This Blessed House
This Blessed House
"This Blessed House" by Jhumpa Lahiri was first published in Epoch literary magazine in 1999 and then published in Lahiri's collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, later that year. The collection was Lahiri's first book, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Reviewers praised Lahiri's lucid, distinctive style, as well as her mature insight into the emotional lives of her characters, and these qualities of her work continue to resonate with readers and students.
The characters in Lahiri's stories are mostly Indian, often people who have immigrated to the United States and are trying to find their place in a new culture. Some of the stories deal with feelings of dislocation, exile, and loss. In "This Blessed House," however, the young, newlywed Indian couple Sanjeev and Twinkle have adjusted well to life in America. Sanjeev is successful in business, and he and Twinkle have just moved into a new house. However, they do not know each other all that well, and tensions between them surface when Twinkle finds a number of Christian devotional items left behind by the former owners. She likes them and displays them on the mantel, but Sanjeev wants to get rid of them. This sets the stage for a struggle between Sanjeev and Twinkle over who is going to control their relationship. Sanjeev, from whose point of view the story is mostly told, learns a great deal about his new wife and what it will take for them to have a harmonious marriage.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England, in 1967. She was raised from the age of three in South Kingston, Rhode Island. Her parents were immigrants to the United States from Calcutta, India. Her father was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, and her mother was a teacher's aide at an elementary school.
In spite of the fact that they lived in the United States, Lahiri's parents considered themselves Indian, and every few years they made trips to Calcutta, accompanied by their two daughters. Lahiri would stay in India for periods lasting up to six months, although she did not feel at home there. Nor did she feel quite at home in Rhode Island, where she was conscious of her different ethnic background and often felt like an outsider.
Lahiri became an avid reader when she was a child, and she also began to write stories. At the age of seven, she would coauthor with her classmates stories of up to ten pages in length.
After graduating from South Kingstown High School, Lahiri attended Barnard College, from which she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature. Continuing her studies, she received three master of arts degrees from Boston University, in English, creative writing, and comparative studies in literature and the arts. She also obtained a doctoral degree from Boston University in Renaissance Studies. Her dissertation was on the representations of Italian architecture in early seventeenth-century English theater.
In the summer of 1997, while working on her dissertation, Lahiri worked as an intern for Boston magazine. She had already begun writing short stories and had won the Henfield Prize from Transatlantic Review in 1993 and the LouisvilleReview fiction prize in 1997. Her work at Boston magazine, however, was limited to writing blurbs for consumer products.
Lahiri taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design, but her real ambition was to write fiction, a goal that received a major boost when the New Yorker published three of her stories and named her one of the twenty best young writers in the United States. Her collection of nine short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, including "This Blessed House," was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999. It was an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 2000, an impressive achievement for a young writer with her first book. The title story was awarded the O. Henry Award in 1999.
Three years later, Houghton Mifflin published Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, which she had begun working on in 1997. The novel is about a family that moves from Calcutta to New York. One of the main characters is a second-generation Indian American named Gogol who struggles to find his place in the world. The novel received critical acclaim and was nominated for the 2003 Los Angeles Times book award for fiction. It was made into a movie directed by Mira Nair.
Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias, an American-born journalist, in 2001, at a ceremony in Calcutta. They have two children. In 2002, Lahiri received a Guggenheim fellowship. Since 2005, Lahiri has served as vice president of the PEN American Center.
"This Blessed House" is set in present-day Connecticut. A young Indian couple, Sanjeev and Twinkle, are recently married and have just moved into their new house. As they go about investigating and fixing up the house, they begin to find small Christian knickknacks, left behind by the previous owners. Twinkle first finds a porcelain effigy of Christ. Sanjeev does not like it and tells Twinkle to get rid of it, but she thinks it is pretty and might even be worth something. Sanjeev reminds her that they are not Christians. No, she confirms, they are Hindus. She puts the statue of Christ on the fireplace mantel.
Over the next few days, more Christian items turn up: a 3-D postcard of Saint Francis, which had been taped to the back of a medicine cabinet; a wooden cross key chain; a framed paint-by-number painting of the three wise men, which had been hiding in a linen closet; a tile trivet showing Jesus delivering a sermon on a mountaintop; and a snow-filled dome containing a miniature Nativity scene. Twinkle arranges them all on the mantel. Sanjeev thinks they are all silly and wonders why Twinkle is so charmed by them. He wants her to throw them all away, but Twinkle says it would feel sacrilegious to do so. She hopes to find more.
A week later, Twinkle finds a watercolor poster of Christ, weeping and with a crown of thorns on his head. She wants to display it, but Sanjeev refuses. Twinkle says she will put it in her study, so he will not have to look at it.
When Sanjeev has a moment to himself, he recalls a dinner he and Twinkle had in Manhattan a couple of days before. Twinkle drank four glasses of whiskey in a bar, then dragged him into in a bookstore for an hour, and then insisted that they dance a tango on the sidewalk.
A few days later, Sanjeev returns from the office to find Twinkle on the phone to her girlfriend in California, talking enthusiastically about the "Christian paraphernalia." Each day is like a treasure hunt, she says. As Sanjeev observes her, he is aware that certain things about her irritate him. The way she sometimes spits a little as she speaks, for example. They have not yet been married two months, and they only met four months before. The meeting, which took place in Palo Alto, California, had been arranged by their parents. Twinkle's parents live in California, and Sanjeev's parents live in Calcutta, India. They married in India after a brief long-distance courtship punctuated by weekends together.
They are preparing for a housewarming party at the end of October, to which they have invited thirty people, all of them Sanjeev's acquaintances. Twinkle, who is still a student at Stanford University, knows no one in the area. The weekend before the party, Twinkle finds a plaster Virgin Mary in the yard, behind an overgrown bush. Twinkle wants to keep it but Sanjeev says the neighbors will think they are insane. As they argue about it, Sanjeev begins to realize that he does not know Twinkle very well, and he is not sure whether he loves her. Nor is he sure that she loves him.
That evening, when Twinkle is lying in a bubble bath, Sanjeev says he is going to remove the statue of the Virgin from the front lawn and take it to the dump. Twinkle stands up and says she hates him. She gets out of the bath, wraps a towel around her waist, and follows him down the staircase. She says she will not let him throw the statue away. He notices that she is crying, and his heart softens. They agree on a compromise. The statue will be placed in a recess at the side of the house so passersby will not see it, although it will still be visible to anyone who comes to the house.
They make extensive preparations for the party, cooking and cleaning. The first guests to arrive are Douglas and Nora. Having seen the statue of the Virgin, Douglas inquires whether Sanjeev and Twinkle are Christians. Sanjeev replies that they are not.
Soon all the guests have arrived. Everyone is elegantly dressed. They congratulate Sanjeev and admire the house. They admire Twinkle even more, and gather around her, laughing at her anecdotes and observations. Twinkle takes them on a tour of the house, and she tells Sanjeev that they all loved the poster of Christ in the study.
After Twinkle explains about how they found all the Christian items, everyone starts to search around the house to see if they can find any more. They climb up a ladder to get to the attic, although Sanjeev has no desire to join them. He hears a shriek, followed by waves of laughter. When Twinkle descends from the attic, she is carrying a large silver bust of Christ. Sanjeev takes it from her and finds it is heavy, weighing about thirty pounds. Twinkle asks if she can display it on the mantel just for the evening. After that, she says, she will keep it in her study. But Sanjeev knows this will never happen. Twinkle will keep the bust of Christ on the center of the mantel along with all the other items he dislikes. But he does not argue with her. Instead, he follows her into the living room, carrying the statue.
