The Indian Diaspora Through Objects and Sensory Experiences in Interpreter of Maladies

Living as a member of the Indian diasporic community can come with many challenges. A common occurrence that individuals within this population experience is struggling to maintain Indian culture. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, Lahiri examines how American culture shapes the experiences of members of the Indian diasporic community who live in the U.S. through how it manifests itself in objects and sounds. In “Interpreter of Maladies,” Lahiri portrays an unhappily married Indian-American woman, Mrs. Das, and her family. Mrs. Das has lost touch with her Indian culture. In “The Third and Final Continent,” Lahiri writes about an Indian immigrant who moves to the U.S. his new wife, Mala, from an arranged marriage. He must navigate his new marriage while also adjusting to life in the U.S., and the effects of his new environment play out through sounds and objects. By focusing on the themes of isolation and cultural identity as they relate to objects and sensory experiences, Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies provides a realistic portrayal of the Indian diasporic experience.

Many members of the Indian diaspora community experience a strong sense of isolation upon first coming to the U.S. In “Interpreter of Maladies,” Lahiri describes Mrs. Das as feeling trapped within her marriage. Because Mrs. Das married “so young,” she was quickly “overwhelmed” by the expectations of marriage (Lahiri, 63). Interestingly, Mrs. Das’s marriage was more-or-less arranged by Indian cultural standards: she remarks that their families saw each other “every weekend” and that it was “more or less a setup” by their parents (Lahiri, 63). Mr. and Mrs. Das’s marriage shows how elements of traditional Indian culture can hold strong influence over the children of the Indian diaspora. Because Mrs. Das spent so much time with her future husband while dating him, she lost the opportunity to form meaningful connections with others and ended up with “no one to confide in” (Lahiri, 63), which leaves her feeling isolated. In this way, the sense of isolation that she experiences still comes from her Indian culture. Although Mrs. Das was born in the United States, in some ways her sense of isolation resembles that felt by the male narrator of “The Third and Final Continent” upon first coming to the U.S.

The narrator of “The Third and Final Continent” experiences a strong sense of isolation after moving to the U.S. Although the narrator lived in challenging conditions as a “penniless Bengali bachelor” in London, he did not feel alone because he lived among other Bengalis (Lahiri, 173). For example, the narrator and his Bengali housemates “cook pots of egg curry,” and play “Mukhesh on a Grundig reel-to-reel” (Lahiri, 173). Therefore, he did not feel culturally isolated, and living in this environment allowed him to transcend the challenging circumstances of his life in London. Yet, upon coming to Boston, the narrator leaves behind his Indian culture entirely and begins to feel alone. In Boston, the narrator remarks “the noise was constantly distracting, at times suffocating…I felt it deep in my ribs…[and there was] no one to talk to” (Lahiri, 175). Unlike in London, the narrator cannot derive comfort from his living conditions because he has been removed from his culture. Additionally, he remarks that “pigeon feathers” also drift into his living space from outside. Through these examples, Lahiri shows that objects and sounds can serve to heighten one’s feelings of isolation and uncertainty within an unfamiliar environment and seem to attack the individual. Similarly, Mrs. Das’s sense of hurt and isolation within her married life is further exacerbated by the objects in her home: Lahiri describes Mrs. Das’s newborn child’s “toys” as physically attacking her, causing her “trip when she walked or wince when she sat” (Lahiri, 64). Mrs. Das also uses objects to hide from her responsibilities. She keeps her sunglasses on in Mr. Kapasi’s car, and ignores her children’s attempts to communicate with her.

The Das family has entirely lost touch with their Indian culture, and Mrs. Das uses objects further such as clothing to further insulate herself from it. Mr. Kapasi remarks that Mrs. Das and her family “dress[ed] as foreigners did, the children in still, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors;” one could not tell they were Indians by their attire (Lahiri, 44). The Das family takes pride in being American: Mr. Das remarks to Mr. Kapasi that “with an air of sudden confidence” that he and his wife were born in America (Lahiri, 45). Despite their Indian ancestry, Mrs. Das and her family easily stand out as foreigners in India by the way in which they dress. In fact, Mrs. Das and her family experience no shame in how they dress. In the place of it, they have adopted a set of stereotypically negative American behaviors: they gawk at monkeys, complain about not having AC in Mr. Kapasi’s car, and frequently stop to take pictures while on their road trip. The Das family has lost touch with their Indian culture while growing up in America, but they do not feel foreign in India in the same way that the narrator feels self-conscious around his wife Mala in “The Third and Final Continent.”

The objects that one chooses to surround oneself with can cause one to be perceived by others in negative ways. In “The Third and Final Continent,” the narrator worries about how he will be perceived around Mala when she wears traditional Indian clothing. When he decides to go out on a walk with Mala after their first week together, Mala emerges dressed up and wearing traditional Indian attire. The narrator remarks that he immediately “regretted the suggestion” (Lahiri, 193). When they get to Mrs. Croft’s home, the old woman he had been living with in America before Mala’s arrival, he worries that Mrs. Croft will disapprove of Mala. The narrator remarks that he could see Mrs. Croft “scrutinizing Mala from top to toe with…placid disdain…I “wondered what she would object to…I wondered if she could see the red dye still vivid on Mala’s feet” (Lahiri, 195). Here, the narrator worries that Mrs. Croft will disapprove of Mala’s style of dress, and thus of his foreign-ness. Yet, Mrs. Croft instead remarks to the narrator “with equal measures of disbelief and delight” that “[Mala] is a perfect lady!’” (Lahiri, 195). In this moment, the narrator becomes far less self-conscious of his foreign-ness and begins to seek out a balance between his Indian culture and American life.

While objects can serve to remind one of one’s home, they can also be used to distance oneself from one’s problems. In “The Third and Final Continent,” the narrator and his wife use objects and experiences to remind themselves of home. By contrast, Mrs. Das hides behind objects in “Interpreter of Maladies” to escape her responsibilities as a parent. By providing the reader with a rich array of objects and differing experiences associated with them, Lahiri communicates the challenges that members of the Indian diaspora living in the U.S. face by describing objects and environmental influences associated with them. In doing so, Lahiri writes an insightful and realistic portrayal of the Indian diasporic experience within her novel Interpreter of Maladies.

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