightning to persist, nor wisps to become thick trunks overnight; the charm is all about the erratic whiplash.

Picture credit: Half Samosa

Writing is one of the most human things we can do, and that is precisely why it is not easy.

Writing is difficult because it is about understanding the movements, not only of time, place, and situations, but the very intangible, slippery things called feelings. Some people tell us that writing comes to you naturally – and perhaps it does, too – but life is too short to wait for that precise moment. Sometimes the best writing comes from a crisis of not knowing where your words belong — where you belong. To Jhumpa Lahiri, these ambiguities of not-knowing are the oars that propel her craft. Lahiri – in a shoddy alliterative phrase – is a contemporary communicant of crisis.

Writing is a living process of its own, composed of personality and character. We think that stories are about people, but in more ways than one, people are about stories too. There have been few writers who have understood and written the lives of stories themselves. The subtle inflections of their voices, the raising of their eyebrows, their need for warmth on a December evening. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of these writers. She understands the craft is indeed of ‘not-knowing’ and ‘not-writing’. It happens, not necessarily naturally, but just necessarily.

Published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin, Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first book. Lahiri’s project , seemingly, from the very onset, had aimed at exhibiting the phenomenal rawness of human behaviour and emotionality. This book, composed of nine short stories, has sold over 15 million copies, and sits snugly on many shelves, thoroughly thumbed through by adoring readers. The columnist himself finds a strange comfort between these pages, despite the fact that none of the stories are actually about comfort at all. At best, these are stories that feel like a wet blanket on a lonely January night.

Between the pages of Maladies, Lahiri locates a cluster of characters who are without location within their fictional lives. Within these nine stories is a little universe of impossibly wide perception. Each story works on at least two levels: the one that the words suggest, and the one that they don’t. While some stories are slices-of-life of the dislocation of Indian diaspora in America, it is the stories about displacement of natives within the country which truly expose the malady at the heart of Lahiri’s writing: the dissociated sense of self in an increasingly dysfunctional society.

We are often told, "write what you know". As if living an experience is ever enough to write about it in turn. Lahiri’s writing is an involuted challenge to this advice. Writing for her is about what you could/might have known, what you don't know, and what you had known all along, yet not too well. This Pulitzer-winner collection of short stories has many lives that speak to her incredible access to human intimacies and personalities. Some are about marriages, others about wars (within and without, personal and political), some are about dinners and parties. But they are all about people. Stories of connections and stories of ruptures. If writing is the most human thing we can do, Jhumpa Lahiri is among those who probably do it best. Her attention to detail, the magic of animating objects and imbibing in them a cataclysmic sense of life is breathtakingly poignant. Each sentence is supremely accessible, and every now and then there comes one which blows the winds out altogether. To paraphrase a famous quote from the book, as ordinary as it all appears, there are times when the impact of her words is beyond (all) imagination. Across cultures and spatio-temporal realities, the concept of a ‘home’ to return to, and a ‘home’ to be nostalgic for, gains a supreme human value. As creatures of space, our habits are informed by that requirement: a room of one’s own; a store of memories and stories. Lahiri’s charm, however, exists outside of these belongings. Her recent novel (written originally in Italian) is claimed to be another book after the knowledge of where she “belongs”. But perhaps critics have not understood the sentiment she made evident in the title itself: Whereabouts. Jhumpa Lahiri has progressed past that question. She belongs to herself, fragmented and scattered; she belongs to the necessary condition of words, the malady called writing. She has been telling us the same, since her first book. To her, the task of uncertainty takes precedence. And somehow, it is this uncertainty that has arguably deepened in her oeuvre, from her first book to her latest – in the span of which she has relocated to Italy from America, and to Italian from English – she has managed to interpret her own malady of space: linguistic and spatial. To all those who are still interpreting these maladies on their own ends, Lahiri is just the author they need – a safe space, if you would. You have to read her.


By Kartik Chauhan

A recent English (virtual) graduate of Hindu College (virtual), Kartik is a strong proponent of multiplicities: within and without. Interested in poststructuralisms and postmodernisms, he finds a slippery respite in words – his own and those he reads. Alternatively, he is also very suspicious of ‘isms’. Adding everyday to an ocean-like to-be-read pile of books, he is content with all things literary. Occasionally, he goes out, only to return home with more books. For his book reviews and poetry, you can find him on Instagram @karkritiques. The column, while being about books, poetics and authors, will possibly contradict itself, taking after language, which is significantly more eccentric than any writer/the columnist. More often than not, it would just be a young gusher of good books. It remains to be.

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