Douglas is one of the guests at the housewarming party. Tall and blond, he is a consultant at the firm at which Sanjeev works.
Nora is the girlfriend of Douglas. Like him, she is tall and blond.
Prabal is a guest at the housewarming party. He is an unmarried professor of physics at Yale University. He admires Twinkle and tells Sanjeev: "Your wife's wow."
Sanjeev is a thirty-three-year-old Indian immigrant to the United States, married to Twinkle. His parents still live in India. Sanjeev is a successful man, with an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After graduating, he moved from Boston to Connecticut to work for a firm near Hartford. He excels at his work, in which he supervises a dozen people, and is being considered for vice president of the company. He is efficient, tidy, and methodical in his habits, perhaps excessively so. He arranges his engineering books in alphabetical order on his bookshelf, even though he almost never consults them. He expects Twinkle to be neat and tidy around the house and is exasperated when he discovers that she is not.
Sanjeev also has a touch of vanity about him, since he is given to looking at himself in the mirror and convincing himself that he has a distinguished profile. Also, he is of average height but he wants to be an inch taller than he is. Sanjeev is therefore a man who is conscious of appearances, which is also revealed when he worries about what people will think if they see the "Christian paraphernalia" in the house.
Before he married Twinkle, Sanjeev lived a rather lonely bachelor life, conscious at social gatherings of his single status in the midst of apparently happy couples. He had never been in love. Eventually, he got tired of coming home to an empty condominium and listened to the advice of his mother, who told him he needed a wife to love and take care of. He was quite smitten with Twinkle from the beginning, and after she visited him for the weekend he would save in an ashtray the cigarettes she had smoked while she was there. He married her after a brief courtship and is now getting used to living with her. He discovers that he is a better cook than she is, and she irritates him with some of her sloppy habits. When they have their disagreements over the Christian knickknacks that Twinkle finds in the house, Sanjeev realizes that he does not know whether he loves his wife or not. He does not really know what love is. But he seems sufficiently charmed by Twinkle's beauty and her feminine ways to let her have her way, and at the end of the story his attachment to her has deepened.
Sunil is a guest at the housewarming party. He is an anesthesiologist.
Twinkle is an Indian immigrant who lives in the United States and is recently married to Sanjeev. Twinkle's parents live in California, but it is not stated whether she is a first- or second-generation immigrant. It is likely that she has lived in the United States for some while, since she is very attuned to American values and has none of the angst of the immigrant. Any anguish she has suffered in life appears to have stemmed from failed romance, not the difficulties of being an immigrant, since Sanjeev learns when he first meets her that she has recently been abandoned by a failed American actor.
The name Twinkle is a childhood nickname, taken from the nursery rhyme "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," but she has not yet outgrown it. Her full name is Tanima, but this is rarely used. When Sanjeev introduces her as Tanima to one of the guests, Twinkle immediately says, "Call me Twinkle." The name gives a clue to Twinkle's childlike nature. Sanjeev notes that she is "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 a mailbox." He also observes that her face still looks girlish. Although she is twenty-seven years old, well educated and intelligent—she is completing her master of arts degree from Stanford University, writing about an Irish poet—Twinkle has not lost her childlike playfulness. This is shown, for example, when she insists that Sanjeev dance a tango with her on the streets of Manhattan. She appears to be impulsive and has a wild streak, as when she drinks four whiskeys in a bar and then forgets all about it. In the house that she and Sanjeev have just bought, she is more interested in going on a treasure hunt for more Christian items than in doing the practical tasks that Sanjeev suggests are necessary to spruce up the place. Sanjeev also notes that she talks for a long time on the telephone to her friend in California at a time when the telephone charges are at their most expensive, which suggests that she is careless of such practical matters as the need to economize and not spend money unnecessarily. Twinkle has an alert, lively, curious nature that makes her attractive to others. She is strikingly attractive; Prabal thinks she is "wow," and all the guests admire her. At the housewarming party, Twinkle completely outshines Sanjeev and gathers around her a little circle of guests who appear to hang on her every word.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Interview some immigrants in your school or community. Find out why they came to the United States and how they have adjusted to life in America. What has been their experience here? Do they try to maintain the customs and practices of their countries of origin or are they adapting to American ways? Do they think of themselves as Americans or as Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, etc.? Record your interviews and write an essay in which you summarize your findings.
- What are the traditional roles ascribed to women in Western societies? Why are women given these roles? In what ways are women in the United States presented with more choices about their lives than women from other countries? Can you make a case for the continuance of traditional roles for women in the United States, or are these roles falling out of favor? Lead a class debate on the topic.
- What is the position of Indian Americans today? As Asian Americans, do they face discrimination? Are they successful, in terms of educational and income levels? What sort of occupations do Indians take up in America, and what geographical areas do they tend to live in? How does their experience in the United States resemble or differ from that of other immigrants groups such as Chinese Americans or Mexican Americans? Present your findings to the class.
- Read Lahiri's story "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," and write an essay in which you describe what the story shows you about Indian culture and how it differs from American culture, particularly regarding customs of courtship and marriage. Conduct further research on Indian practices such as the giving of dowries. What is the dowry system? What purpose does it serve?
The Struggle for Dominance
Twinkle and Sanjeev, although they are married, do not know each other very well. They have only been together for a few months, so their relationship is still in the formative stage. Sanjeev in particular is finding out that dating someone on weekends is quite a different matter from living with her. It may be that Sanjeev is inexperienced with women (he has never been in love before). When he bought the house that he and Twinkle are to live in, he had a romantic and perhaps naïve belief that they would "live there together, forever." Now he is discovering that living together is not always a bed of roses, however sweet and beautiful his new wife might be. He discovers that he is having to adapt to the way Twinkle does things, and he is still trying to puzzle her out. In fact, his life with her seems to become a series of surprises, none of them especially pleasant. There is more than a hint of frustration at the beginning, when he points out to Twinkle—whose fascination with the Christian items she finds baffles him—that they are not Christians. The narrator comments: "Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle." Since they are both Hindus, Sanjeev wonders why his wife should care about such Christian trinkets, which in his eyes, are vulgar and express no religious sentiment at all.
Sanjeev is surprised again by some of Twinkle's habits, like the day he came home one afternoon and found her in bed, reading. He wonders why she should be in bed in the middle of the day, and she replies merely that she is bored. What follows is a key moment. Sanjeev wants to tell her that there are plenty of things to do around the house; she could unpack some boxes or sweep the attic. But he says nothing, only reflecting on the fact that such unfinished matters around the house did not bother her at all. This is the developing pattern of their relationship; she is getting the upper hand, doing what she likes, while he is more passive, trying to understand her and get along with her. She seems in many ways to be the stronger personality, and he tries to accommodate her, as when he lets her browse in a bookstore for an hour even when he has no interest in the place. In some respects Twinkle is a mystery to him. For example, he does not understand the excitement she shows at little insignificant things: "It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate, or see."
Being so recently formed, there is an uncertainty to their relationship, in terms of who is going to adapt to whom, and whether there are going to be arguments and quarrels or harmony and peace. If it is to be the latter, what price will be paid for it, and who will do the paying? How things will eventually be between these newlyweds is suggested in two key scenes. The first is the dispute over the statue of the Virgin. Sanjeev is determined to get rid of it, and plucks up the courage to speak his mind. But after they speak sharply to each other, Twinkle cries, and her tears melt his heart. In this battle of wills, she uses what are sometimes called "women's weapons," and the result is that they agree on a compromise which is far more favorable to her than it is to him.
