After delighting in another Victorian crime fiction series (the Lady Emily Ashton books by Tasha Alexander, recommended by the ever reliable A Work In Progress) I had some difficulty on deciding which book to read next. I felt like a book of short stories, which fortunately my TBR shelf isn’t short of. But then I had a few false starts- books which just didn’t match my mood. Dubliners by James Joyce? too much character, not enough plot. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter? too unsettling. The Portable Virgin by Anne Enright? too fragmentary.
So, rather wearily, I started Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Her first story, A Temporary Matter, begins with the innocuous statement:
“The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight PM. A line had gone down in the last snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quit tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived three years.”
From there, husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba slowly start to communicate again after months of silence following the still birth of their first child. By the end, what they say to each other left me in tears and eager to keep reading this Pulitzer prize winning collection. So eager that I can wholeheartedly agree with the Scotsman quote on the back cover: “After reading three of these stories, I found myself rationing the remaining six to try to make the book last longer.”
Each story features people (and they do seem like people, not only characters) with some connection to India (especially Bengal), be they in America or India. So you meet (and feel for):
- Mr Pirzada, a botanist working in the States for a year without his family, who are still in Dacca when the Pakistani civil war of 1971 breaks out,
- Mr Kapasi, a tour guide and translator hired by an Americanized Indian family, the Das’s,
- Boori Ma, a stairwell sweeper in Calcutta,
- Miranda, a Boston newcomer having an affair with a banker called Dev,
- Elliot, an eleven-year old whose single mum organises for him to be babysat by recent immigrant Mrs. Sen,
- Sanjeev and Twinkle, a couple who inherit “a sizable collection of Christian paraphernalia” in their new home,
- Bibi Halder, who suffers from a mysterious condition,
- and just one of the many “penniless Bengali bachelors … struggling to educate and establish ourselves abroad.”
Lahiri sensitively and convincingly depicts each of these lives and leaves you longing to spend more time in their company. She writes unpredictably: I didn’t see where each of these stories was going and enjoyed finding out. The cure for my reading slump!