The Search for Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies

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

One of the themes Lahiri deals in most prolifically is the search for identity, as defined by the self, by others, by location and by circumstance. In Lahiri's stories, everything -- including gender, homeland, geography, occupation, and role within the community -- can act in determining and qualifying identity. Lahiri brings up interesting questions as to what can and cannot act as agents in the determination of identity, and many of her characters struggle against or conform to outside influences that have effects on self-definition and outside definition. The following questions delve into Lahiri's study of what affects identity in Interpreter of Maladies.

From "A Temporary Matter"

In "A Temporary Matter," the wife, Shoba, is an editor who has recently thrown herself into her work as an editor (her colored pencils are noted in a number of instances: p. 5, 8.) Instead of eating dinner with her husband, Shukumar, Shoba avoids him as much as possible, "watching game shows or proofreading files" (8). It is noted that "[Shukumar] and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other" (4). How has Shoba effectively and ineffectively edited elements of her own life following the miscarriage she suffers? What is the significance behind the idea of being able to edit your own identity, and does "A Temporary Matter" make a convincing case for the effectiveness of such editing?

Shukumar's identity as Indian is forged almost entirely from Americanized sources. We find out that "it wasn't until his father died, in his last year of college, that the country began to interest him, and he studied its history from the course books as if it were any other subject" (12). Is it really possible for someone to create an identity based on books and a pre-fabricated, hyphenated identification category mapped by Americans? How does "A Temporary Matter" either support or dispel this idea?

From "Sexy"

In "Sexy," Dev, a Bengali, shows Miranda a map in The Economist to define where he is from and, thus, who he is. When she asks him about the political map ("one of the cities had a box around it, intended to attract the reader's eye") he tells her the political history of his home country is "nothing [she'll] ever need to worry about" (84). Why does Dev choose to define himself in terms of geographical boundaries as opposed to feelings of nationality?

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?

"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"

Lahiri makes a statement about difference and the idea of belonging with "Pirzada." Lilia's father tells her, in regards to Mr. Pirzada, "More importantly, Mr. Pirzada is no longer considered Indian -- Dacca no longer belongs to us" (25). What does this interpretation of what Mr. Pirzada is and is not considered say about the conflict between national identity and geographical boundaries? Can one's national identity change with a change in physical boundaries?

"Interpreter of Maladies"

The idea of the photograph as capturing a specific (and usually positive) moment in time is important in "Interpreter of Maladies." Mr. Kapasi begins fantasizing about the photograph he takes with the Das family; what does that say about his own "malady" and his crisis of identity? What is the meaning of the photograph accidentally snapped while one of the Das' children, Bobby, is attacked by monkeys at the site that the tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, suggested?

"Mrs. Sen's"

When Mrs. Sen, an Indian woman, relocates with her husband to a coastal, Eastern American city, she has a sort of crisis of identity.

She flung open the drawers of the bureau and the doors of the closet, filled with saris of every imaginable texture and shade, brocaded with gold and silver threads. Some were transparent, tissue thin, others as thick as drapes, with tassels knotted along the edges. In the closet, they were on hangers; in the drawers they were folded flat or wound tightly thick scrolls. [125]

This scene is very similar to the one in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in which the rich Gatsby defines himself by the multicolored shirts he owns. What parallels are drawn between Gatsby's troubled identity and Mrs. Sen's troubled identity in this scene? How does the colorful clothing define each protagonist in his or her own milieu?

"This Blessed House"

Sanjeev dislikes his wife's collection of Christian paraphernalia from the time she begins discovering the treasures in their new house. However, the gleaming bust of Christ is the straw that breaks the camel's back: "He hated that it was in his house, and that he owned it. Unlike the other things they'd found, this contained dignity, solemnity, beauty even" (157). What does the bust of Christ represent that Sanjeev hates so much? What is threatening about the bust when it comes to Sanjeev's sense of self? Of a national self? Of self as a husband?

"The Third and Final Continent"

What notions of home are expressed in "The Third and Final Continent?" What qualifies as home, and what does not? Does ones specific notion of home necessarily create their identity? Vice versa? Or are the two subjects unrelated?

How are age and generation interpreted as a function of identity in "The Third and Final Continent?"

Postcolonial India OV Diasporas literature

Last modified 7 December 2002