The second key scene comes right at the end. While Twinkle and the guests rummage around in the attic, the frustrated Sanjeev has visions of himself taking charge of the household. He will take "Twinkle's menagerie"—the Christian items—to the dump, and while he is at it, he will smash the statue of the Virgin with a hammer. Then he will come home, make himself a gin and tonic, and listen to some Bach music. But when Twinkle descends from the attic carrying the large bust of Christ, he says nothing of this. He has a feeling of warmth toward her, although the fact that he hates the statue mostly because Twinkle loves it suggests an underlying hostility in his emotions regarding his wife. But he knows that Twinkle will have her way: the bust will be displayed on the mantel whether he likes it or not. As he carries it into the living room, it is his arms that ache from the weight of it, not hers. It is he who follows, while she leads. He must merely go along with the will of his pretty, unpredictable, mysterious wife, and he knows that he is just going to have to get used to it.
The Dual Cultural Life of the Immigrant
Twinkle and Sanjeev are both Indians living in the United States. As such, they participate in two cultures, that of their native India and that of their adopted home. Twinkle's parents live in California, and it may be that she is a second-generation immigrant, although when her parents immigrated to the United States is not mentioned. Sanjeev's parents, on the other hand, still live in India; he immigrated to the United States as a single man, not with the rest of his family.
In many ways, both Twinkle and Sanjeev have assimilated with the dominant culture. Twinkle studies the work of a Western poet; Sanjeev has an interest in Western classical music, listening to Mahler and Bach. But they remain Hindus, which is the religion of the majority of people in India, and the fact that they discover Christian items all over the house is a reminder that they do not adhere to the dominant religion in the United States. Twinkle, of course, is not in the least bothered by this, but Sanjeev is, not wanting anyone to think that they are Christians. At the housewarming party, he finds that he has to explain again and again that they are not Christians. However, this seems more of a symbolic issue for him than anything else, since neither he nor Twinkle show any sign of being religious or of following the teachings and practices of Hinduism. Indeed, Twinkle's ironic comment that they are "good little Hindus" suggests her lack of genuine interest in religion.
It appears, then, that Sanjeev is more aware of his Indian heritage than is Twinkle, and this is apparent in other ways. Before he was married, Sanjeev was influenced by his mother's desire for him to make a traditional Indian marriage. She would send him photographs of prospective brides from Calcutta "who could sing and sew and season lentils without consulting a cookbook." However, in the end, Sanjeev chooses not a traditional bride who lives merely to serve her husband, but the feisty Twinkle, who soon shows that she will please herself as often as she pleases him.
The fact that Sanjeev and Twinkle married and honeymooned in India shows that in some ways they are still attached to their country of origin. Another sign of their identification with India and the Indian immigrant community in their area is the fact that at the housewarming party, many of the guests are Indians. Some of the women arrive wearing "their finest saris, made with gold filigree that draped in elegant pleats over their shoulders." It is also notable that these Indian immigrants appear not to be facing any hostility or discrimination based on their ethnicity. They are part of an upwardly mobile class of young Indian professionals, able to succeed in their adopted country because the American dream is open to all.
Third-person Point of View
The story is told in the third person by what is known as a limited narrator. This means that the narrator tells only of what is felt or thought by a single character, in this case Sanjeev. The reader is given almost no direct insight into Twinkle's mind; she must be assessed by what she says and does, and what Sanjeev thinks, observes, and reveals about her. The effect is that for the reader, Twinkle becomes as enigmatic as she is for Sanjeev. Since the reader is experiencing Twinkle through Sanjeev's eyes, he or she shares in Sanjeev's attempts to understand Twinkle and shares in the range of emotions Sanjeev goes through, including bewilderment, surprise, irritation, frustration, defiance, and finally acceptance. Had the story been told from Twinkle's point of view, it might have created a very different impression. The choice made by the author to tell the story through the narrator's insight into Sanjeev's mind is appropriate, because he is a more reflective, aware character than Twinkle, and it is he who for the most part has to adjust to her, rather than the other way around. It is Sanjeev, for example, who shows change and development during the course of the story, whereas Twinkle stays the same.
Two key images in the story are the watercolor poster of Christ weeping and the plaster Virgin Mary that Twinkle discovers in their yard, with "a blue painted hood draped over her head in the manner of an Indian bride." Twinkle loves both items; Sanjeev cannot stand either of them. When their dispute over the statue of the Virgin comes to a head, Twinkle is taking a bubble bath and has also coated her face with "a bright blue mask." By the time she has got out of the bath and is arguing with Sanjeev, the mask has dried and taken on an ashen quality. Some water from her wet hair drips onto her face, but then Sanjeev notices "that some of the water dripping down her hard blue face was tears." Twinkle does not try to stop the tears; she looks "strangely at peace. For a moment she closed her lids, pale and unprotected compared to the blue that caked the rest of her face." Twinkle thus takes on something of the appearance of a religious icon—a combination of the weeping Christ and the calm, compassionate Virgin. Her appearance touches Sanjeev's heart and he immediately seeks a reconciliation with her. He may have been repelled by the poster of Christ and the statue of the Virgin, but here he finds a living icon to which he is compelled to offer his devotion.
Indian Immigration to the United States
Lahiri was raised in the United States by Indian immigrant parents who still identified with their country of origin. She therefore knows firsthand about the milieu of the Indian immigrant in America. The Indian American community has grown considerably over the last forty years, following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which removed the national origins quota system in favor of criteria that emphasized possession of desirable skills.
During the 1970s, sizable Indian American populations grew up in the United States, concentrated in four states, California (where in "This Blessed House" Twinkle's parents live), New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Indian immigrants adjusted well to being in the United States and became one of the most prosperous of immigrant groups, many of them becoming highly paid professionals such as doctors or businessmen and women (like Sanjeev, Prabal, and Sunil in the story). During the 1980s, the Indian American community became more diverse, as those who were already in the United States sponsored their relatives to join them. This second wave of Indian immigrants was, in general, not as highly educated as the first wave.
In the 1990s, Indian immigrants made a significant impact on the booming information technology industry. Many Indian entrepreneurs settled in California's Silicon Valley and established their own highly successful companies there.
The Indian community in the United States became the second-largest Asian community after the Chinese. During the twenty-first century, the Indian community in the United States has continued to grow.
Indian Literature in English
Coinciding with the rapid increase of Indian immigration to the United States has been the growth of literature written by Indians in English. Some Indian writers who have made their homes in the United States or Canada, including Bharati Mukherjee, Ved Mehta, Michael Ondaatji, and the poet A. K. Ramanujan, have written about the collective experience of Indian immigrants in North America. Therefore, when she began writing her stories in the 1990s, Lahiri was contributing to an existing body of work by Indians or those of Indian heritage living in the West.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, many new writers of Indian origin made their mark on the American literary scene. Vikram Seth is known for his novel A Suitable Boy (1994). Kiran Desai, who was born in India and is now a permanent resident of the United States, published her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in 1998, to critical acclaim. She is the daughter of Anita Desai, also a noted Indian author. Vikram Chandra, also born in India, received widespread recognition when he published his first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain: A Novel, in 1995, and the five stories that make up his collection Love and Longing in Bombay (1997). Pankaj Mishra's novel, The Romantics (2000), about people struggling to lead fulfilling lives in cultures not their own, won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum award for first fiction. Even more recently, Raj Kamal Jha and Indra Sinha have made their mark with their first novels, The
Blue Bedspread (2001) and The Death of Mr. Love: A Novel (2004), respectively.
