Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies by the Indian-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri is analysed in this essay from feminist and postcolonial perspective. Grouped among migrant writers, Lahiri like Salman Rushdie, deliberately create characters that have a plural and/or partial identity. The crisis created among the female characters in the stories of Maladies is representative of a distorted and split identity caused due to homelessness and belonging as well as patriarchal discourse of the feminine.
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The craving for an imaginative homeland that one has left and on returning, their inexorable inability to adjust to their native land creates a vacuum in these characters leading to an identity crisis. In Maladies, six out of nine stories are about Indians based in the USA and the crisis that their identity is due to their sense of belonging to their native land even though they reside in America. Though the other three stories are set in India, they also deal with Indian Americans returning to India and facing a problem to adjust to the Indian conditions. This constant state of flux creates fluidity in the identity of these people who feel uprooted.
Further, the female characters in Lahiri’s stories assume a subaltern voice, often been dismissed by the patriarchal postcolonial literature (Möller 2008). In this essay, I will discuss the female voice of this hybrid identity created by Lahiri in two of the stories that have central female characters – “Mrs. Sen’s” and “This Blessed House”. In this essay, I argue that the first-generation women immigrants feel completely lost in the new land, confined to their homes and patriarchal rules. They desperately try to hold on to their previous identity but are in a constant dilemma as their husbands, representation of the patriarchy, try to mould them into someone new.
However, the second-generation Indian-American women are independent. They have developed a hybrid identity that they use as a shield to fight against the dominating patriarchy of their household. Lahiri’s stories therefore reverberate with the voices of not only the colonised subaltern but also the marginalised female subalterns whose voices have often been smothered in postcolonial literature.
From Postcolonial Perspective
The postcolonial world is replete with instances of transnational migration and globalisation. Transnational migration of people beyond their native borders to foreign lands creates a diaspora of people who reunite amongst themselves to create a community of their own (Caesar 2005). These communities desperately try to hold on to their ethnic value system, fighting alienation with a foreign land while their following generations are uprooted and create a hybrid identity. Lahiri’s stories deal with these immigrants, who struggle to create their national, cultural, ethnic, and gender identities (Caesar 2005). Lahiri’s stories are especially interesting for a postcolonial reading as they strongly portray the question of hybrid and liminal identity.
The classical postcolonial theory suggests a gap between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. However, postcolonial theories presented by Homi K. Bhabha point out that the gap no longer persists as a hybrid identity is created that presents the ‘self’ as the ‘other’ and vice versa. According to Bhabha’s theory of hybridity of identity, the colonial government tries to change the identity of the colonised (Other) to a single universal framework but fails to create this (Bhabha 1994).
Instead, the colonised interweave the elements of the identity of the colonised and the coloniser to challenge both the original identities (Bhabha 1994). Edward Said too has expressed similar point of view when he suggests the creation of chaos of identity due to the postmodern electronic age (Bhabha 1994). Thus, through the struggle between the ethnic identity of the colonised and the imposed identity of the coloniser there emerges a third space that houses the hybrid identity (Bhabha 1994). Lahiri’s short stories exhibit this third space and hybrid identity among immigrants.
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Bhabha believes that the migrant woman in Indo-Anglican literature is invisible, which is due to the evoking and erasing, at the same time, of the “Orientalist stereotypes” that ultimately creates the existentialist question of the otherness of identity (Bhabha 1994, p. 48). Lahiri’s writing shows that the first-generation Indians inevitably face alienation from the new culture and face an identity crisis due to their inability to adjust. Their inkling for their root is too strong to be denied even within the overwhelming presence of the colonial culture. On the other hand, the second-generation Indians do not face problems with acclimating to their adopted culture and create a hybrid identity of their own.
In “Mrs. Sen’s”, Lahiri echoes the feeling of otherness and struggle for the protagonist’s identity (Interpreter of Maladies 1999). This story is about a thirty-three year old first-generation homemaker from Calcutta. Mrs. Sen cares for an eleven-year-old boy named Eliot. The story recounts how she establishes a connection with the boy, which is ultimately severed. It recounts the profound loneliness and alienation of the wives of first generation migrants in the USA.
Mrs. Sen talks of her mother to Elliot and how the Bengali way of life symbolised community feeling. The social community of the Bengali women of the neighbourhood, coming together to cut “fifty kilos of vegetable” on any occasion becomes a stark contrast with that of Mrs. Sen’s American existence (Lahiri 1999, p. 115). This solitary existence shows the reason behind her growing frustration. This frustration makes her long for the social mores of the Bengali way of life. Thus, she transports artefacts of Bengali culinary tool from Calcutta to America in order to keep a piece of her native land with her.
