Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri

My choice of reading of Interpreter of Maladies didn't actually have anything to do with my cooking an Indian recipe two nights ago. In fact, I've been reading lots of slightly older lit (this won the 2000 Pulitzer) because I've been shopping for books at remainder stores and library sales. And that's what one finds there. I read Lahiri's The Namesake quite a while ago, and have been meaning to get around to this, her earlier book.

Subject: Indian expats, especially women, especially arranged brides with no lifeline. Subject: forced adjustment to life in the US. I knew that Indian food would be a big element of the stories. Lahiri doesn't just have familiar smells and tastes play a standard role, but in several stories makes food and cooking play a role in the loss of coping. The first story, "When Mr.Pirzada Came to Dine" involves a reasonably adjusted Indian family inviting a man from Pakistan/Bangladesh to dinner each night, as the young daughter tries to understand the complex international situation in her parents' country. Native food is pretty much a background to the other issues.

Elsewhere, food description seems to have a different function. In the title story, "Interpreter of Maladies," an American-born Indian couple are sightseeing at a ruined building in India. The wife, whose behavior is odd (I won't go into it) is characterized by her constant munching on a snack of puffed rice with peanuts and chili peppers wrapped in newspaper (so she obviously bought it from a street vendor). Mustard oil is "thick on her frosty pink lips." She drops a trail of puffed rice, which attracts hungry monkeys who live in the ruins.

In several stories, the Indian husband becomes the cook for an Americanized family. This lets you know that family structure is a mess. And the motif of a woman with food around her lips is used often. The most disfunctional woman is in the story "Mrs. Sen's." The young and lonely Mrs. Sen is viewed -- sort of -- through the eyes of a little American boy that she is baby sitting for. Understanding little of what he sees, the boy watches her chop and prepare huge quantities of vegetables, chicken, and fish. He notes how she constantly calls up her husband at work and witnesses her inept efforts to learn to drive. Mrs. Sen's craving for fresh fish becomes more and more obsessive. Finally, she cracks up her car because she wants to go to a distant outlet for a day boat (like most of the stories this is set in New England). Luckily the boy is unhurt, but that's the end of babysitting.

Food in these stories is definitely an element of strangeness in the strange land where the immigrant women find themselves.

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

You take me on the most interesting journeys. It's been way too long since I've munched on anything besides a cookbook. Thanks for reminding me that there's more to read. Must check out those sales:)

BTW, Mae, I'm having a free cook book give-away at my blog tomorrow (4th) You may want to stop by for a chance to win! It's a GREAT cookbook peppered with history...