Lahiri's collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was enthusiastically received by reviewers. Laura Shapiro's comment in Newsweek is typical of the kind of praise Lahiri received: "Jhumpa Lahiri writes such direct, translucent prose you almost forget you're reading, so to look up from the page and see your own living room is startling." In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani describes Lahiri as "a wonderfully distinctive new voice." Kakutani singles out "This Blessed House" for comment, noting that the newlyweds "uncover the fault lines in their partnership as a silly tiff over some Christian knickknacks … [which] escalates into a fight not only about religion but also about autonomy and control." Kakutani concludes with a general comment about Lahiri's stories that could certainly apply directly to "This Blessed House": "Ms. Lahiri chronicles her characters' lives with both objectivity and compassion while charting the emotional temperature of their lives with tactile precision. She is a writer of uncommon elegance and poise." In the New York Times Book Review, Caleb Crain discusses the collection in terms of "marriages that have been arranged, rushed into, betrayed, invaded and exhausted." He reports that "This Blessed House" (one of the stories in which marriage is rushed into) is his favorite story in the collection, and he devotes over one-third of his review to discussing it. In particular, he discusses the important scene in which Sanjeev and Twinkle quarrel over the statue of the Virgin Mary. The weeping Twinkle, with her blue face mask, has become "the Madonna statuette that she is so taken with. She has breathed her own life into the Christian icon's plaster, not deliberately and not ironically but humanely, and she demands that her husband respond to this achievement with mercy and respect."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Like many of her stories, Lahiri's highly praised first novel, The Namesake (2003), deals with the immigrant experience. The main character, Gogol Ganguli, who was born in the United States to Indian parents, feels that he is an outsider, belonging neither to Indian nor American culture. The novel follows his attempts to define himself until he finally learns to accept both the American and the Indian aspects of his heritage.
- The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), by Bharati Mukherjee, explores the immigrant experience in America, including not only the experience of Indians but also of Italians, Filipinos, West Indians, and even an Iraqi Jew. Her stories document the changing ethnic composition of the United States and the challenges faced by those who find themselves living in an unfamiliar culture in which they are not always welcome.
- In Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City (2002), Madhulika S. Khandelwal describes the Indian immigrant community in New York City and how it has grown rapidly and become more diverse since its inception in the 1960s. Drawing extensively on interviews, Khandelwal examines the ways in which immigrants have preserved their culture, and also the ways in which they have been absorbed into and changed by the American experience.
- Gish Jen, a Chinese American, is a highly acclaimed writer whose work focuses on the different ethnic groups in America, including Jews and African Americans as well as Asian Americans. Her collection of eight stories, Who's Irish? (2000), presents the immigrant experience in all its colorful range, including the tension between the desire to assimilate with the mainstream and the need to uphold a cultural heritage.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on "This Blessed House," he discusses the story in terms of changing gender roles.
As an American writer of Indian heritage, Lahiri in her stories gives much insight and food for thought about the interactions between American and Indian culture, the challenges faced by immigrants to the United States, and the different strategies they develop for living in their adopted country. One focus of interest is gender roles. Under the influence of the feminist movement that began in the 1960s, women's roles in work and marriage in the United States have changed dramatically over the last forty years. The traditional marriage, in which the man was responsible for earning a living and providing for his family and in which the woman stayed at home cooking, cleaning, and looking after the children, is no longer the cultural norm. Most women are now part of the workforce, and many earn as much as, or even more than, their husbands. Household and child-rearing tasks are now more evenly divided than they used to be; it is no longer a universal assumption that the wife is responsible for looking after the home. American couples, now lacking a cultural norm on which to model their marriage, have to work out for themselves how to make their marriage work in terms of who does what and who is responsible for what. Greater equality and less fixedness in gender roles have become the new norm.
In India, the worldwide feminist movement has also had an effect on attitudes toward marriage and gender roles, but not to the same extent as it has in Western societies. Women in India marry much younger than they do in the United States. The median age of Indian women when they marry is just under nineteen (compared to twenty-five in the United States), and nearly half the women in India are married between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. The majority of marriages in India are arranged by the parents and other relatives of the couple. Marriage is considered an alliance between families rather than simply a union of two individuals. It is the task of the man's family to arrange the marriage, and professional matchmakers are used to find suitable matches. Lahiri's story "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," which takes place in India, gives a somewhat satirical picture of what might happen when an Indian family selects a woman as a possible bride. Bibi's friends prepare her for the interview that will follow:
Most likely the groom will arrive with one parent, a grandparent, and either an uncle or an aunt. They will stare, ask several questions. They will examine the bottoms of your feet, the thickness of your braid. They will ask you to name the prime minister, recite poetry, feed a dozen hungry people on half a dozen eggs.
An important part of Indian marriage custom is the payment of a dowry by the bride's family. Dowry payments can be considerable, and may include specific items (a luxury car, for example) as well as cash.
Such practices are of course quite foreign to American customs, and when Indians immigrate to the United States, they may find themselves caught in a clash of cultures and values. The usual pattern, not only for Indians but also immigrants from other non-Western countries, is that first-generation immigrants maintain their ties to their homelands, think of themselves as Indian (for example) rather than American, and try to uphold the traditional practices of their cultures. Second-generation immigrants, however, who are born in the United States, tend to be more naturally adapted to American culture, and this can lead to intergenerational conflict within immigrant families.
Sanjeev and Twinkle in "The Blessed House" make an interesting couple in this respect. There is just a trace of the arranged marriage in their story. Before he met Twinkle, Sanjeev would receive photographs from his mother in Calcutta of possible, and very traditional, brides, ladies who "could sing and sew and season lentils without consulting a cookbook." At one point Sanjeev started to rank these prospects in order of preference, but he never followed through on it. When Twinkle emerged as a prospect, it was their parents who set up the couple's first meeting, and it appears that matchmakers were also employed. But Sanjeev and Twinkle had a typical American rather than Indian courtship, even down to eating popcorn at the movies.
Now, as young married Indians living in the United States, Sanjeev and Twinkle maintain their links with India—they were married in India and honeymooned there—but their marriage does not conform to the traditional Indian type. To begin with, twenty-seven-year-old Twinkle, whose Indian parents live in California, married late by Indian standards, although not by American ones. In addition, like many American women, Twinkle is rather independent-minded and does not confine herself to a traditional gender role. While the marriage is traditional in the sense that Sanjeev is the sole wage earner, in other respects there is almost a reversal of gender roles.
This reversal can be seen in the different attitudes Sanjeev and Twinkle have to cooking, cleaning, and keeping the house tidy, traditionally the responsibilities of the wife. But in this marriage, it is the man who is more concerned with maintaining a neat, orderly, and clean environment. At the beginning of the story, Sanjeev points out to Twinkle that the mantel needs dusting, but a few days later, it still has not been dusted; Twinkle has been too busy using it as a display shelf for her newly discovered Christian trinkets. As far as household tasks are concerned, Sanjeev appears to have expectations of Twinkle that she seems unwilling to fulfill. He wants her to pull her weight in getting the house they have just moved into in good order, but she is unresponsive to his requests, preferring to read, talk on the telephone with her friends, or pursue her "treasure hunt" for Christian devotional items. Her casualness about such important matters annoys Sanjeev, but as a concession to commonly held attitudes in the culture he finds himself in—in which women reserve the right to refuse traditional roles ascribed to them—he does not seem to expend much energy in trying to impose his way on her. He is learning to be resigned, to cede to his wife a certain degree of control that would be unthinkable in a traditional marriage. He begins to realize that if he wants to satisfy his desire for neatness and cleanliness, he had better take care of these things himself. Twinkle will continue to drop her underwear on the floor at night instead of putting it in the hamper, whatever he says about it. There is a hint of irony in this last little source of tension, since in America the cultural stereotype is of the woman who has to clean up after the untidy man. But in this household, things are a little different.