Mrs. Sen’s refusal to learn how to drive is symbolic of her refusal to accept the American way of life. She transports a piece of Calcutta with her when she brought her speared cutting utensil to America, but her silent refusal to drive shows her non-acceptance of the American way of life. Mrs. Sen’s failure to learn to drive is a rebellion of the first generation migrant that isolates her from her new life. This refusal symbolises her rejection of the coloniser’s culture. Further, her persistence to imitate her Bengali life in America and negate any form of Americanization becomes the hindrance to the formation of the hybrid identity.
In this story, Mrs. Sen insists that America holds no charm for her. She says to Elliot, “Here there is nothing” suggesting her alienation in America (Lahiri 1999, p. 113). She also asserts, “Everything is there” suggesting her longing for her homeland (113). In this story, we find an immigrant wife who fails to find a balance in her new life. Disorientation and alienation in the new life becomes the theme of this story as it is in many of the other stories in the book. For instance, in “The Third and Final Continent,” “The Blessed House,” or “Mr. Pirzada Comes to Dine.” However, unlike the other first generation homemakers of Lahiri’s stories, Mrs. Sen refuses to acclimatize with the American life and that becomes her existentialist crisis.
The dilemma of adaptation with the new culture at the cost of her old created the initial barrier for Mrs. Sen to adapt to the new culture. Her failure to adapt intensifies as she becomes increasingly disoriented with her little connections with the Americans she has – first Elliot’s mother with whom she fails to identify and the women in the bus who look at her suspiciously. Thus, Mrs. Sen fails to create a new identity for herself in America.
On the other hand, in other stories about first generation immigrants such as “The Third and Final Continent” and “Mr. Pirzada Comes to Dine”. Mr. Pirzada, who like Mrs. Sen was born in his own country, finds himself completely absorbed in the war that is happening back in his country even though he has adopted America to live. In “The Third and Final Continent”, the unnamed protagonist narrates his migration from India to England and finally to America.
He, unlike Mrs. Sen is not pulled by his native land but finds it difficult to adjust to the American way of life and is lonely. When his wife, Mala, a first generation immigrant joins him in Cambridge, he again feels no connection with her as theirs was an arranged marriage. However, he feels responsible for her safety and feels he needs to take care of her. Here too we see a feeling of loneliness and alienation among first generation Indian immigrants and an eagerness to be accepted by the locals of their adopted land assumes a priority as was observed in “Mrs. Sen’s”. All these characters face an identity crisis arising from their estrangement and isolation, which creates a liminal space. They live in a limbo, and are unable to break free to form a new identity.
On the other hand, in stories of second-generation Indian American homemaker, Twinkle, the hybrid identity comes very naturally. In “The Blessed House” the couple in Lahiri’s story, Sanjeeva and Twinkle (nickname for Tanima) who are Americans of Indian origin demonstrate hybrid identity that too is in a constant state of negotiation with their ethnic past and adopted present. Twinkle is a second generation Indian American while Sanjeev has migrated to the US more recently.
When they shift to their new house after marriage, Twinkle, a homemaker, becomes obsessed with the Christian paraphernalia she finds lying around they house and starts collecting them. Sanjeev though closer to his Indian roots, finds this revolting and protests: “We’re not Christians,’ Sanjeev said. Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle … She shrugged. ‘No, we’re not Christians. We’re good little Hindus” (Lahiri 1999, p. 137).
The difference between the couple regarding these Christian items shows the tension between them. The above dialogue clearly shows the deliberate use of religious identity as a way to distinguish between the ethnic and adopted identity. Thus, the second-generation immigrants are no longer controlled by the cultural mores of their native land and hence, they create a niche for themselves in their adopted homeland.
From Feminist Perspective
Postcolonial theory is a predominantly masculine theory. Most of the postcolonial studies have been gender blind and therefore, the plight of the immigrant women as a subaltern voice has often been ignored. However, the work in this regard by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak is noteworthy. Her feminist attention to the ‘other’ draws attention to the invisibleness of the female subjects. Spivak confers that the “subaltern as female cannot be heard or read” (Spivak 1988, p. 104).
Simone De Beauvoir in the book The Second Sex posits that women are treated as the ‘other’ as they are believed to be subordinate to their men (2009). Spivak points out that the feminist theorists are blind to the cultural and racial differences as the women from the less developed countries are doubly segregated (1988). Segregation of women as the weaker sex creates the social construct that she “cannot think of herself without the man” and therefore she is “defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her” (De Beauvoir 2009, p. 16).
