Gender Rolesin Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies

Jackie Large '05, and Erin Quinn '04, English 365, Northwestern University

Jhumpa Lahiri deals greatly in generalizations in Interpreter of Maladies; many of her characters depicted in diasporic situations hold onto role definitions that American readers find stereotypical of Indian culture. Such generalizations (and the sometimes-ironic reversals of them) act as literary tools that add to her most sympathetic characters and her most poignant storylines.

Lahiri often toys with the reversal of gender roles, especially as they relate to husband-and-wife roles within marriages. Whereas in India, a strict set of guidelines dictates how husbands and wives act both publicly and privately, in America, such guidelines are not as clear-cut and, oftentimes, are thrown out altogether. Lahiri's married characters often deal with confusions of marriage roles in relation to cooking, working outside the home, and bearing children. According to Lahiri's generalizations of Indian marital culture, women are solely responsible for cooking and doing household chores, as well as becoming completely domesticated with the arrival of children. Men are, according to such guidelines, responsible for working and providing their families with a monetary income.

Many of Lahiri's characters, specifically the ones in diaspora, must cope with new and sometimes shockingly different gender stereotypes and roles in their new homelands. Generation gaps, culture shock upon moving away from the "homeland" and questions of sexuality play their roles in Lahiri's interpretations of gender and what it means to Indians in Diaspora. The following questions seek to analyze Lahiri's motives and methods when it comes to discussing gender and sexuality in terms of diaspora.

From "A Temporary Matter"

It is revealed about Sukumar, the husband in "A Temporary Matter," that "his own mother had fallen apart when his father died, abandoning the house he grew up in and moving back to Calcutta" (6). However, it is Shukumar, not his wife Shoba, who seems to "fall apart" at the dissolution of their marriage.

Do Shukumar and Shoba represent a possible reversal of gender roles in this instance? (Shukumar is the stay-at-home student who does the cooking and cleaning; he is blamed in part for the miscarriage, whereas in India, the mother would bear the full responsibility.) What generational differences exist between the sexes in "A Temporary Matter?"

From "Sexy"

"Sexy" differs from the other stories in Interpreter of Maladies because, as Lahiri notes, it depicts in the most outright manner the blatant fetishization of India by American and other Western cultures. In "Sexy," how does Dev, the Indian lover cheating on his wife, utilize the Western fetishization of Indian men to his own advantage? How do the actions of Miranda, the stereotypically flighty and flirty American woman, provide evidence to support the idea of a sexually fetishized India? What do the Indians in the story (Laxmi, Dev, Rohin) do intentionally or unintentionally to encourage Miranda's false notions of a sexually exoticized India?

From "This Blessed House"

Twinkle, the wife in "This Blessed House" is characterized as "excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream or dropping a letter in the mailbox. It was a quality he [her husband, Sanjeev] did not understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate, or see. He looked at her face, which, it occurred to him, had not grown out of its girlhood" (142).

This image of sustained girlhood is, according to the generalizations set forth by Lahiri, admired in a wife in India; in martial relationships, women are expected to be docile homemakers, as Twinkle attempts to be. Her girlish charm is not, however, a quality Sanjeev, an Indian husband in diaspora in America, admires or even tolerates in his wife. What does this say about gender stereotypes, and, more specifically, husband-wife roles, within Diasporan cultures?

Why does Twinkle get so excited by the effigies she finds scattered throughout her new American home when she describes herself ironically as "a good little Hindu" (137)? What does her excitement, coupled with her lethargy and apathy in all other things, say about the way she views herself within her marriage? Is she unintentionally redefining her gender role, or knowingly breaking out of those boundaries?

"The Treatment of Bibi Heldar"

"The Treatment of Bibi Heldar" has much to say about the idea of sexuality, and specifically one's own agency in establishing it. It is determined that Bibi, an older woman with seemingly incurable disease that causes fits of seizures, should marry in an attempt at a cure. The community sees her as a sexual object for the first time after doctors make this suggestion. They "imagined the contours below her housecoat, and attempted to appraise the pleasures she could offer a man" (162). How much of a stake does Bibi have in the determination of her own sexuality, and how much is left up to the community? How much of an agent is Bibi in her own sexual destiny?

Postcolonial India OV Diasporas literature

Last modified 7 December 2002