It is the same with cooking. Sanjeev likes to cook Indian food, taking the time on weekends to prepare a decent curry with mustard oil, cinnamon sticks, and cloves, while Twinkle, more adjusted to the American preference that food be prepared quickly and easily, thinks cooking Indian food is too much bother. She does not even know how to use a blender, and seems to have no desire to learn. As the narrator puts it rather gently: "She was not terribly ambitious in the kitchen."
The different attitudes to cooking also hint at another difference between this couple: Sanjeev, although in many ways at home in American society and culture, is more attached to Indian ways and thought than is his wife. Sanjeev is far more concerned than she is, for example, that because of the "Christian paraphernalia" in the house, people might think they are Christians. Although he does not seem to be especially religious, he still identifies with being a Hindu, which is the majority religion in India. In another telling detail, Sanjeev is pleased that his new wife is "from a suitably high caste," caste being a term used in India to refer to the hereditary class system.
It seems, then, that Sanjeev and Twinkle form a marriage that, in terms of gender roles, reflects some of the changes that have taken place in American society and culture. But even as they adapt to American ways, they remain conscious of their connections to their country of origin. Even Twinkle, who seems very fashion conscious and wears "three-inch leopard-print pumps" when the couple goes out to dinner in Manhattan, wears a salwar kameez, a traditional Indian garment consisting of loose trousers with a long shirt or tunic, at the housewarming party. In fact, the party presents an interesting picture of the mingling of two radically different cultures. Twinkle wears her traditional salwar kameez, and there are silk paintings from Jaipur, India, on the walls. Many of the guests are Indian. But the music that Twinkle selects to play on the stereo is jazz, that quintessential American musical form. And at the end of the party the focus of interest is not on anything Indian but on a bust of Christ, the embodiment of the divine in the Christian religion.
The picture the author presents of Sanjeev and Twinkle is therefore of two Indian immigrants who are able to function well in American society by fitting in fairly easily with the majority culture, although their Indianness is never in doubt either. Twinkle is quite a contrast to another character in a Lahiri story, Mrs. Sen, in the story "Mrs. Sen's," which is included in Interpreter of Maladies. Mrs. Sen, an Indian immigrant of about thirty (only three years older than Twinkle) is married to a taciturn professor who is out all day at the university. Mrs. Sen is far more conservative in her Indianness than Twinkle. She wears saris and also puts vermilion on the center of her forehead in the red dot, known as a bindi, that Indian women wear to show they are married. Mrs. Sen has not adapted well to American life, and this failure is symbolized by the painful struggle she goes through trying to learn how to drive a car. (She eventually crashes it into a telephone pole.) Mrs. Sen's only pleasures are receiving aerograms from her relatives in India and shopping for fresh fish, which reminds her of her home in Calcutta, where, she says, people eat fish twice a day. Mrs. Sen lives a sad, lonely life, unable to flourish in her new environment, in sharp contrast to the vivacious, inquisitive Twinkle. In these two stories, "The Blessed House" and "Mrs. Sen's," Lahiri presents both sides of the experience of the Indian immigrant in the United States—those who adapt to living in America and those who do not. It is clear that the former lead the happier lives.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "This Blessed House," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Brada-Williams claims that the stories in Interpreter of Maladies, including "This Blessed House," are not individual stories. Instead, she defines them as parts of a story cycle.
…The popularity and critical success of Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies in both the United States and India could in part be due to the delicate balancing of representations she provides through the cycle as a whole. For example, the cheating husbands of "Sexy" are balanced by the depiction of the unfaithful Mrs. Das of "Interpreter of Maladies." The relative ease with which Lilia of "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" participates in an American childhood is contrasted with the separation and stigmatization that the Dixit children experience in the story "Sexy." Mrs. Sen's severe homesickness and separation from US culture is contrasted with the adaptability of Lilia's mother and Mala in "The Third and Final Continent." The balancing of the generally negative depiction of an Indian community in "A Real Durwan" with the generally positive portrayal in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" is yet another example not only of the resulting balanced representations that the genre affords Lahiri but is itself one of many ways through which Lahiri constructs a conversation among her pieces.
The first and last stories in the cycle most clearly evoke a balancing dialogue through a careful mirroring of their basic plots. "The Third and Final Continent" both reflects and reverses the plot of the first story, "A Temporary Matter." While the first story of the cycle relates the tale of the death of a son and the possible destruction of a marriage, the concluding story provides a tale of the survival and resilience of both the parents' marriage and their son. The plot of the final story emphasizes the "ordinary" heroism of the narrator and his wife through the trials of migrating across continents and coming to care for a stranger by contrasting the pair to the narrator's fragile mother and their life in the United States to the short stay of the astronauts on the moon. They are also connected to the elderly Mrs. Croft and her near-miraculous ability to survive; she seems to have traveled as far in time as the main characters have in space. By placing Shoba and Shukumar's story in her readers' minds first, Lahiri is able to inform readers of the final story of the ways Mala and her husband could have failed as a couple and as parents, thus emphasizing their experiences as achievements rather than mere norms. The placement of these two stories at the beginning and end of the collection also helps to signal readers of the cyclical nature of the collection.
Susan Mann notes that titles are key "generic signals" and that "collections that are not cycles have traditionally been named after a single story to which the phrase ‘and other stories’ is appended….Generally placed first or last in the volume, the title story represents what the author feels is the best work or, in some cases, the best-known work" (14). Mann cites Faulkner's insistence on having "and Other Stories" removed from Go Down, Moses as support for the absence of the phrase as a conscious signaling device, as can be seen in Lahiri's text. Other critics have described the title of Lahiri's cycle as descriptive of her talents and her subject matter in all of the stories, rather than just a naming of the third story in the collection.
Scholars have noted many common themes among the stories, often focusing on the sense of displacement attached to the immigrant experience. In their analysis of "A Temporary Matter," Basudeb and Angana Chakrabarti make several claims regarding common themes in Lahiri's stories, for example, that "this sense of belonging to a particular place and culture and yet at the same time being an outsider to another creates a tension in individuals which happens to be a distinguishing feature of Lahiri's characters" and that Lahiri deals "with broken marriages" (24-25). Ashutosh Dubey looks at the immigrant experience in three of the nine stories and notes that three more stories dealing with second generation Indian immigrants focus on the "themes of emotional struggles of love, relationships, communication against the backdrop of immigrant experience" (25). In "Food Metaphor in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies," Asha Choubey traces her theme through five of the nine stories, analyzing their representation of Indian food and the use of food as metaphors for home and the connection between people. She also asserts that Lahiri's "protagonists—all Indians—settled abroad are afflicted with a ‘sense of exile’" (par. 4). A sense of exile and the potential for—and frequent denial of—human communication can be found in all of Lahiri's short stories and indeed are the defining, structuring elements of her short story cycle. Yet despite their insights, many of the critics cited above ignore the two stories set wholly in India and without any American characters, "A Real Durwan" and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar." Choubey's statement also ignores the non-Indian protagonists of Miranda ("Sexy") and Eliot ("Mrs. Sen's"). Common themes are important to defining a story cycle; but to distinguish between a collection containing stories merely characteristic of a writer's dominant interests and a true short story cycle, a single theme tying every story together is needed.