Spivak furthers this argument for the colonialist historiography where she believes that the patriarchy dominates the gender construction and therefore the women in postcolonial literature remains “deeply in shadow” (1988, p. 287). This is evident in Lahiri’s stories.
In Interpreter of Maladies, the female characters are mostly represented as wives and/or mothers. They are the silent partner, dominated by the male character as in case of “Mrs. Sen’s” and “The Third and Final Continent” or the transnational hybrid woman who has forged a new ground for herself as in “A Temporary Matter”, “Interpreter of Maladies” or “The Blessed House”. The first category of women, like Mrs Sen, adheres to the social constructs of the society and follows the limited role they are expected to play.
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They are confined to their households, with little or no ambition, and have limited mobility. However, Twinkle in “The Blessed House” is the representation of the new age woman who, though confined to her house, is more assertive and independent in spirit. However, even the latter is judged by the patriarchal lenses of her husband Sanjay who feels that Twinkle failed in her duties of a wife. Mrs Sen represent the category of women who are content with their limited role and are happy to carry on their household duties as unpaid labour.
Twinkle on the other hand, is unconcerned of her household duties, even though she is content living within the confines of her house. Spivak believes that the literary texts and especially postcolonial literature are the alternative voice of the subaltern women (Morton 2003). Lahiri’s stories create female identity in the transnational scenario concentrating on the female protagonist’s reconstruction of subjectivity and recreating their identity through protest, silence, resistance, negotiation, and acculturation (Bahmanpour 2010).
Lahiri creates a space for the voices of the subaltern female through the voices of Mrs. Sen, Shobha, Mrs. Das, and Twinkle. Though their voices are different and show varying shades of the conflict and resistance, nonetheless they are the voices that have otherwise been subdued in the male dominated postcolonial literature. Mrs. Sen is shown as a submissive, docile woman representing the patriarchal concept of an Indian wife. She perfectly fits the picture of a docile and adept wife.
However, she faces the difficulty of adjusting to her new home in America and therefore arises her struggle with the patriarchy. She ultimately finds courage to create a new identity away from the patriarchal figure of her husband and drives out alone. This incident helps her to face the ‘other’ in order to negotiate a new identity for herself. Mrs. Sen tries to create a space for herself in America where her world is encompassed by two male figures – Elliot and her husband. Thus, she tries to create a liminal space for herself. On the other hand, Twinkle is shown as a woman who is a second-generation and therefore is an embodiment of the hybrid identity, unlike Mrs Sen.
Twinkle’s identity is challenged by the presence of the patriarchal figure of her husband who is a first-generation immigrant. Sanjeev becomes the ‘other’ in the story wherein Twinkle comfortable with her hybrid identity tries to adjust to the demands of Sanjeev. However, Twinkle is comfortable in her hybrid identity and she constantly tries to assert her openness to accept new things in the form of Christian paraphernalia, in contrast to her husband’s more closed viewpoints.
The difference between the couple arises because of Sanjeev’s cultural biasedness and Twinkle’s openness. In this story too Lahiri portraits the transnational female’s struggle to establish her space in the postcolonial narration. It demonstrates the power and struggle of the Indian-American women in a cosmopolitan modern world (Möller 2008).
Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that presents the stories of first and second-generation immigrants from the subcontinent (specifically India and Bangladesh). The struggle of identity creation of the female characters is shown from different lenses. Mrs Sen is one who is a first-generation immigrant and strives to find her ‘self’ in the alien American city while Twinkle, though comfortable with her Indo-American identity, tries to create a niche as a wife-figure.
The struggle of identity creation for these female characters does not rest only on finding their space in their adopted home but also as females representing their native lands. Lahiri in her stories give voice to the subdued female voices of postcolonial literature.
Bahmanpour, B 2010, ‘Female Subjects and Negotiating Identities in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies ‘, Studies on Literature and Language, vol 1, no. 6, pp. 43-51.
Bhabha, HK 1994, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London.
Caesar, J 2005, ‘American spaces in the fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri’, SC: English Studies in Canada, vol 1, no. 1, pp. 50-68.
De Beauvoir, S 2009, The Second Sex, Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Random House, London.
Lahiri, J 1999, Interpreter of Maladies, HarperCollins, London.
Möller, K 2008, ‘Power Transformations of the Gendered Subject in Three Stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies’, in KW Shands (ed.), Neither East Nor West: Postcolonial Essays on Literature, Culture, and Religion, Södertörns högskola, Huddinge, Swede, pp. 65-72.
Morton, S 2003, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Routledge, London.
Spivak, GC 1988, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, in C Nelson, L Grossberge (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan Education, London, pp. 66-111.