Many critics have suggested marriage as the unifying theme for the collection, and marriage is indeed a key element of most of the stories. Even "A Real Durwan" has the subplot of Mr. and Mrs. Dalal's bickering and reconciliation. Mrs. Sen's marriage to Mr. Sen may not be the main focus of her story, but it does create an important backdrop for her homesickness and several of her more pertinent observations to Eliot. The one story that breaks with the theme of marriage or marital problems is "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine." Although it depicts a married couple and their friend Mr. Pirzada, who is himself a married man, the relationships at the focus of the text are those between Lilia and Mr. Pirzada and the trio that Mr. Pirzada and Lilia's parents temporarily create during East Pakistan's war of independence. As Lilia notes, "Most of all I remember the three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear." Ironically they achieve this unity as their nations enter into the war that will eventually allow East Pakistan to become the independent nation of Bangladesh. Not only human connection but human communication is yet another important theme for the cycle which runs through this story as Mr. Pirzada learns to interpret the American "thank you" just as Miranda in "Sexy" gradually comes to interpret the title of her story.
What has not been sufficiently noticed is that carefully executed rituals mark the relationships in Interpreter of Maladies. For instance, "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine": Lilia takes care to save up the candy Mr. Pirzada gives her, treating it like an offering in her prayers for Mr. Pirzada's family. Each evening at dinner Mr. Pirzada carefully winds and sets out the pocket watch he keeps set to the time of his homeland, which is one of the things Lilia notices after she begins "to study him with extra care." These details evoke the most important theme running throughout the cycle: all nine stories are woven together with the frequent representations of extreme care and neglect. Repetitions of this dichotomy occur in a variety of communities including whole neighborhoods, marital and extramarital relationships, and relationships between children and adults. Sometimes carelessness as a trait in Interpreter of Maladies defines a period of significant tension or even mourning as Lilia's parents shift from carefully prepared meals to simple boiled eggs and rice as the crisis in East Pakistan deepens. At other moments in the collection, a lack of care signifies fundamental differences between peoples or is represented as a permanent flaw, a human failing central to an individual character or even a whole community. The needs for "care" are linked to love, duty or responsibility, and homesickness. Images of neglect range from a dress that has slipped off its hanger to a car accident. Such images serve as augurs of the characters' emotional states and processes. "A Temporary Matter" opens with a description of a woman arriving home: Shoba "let the strap of her leather satchel …slip from her shoulders, and left it in the hallway." We are then told that she looks "like the type of woman she'd once claimed she would never resemble," namely, one who came home in gym clothes and with her makeup either rubbed off or smeared. Readers quickly come to realize that a dramatic change has come over the woman once marked not only by her physical beauty but her careful and meticulous manner in all things. We learn these details indirectly through a third-person narration that is filtered through Shoba's husband's point of view, the husband who will later put her things away but who is himself marked by personal neglect. He has not yet brushed his teeth by the evening of the day on which the story begins and has taken to lying in bed and avoiding work on his dissertation or even leaving his home.
Lahiri uses a variety of such small details to evoke not only the vast change that has come over the couple since the stillbirth of their son, but to reveal the great neglect in which their own relationship as a couple has fallen since that tragedy. One small image of neglect and decay is particularly resonant with the state of their marriage: When Shukumar, the husband, picks up a potted ivy in order to use it as a makeshift candle holder while the electricity will be turned off, he finds that "Even though the plant was inches from the tap, the soil was so dry that he had to water it first before the candles would stand straight." Thus, Lahiri subtly evokes the couple's common state of shock and lack of interest in their shared environment as both have failed to water a plant even when doing so would have taken almost no effort at all. Taken together, the sheer number of these small failures to provide care helps to define the depths of Shoba and Shukumar's common yet isolated experience of grief for their lost child as well as their waning care and love for each other.
"Interpreter of Maladies" similarly focuses on a young couple with severe marital problems, but their carelessness is most often evoked in their treatment of their three children. "Interpreter of Maladies" is a third-person narrative filtered through the point of view of Mr. Kapasi, the family's driver while sightseeing in India. The story opens with the parents bickering over who will take their daughter to the restroom. Mr. Kapasi will later think that the family is "all like siblings …it was hard to believe [Mr. and Mrs. Das] were regularly responsible for anything other than themselves." The first paragraph of the story notes that the mother "did not hold the little girl's hand as they walked to the restroom." As in "A Temporary Matter," small signs of negligence add up to reveal deeper emotional difficulties and detachments. This otherwise unremarkable scene acts as foreshadowing for what may be called the twin climaxes of the story: the attack on one of the boys by monkeys and the revelation of his illegitimate birth. Notably it is the popcorn that his mother has carelessly dropped that draws the monkeys to her son as well as the fact that he is left unsupervised that leads to the attack.
Mr. and Mrs. Das's lack of carefulness in raising their children extends to their carelessness in maintaining their marriage vows, at least on Mrs. Das's part. Although their driver, Mr. Kapasi, recognizes similarities between the Das's marriage and his own, he himself functions as a stark contrast to Mr. and Mrs. Das's lack of care. Not unlike Mr. Pirzada, Mr. Kapasi is characterized by his carefully tailored clothing and meticulous manners. Simon Lewis has read this story as a rewriting and updating of the trip to the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, this time from the perspective of an Indian national, Mr. Kapasi in the role formerly held by Dr. Aziz (219). Lewis's argument can be supported by Mr. Kapasi's dream "of serving as an interpreter between nations," which he fantasizes fulfilling through a future correspondence with Mrs. Das. The way in which Mr. Kapasi gives Mrs. Das his contact information is illustrative of their essential differences as characters: she hands "him a scrap of paper which she had hastily ripped from a page of her film magazine" upon which he writes "his address in clear, careful letters." She then tosses "it into the jumble of her bag." The clear differences in these two characters in their relationship to care or lack of care, specifically in relation to responsibility, makes their final disconnect inevitable. While they both can be seen longing for communication with others, Mrs.Das is a woman with a life of relative comfort and ease who yearns to be freed of the responsibilities of marriage and children, and Mr. Karpasi is a man who has given up his dreams to support his family and who only yearns for some recognition and interest in his life. By the time his address falls out of Mrs. Das's bag and is borne off by the wind, Mr. Kapasi has already let go of his fantasy of communicating across continents and between individuals.
In "Mrs. Sen's" the title character takes excellent care of the eleven-year-old Eliot, the filter of the third-person narrative, for most of the story. One period when she acts differently is when she learns of her grandfather's death. As in "A Temporary Matter," images of carelessness and the cessation of past routines are used to evoke characters in mourning. Mrs. Sen's caregiving activities include not only feeding Eliot as well as his mother when she arrives to pick him up but in preparing elaborate meals for her and Mr. Sen's evening meal. During her hour-long daily ritual of chopping up ingredients, Mrs. Sen has Eliot stay on the couch, far from her chopping blade: "She would have roped off the area if she could. Once, though, she broke her own rule; in need of additional supplies …she asked Eliot to fetch something from the kitchen …‘Careful, oh dear, be careful,’ she cautioned as he approached." This same daily ritual or routine connects Mrs. Sen with India. Describing the scene before a wedding when the neighborhood women would gather to prepare food with blades such as hers, she states, "It is impossible to fall asleep those nights, listening to their chatter. […] Here in this place where Mr. Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence." She also asks Eliot, "if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?" Drawing on his own experience, Eliot can only answer, "Maybe…. They might call you, …But they might complain that you were making too much noise."
Mrs. Sen is homesick for the kind of community she had in India, a community defined by a responsibility to participate in the lives of others rather than a responsibility not to interfere or be in any way intrusive in the lives of others. Mrs. Sen's statement when she is contemplating the fearful task of driving is ironically applicable to both the other drivers and herself: "‘Everyone, this people, too much in their world.’" The American model of polite behavior depicted in Lahiri's work is to be wholly in one's own world and to maintain the smells, sounds, and emotions of that world so that they do not encroach upon another individual's life. Mrs. Sen's notion of community is the opposite. Yet her ability to become distracted while driving marks her as someone lost in her own world and oblivious to the needs and safety of other drivers. While Eliot's mom views the other cars as mere scenery, as inanimate objects, and is able to negotiate the road to the beach with ease, Mrs. Sen is hyper-conscious of the existence of other beings on the street but unable to perform in such a way as not to intrude in the lives of other drivers. This otherwise careful person becomes an extremely careless driver, and an accident results. Although the accident causes very little physical damage to Eliot or Mrs. Sen, it puts an end even to the limited form of community that the two had come to share with each other.
Lahiri represents examples of Indian community in two stories that are set off from the other seven stories not only by being set wholly in India and with all Indian nationals as characters but in their distinctive narrative style. "A Real Durwan" and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" continue to focus on a central dichotomy of carelessness and carefulness. Both stories shift from Lahiri's usual practice of using a filtered third-person or first-person narrative. While elsewhere this technique provides a detailed look into the interior life of most of Lahiri's characters, the lives and unspoken thoughts of Boori Ma and Bibi Haldar are left unknown to the reader. Each story resembles a legend as it depicts characters who manage to suffer through and survive extreme adversity. The lack of representation of their individual thoughts, memories, and motivations also lends the title characters a mythic or allegorical quality. In these two stories the community surrounding the character referred to in the title is as much the focus of the tale as any single character.
Boori Ma is a refugee who, although a woman, performs the duties of "A Real Durwan" or doorman in a Calcutta apartment building. We are told that she "maintained a vigil no less punctilious than if she were the gatekeeper of a house on Lower Circular Road, or Jodphur Park, or any other fancy neighborhood." When we first meet her, she is inspecting her tattered bedding for insects. A sympathetic resident of the building asks, "Do you think it's beyond us to provide you with clean quilts?" As this statement reveals, the neighbor's good intentions are mixed with her sensitivity to her own limited social status. The same day will bring a change in the neighbor's status and will propel the entire building into a fury of building renovations aimed at increasing each resident's relative status in the world. Boori Ma, who had previously swept the stairs twice a day and kept suspicious characters away from the building, is pushed out of her routine and even her post by the renovation efforts. The residents seem to forget to be hospitable in the rush to be genteel. Boori Ma begins wandering the neighborhood and spending her life savings on snacks. Eventually the keys and savings that she had so carefully saved despite partition, dislocation, and the loss of her family, are stolen from her. In the meantime, the sink that began the renovation craze is stolen and Boori Ma is blamed for carelessness and literally thrown out onto the street. In the focus on and care for material status and the material repair of the building that physically defines the community, the apartment community has failed to care for its members, including Boori Ma who for years had been the primary caretaker of the building.
"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" provides a depiction of community in opposition to that described in "A Real Durwan." Lahiri's technique in this story is similar to Faulkner's method in "A Rose For Emily," even down to the use of a first person plural narrator, a communal "we." Lahiri acknowledges her debt to Faulkner in an interview with Pif Magazine, where she states it "was an experiment for" herself to replicate the nonspecific collective narrative voice of Faulkner's tale. She describes the narrator of her story as "a group of women [with] no particular identity." The first person plural inevitably emphasizes the role of the community in the story. In contrast to the neighbors in "A Real Durwan," the community represented in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" take their responsibility to a fellow community member very seriously.
In "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," set in an unnamed small town outside Calcutta, the narrative "we" take turns feeding, clothing, teaching, chaperoning, and generally looking out for Bibi. The care given to Bibi, first by her father and then by an army of "family, friends, priests, palmists, spinsters, gem therapists, prophets, and fools"—as well as other "concerned members of our town," at least in treating her epilepsy-like illness, is so great that it is burdensome. But after she loses her father and is left in the neglectful care of her only remaining family, her cousin Haldar and his wife, she begins to yearn for marriage. As much as they do for her, the neighbors admit "she was not our responsibility, and in our private moments we were thankful for it." Incensed by her family's ill treatment of Bibi, the neighbors boycott the cousin's cosmetics shop and succeed in driving him out of business and out of town. The neighbors "At every opportunity […] reminded her that we surrounded her, that she could come to us if she ever needed advice or aid of any kind." But they leave her to herself at night and eventually Bibi is found to be pregnant. This pregnancy leads to an amazing transformation in which she is almost miraculously healed and becomes a capable, self-supporting businesswoman who now takes great care not only of her business but, as newly trained by the community of women around her, of her son as well. Bibi's desire for marriage and seemingly magical cure by motherhood balances and contrasts the depiction of Mrs. Das, who is seeking a remedy for the responsibility of marriage and motherhood. The mystery of Bibi's pregnancy is never solved. Although several possibilities are suggested, it is ultimately unclear not only who the father of her child is but even whether the birth arose out of an unreported crime or through Bibi's own choice and willing consent. Lahiri leaves it up to the reader to decide.
We see Lahiri's characteristic refusal of definite closure in many other stories as well, including "This Blessed House" which is similar to "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" in that both stories offer a more nuanced depiction of the collection's general valuing of carefulness. Bibi flourishes only once she is without the continual care of others and yet is herself given the responsibility for caring for another. The carefulness of Sanjeev in "This Blessed House" seems more related to his own worries about what other people think and the rituals he had established as a bachelor than anything positive for his marriage. His wife Twinkle's carelessness is ultimately connected with creativity and joie de vivre as much as it is with selfishness. While ever-practical Sanjeev can recognize, via the opinions of his friends, his wife's objective value, he seems unable to appreciate it. The silver bust of Jesus that they find in the attic becomes symbolic of Twinkle herself:
He hated its immensity, and its flawless, polished surface, and its undeniable value. 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. But to his surprise these qualities made him hate it all the more. Most of all he hated it because he knew that Twinkle loved it.
The story closes with Sanjeev carrying the silver bust to the living room where Twinkle has asked it to be placed on the mantel, against Sanjeev's wishes. Our last image is of Sanjeev in a balancing act, being "careful not to let the feather hat slip" from the statue and following his wife. Readers can interpret this as one of Sanjeev's last acts to please his wife or, in stark contrast, as indicative of an eventual balancing of their character differences and Sanjeev's following of Twinkle into a more spontaneous and playful approach to life.
We are given the freedom to create our own closure, and in many cases our own judgments as to the outcomes suggested by Lahiri's narratives. But with this freedom comes our responsibility to read with care. Reading the text as a short story cycle and not just a collection reveals Lahiri's careful balancing of a range of representations and her intricate use of pattern and motif. By reading the stories as a cycle, readers not only receive the additional layers of meaning produced by the dialogue between stories but a more diverse and nuanced interpretation of members of the South Asian diaspora.
Source: Noelle Brada-Williams, "Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies as a Short Story Cycle," in MELUS, Vol. 29, Nos. 3/4, Fall-Winter 2004, 8 pp.
In the following article, Bess analyzes several aspects of the short stories in Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, including "This Blessed House."
A plate of peanut butter crackers and a Jesus trivet become, in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, icons of alienation and loneliness. In the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, everyday items and events expose the liminal situation unique to the first- and second-generation immigrant characters, but also embody the author's timely lament over the failure of global living to bridge the gaps between cultures and between individuals (cf. Dubey 23; Lewis 219). In fact, although firmly grounded in the concrete and in the present, Lahiri's collection weaves together universal themes of alienation, connection, and loss as her characters embark on unique quests to find the union between understanding the human experience and finding satisfaction in their individual lives. Moving between values of collectivist and individualist cultures, they are perfectly suited to navigate the relationship between the universal and the unique, but they find that the homogenizing forces of globalization, the chaos of mechanized living, and the silence of loneliness threaten cultural identity instead of fostering a sense of community and that they threaten individual identity instead of nurturing self-knowledge. It is, ironically, only in the most transient of relationships that the sought-after union between understanding humanity and understanding self is found, creating in the collection a dialectic between the failure to understand the human condition and the hope of embracing its richness.
In "Mrs. Sen's," the title character attempts to become a global citizen by maintaining her Indian identity at the same time she adapts to American culture. Newly arrived from Calcutta with her husband, she struggles to maintain the traditional role of the wife to Mr. Sen through her careful attention in preparing Indian cuisine. Although she laments the fact that bhetki is not available, she finds that fresh halibut will suffice. Collected from a seaside fishmonger, the fish is prepared with a special blade from India. This blade, Mrs. Sen explains to the young boy she baby-sits, recalls to her the community of women she has left behind: "‘Whenever there is a wedding in the family […] my mother sends out word in the evening for all the neighborhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping.’" In India the women's "chatter" extends into the night, filling the silence with meaningful companionship and common purpose. In the United States, however, Mrs. Sen is assaulted sometimes by a cacophony of voices and street noises and other times by an unbearable "silence" that keeps her awake at night. Longing for her home, where anyone who raised her voice to "‘express grief or joy of any kind’" would find the "‘whole neighborhood’" at her doorstep, Mrs. Sen has lost her sense of belonging, her sense of shared human experience. Likewise, she loses her own uniqueness as she must make a traditional meal without green bananas, an essential ingredient, thereby failing to fulfill the role she finds most satisfying. Finally, when the chaos of the city street causes her to get into an accident, she becomes a victim of the noisy flow of machinery with which she cannot merge. If the commonality she found in communal cooking fostered her identification with others and her own sense of purpose, then the despair with which she abandons her cutting blade in favor of peanut butter and crackers after the accident exposes the fact that she has lost the only identity she has ever known—nurturer, homemaker, wife of Mr. Sen. In her effort to adapt, Mrs. Sen has lost herself to the silence of loneliness and the noise of modern life.
If Mrs. Sen, a recent immigrant, loses both her sense of community and her sense of identity to the forces of the global market that called her husband to work at an American university, Sanjeev and Twinkle of "This Blessed House" suffer a similar fate as they are overwhelmed after settling into a lovely suburban home, which they find hides "a sizeable collection of Christian paraphernalia" in its corners and closets. Whereas Twinkle delights in uncovering and displaying trinkets, including a Jesus trivet and a paint-by-number portrait of the three wise men, Sanjeev feels only irritation and repeatedly reminds his bride that they are not Christian, but Hindu. To him the objects lack "a sense of sacredness," a spiritual value and meaning, but to her, they bring joy. Like the din of the traffic in "Mrs. Sen's," the trinkets in "This Blessed House" expose the relationship between the characters and the modern, global world they inhabit: While Sanjeev pursues happiness in the form of the American Dream through his job, his pretty bride, and his home, Twinkle pursues her own whims, finding happiness in the search for trinkets. In a sense, they are both seeking meaningless tokens and avoiding the complexities of communication with each other, thereby distancing themselves from their humanity. By the end of the story, when Twinkle descends the stairway carrying a huge silver bust of Christ (a scene that fills Sanjeev with hatred), an object which emanates "dignity, solemnity, beauty" yields in him the same silence, the same lack of meaning and intimacy, that haunts Mrs. Sen. Although Sanjeev knows Twinkle will display the bust proudly on their mantle, he says nothing. Her joy remains unknown to him and his animosity is unknown to her. The invasion of the Christian tokens into the Hindu household has created a personal and spiritual vacuum; the clutter—in this case the visual cacophony compared to the aural assault Mrs. Sen experiences on the roadway—overcomes any opportunity for a meaningful exchange of religious or cultural experience and any opportunity for two people to understand each other or themselves.
Although the married characters in the collection tend to suffer silently and separately, the most transient of relationships are the ones that offer a hope of fostering individual and universal understanding, an understanding of what it is to be unique and of what it is to be part of the human collective. The silence suffered by Mrs. Sen, Sanjeev, and Twinkle is finally shattered in "The Third and Final Continent," in which a single word, "splendid," punctuates the story like a refrain. Significantly, the first-person narrator is unnamed. Although the use of the first person emphasizes his individuality, his namelessness simultaneously celebrates his universality, thus creating a glimpse of a unity that the other characters have not experienced. In this final story in the collection, the narrator seeks temporary housing with a centenarian, Mrs. Croft, when he first moves to America. She welcomes him into her boarding house in her own idiosyncratic way, insisting that he say "splendid" after she tells him of the recent moon-landing. This brief conversation becomes a nightly routine for them, one which he first finds awkward. But after time passes, the seemingly trivial exchange becomes the foundation of something more intimate than the feelings revealed between the two married couples. Through their brief exchange, the narrator pleases Mrs. Croft and, in doing so, satisfies himself. He discovers that if he was unable to care properly for his own mother when she went insane, he can care for his landlady in this exchange and in handing her his weekly rent money. In "these simple gestures," the unnamed narrator finds his humanity and confirms hers. As a result, he evolves from the groom who could not console his weeping bride on their wedding night to a husband who prepares thoughtfully for her arrival to America. Thirty years later, the narrator has described what Mrs. Sen, Sanjeev, and Twinkle cannot: "As ordinary as it all appears," he says, referring to his own life, "there are times when it is beyond the imagination." He mourned, he loved, and he raised a child; he has, in other words, lived a life that is rich with the universal feelings that bind men and women together across continents and across time. But at the same time that his life has been "ordinary," universally human, it has also been unique, unimaginable, for he has lived on three continents, he has been profoundly touched by Mrs. Croft, and he has loved a woman named Mala. The universal and the individual have converged.
Source: Jennifer Bess, "Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies," in Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 2, Winter 2004, 4 pp.
Crain, Caleb, "Subcontinental Drift," in the New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1999, p. 11-12.
Kakutani, Michiko, "Liking America, but Longing for India," in the New York Times, August 6, 1999, Vol. 148, p. B46.
Lahiri, Jhumpa, "This Blessed House," in Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, pp. 136-57.
———,"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," in Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, p. 165.
Shapiro, Laura, "The Diaspora's New Star," in Newsweek, Vol. 134, No. 3, July 19, 1999, p. 67.
Bala, Suman, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, the Master Storyteller: A Critical Response to Interpreter of Maladies, Khosla Publishing House, 2002.
This collection of essays offers a wide range of critical response to Lahiri's stories.
Brians, Paul, Modern South Asian Literature in English, Greenwood Press, 2003.
This book presents an introduction to the varied world of South Asian literature in English. Each of the fifteen chapters covers a significant Indian, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan writer. Discussion of Lahiri's work is also included.
Kalita, S. Mitra, Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage from India to America, Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Kalita, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, examines the struggles and successes of three Indian-American families from Middlesex County, New Jersey, who together represent a new factor in American society—the growth of ethnic enclaves in the suburbs.
Rothstein, Mervyn, "India's Post-Rushdie Generation; Young Writers Leave Magic Realism and Look at Reality," in the New York Times, July 3, 2000, p. E1.
This article is about the new generation of Indian and Indian-American writers whose work, in English, has earned much acclaim in the West. Rothstein comments that the phenomenon stems from the success of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. The young writers discussed include Lahiri, Raj Kamal Jha, Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Amit Chaudhuri, and Kiran Desai.
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