As far as I know, this is the first anthology of short stories from a single author that I ever read. My copy was given by a friend, who bought it for me after seeing me scanning its pages. This friend also treated me to a cup of coffee afterwards, and I think I should mention that this friend is fond of the name Jhumpa. I fondly call this book just Interpreter, which I read back in college at the temporary library during my long breaks, and I also remember making an unsuccessful attempt at conversation with a stranger who was reading his copy of this book on a jeepney.
I remember a lot of things associated with this book, but how well do I remember the book itself?
Three stories that I remember the most in this collection are A Temporary Matter, Sexy, and of course, the carrier single (or story), Interpreter Of Maladies. The first one is about a couple on the climax of their separation, the second one is about this really young boy who is attracted to an older, thirty-ish woman, and the last one is about a local translator who is acting as the tour guide of an American-raised Indian family.
Forgive me, for now I am not so sure about what these three stories are really about.
I’ll try vivisecting the first one since that is the one evoking a lot of images in my head. I remember a childless couple. They are newly married. The house is painted white. There are boxes everywhere. The sun is about to set. Two figures are standing outside, watching the neighbors and the passers-by. The tension is palpable, the silence is grating, the relationship is capable of crumbling with a single flick of the hand.
With the second one, I have the image of a boy, kneeling in front of a low living room table. It is filled with sheets of paper, some clean, some filled with various drawings. There is a drawing of a house. An orchard. A robot with complicated weapons. And a woman. The amber light coming through the window tells us that it is late afternoon. Two women are in the kitchen, fixing themselves cups of coffee while the boy fixes his gaze on them.
And the last one. A typical family in a car. Mother and father arguing about map directions. Two kids quarreling about trivial things at the backseat. A local tour guide taking that all in. Monkeys on the street, roaming freely. Mother is sweating. Wait, I am not sure if the father is there or if there is any father at all. But there must be. Tour guide is interrogated. How far is the next destination? Where is his family? What does he do?
An interpreter of maladies. What? He interprets doctors’ diagnoses and prescriptions in English to the local language for the patients to understand. So there is such a job.
The family in the car is agitated. The mother is headstrong. The father is just a background. The kids are getting out of control. The interpreter is stuck in such a predicament. He is drawn to the woman, her sweat trickling down her skin. The map flies off the open windows. They did not stop to pick it up.
There is still another story that I vaguely remember, but I forgot its title. Its about an old Indian woman who always swept a rotting building. One autumn afternoon, she dies. I cannot recall what happened next, but I always see that woman sweeping the dried leaves with her sturdy broom.
Now that I think about it, this book is about imagery. I think there are at least a dozen stories here, and even though I can only recall a quarter of them, the scenes come to life inside my head with profound clarity. I no longer know what is going on, but the palpability of the stories gives me goosebumps.
My favorite story is A Temporary Matter. I like the tone, the setting, the characters, the premises. It could have been the carrier single (or story), although this is not to say that Interpreter Of Maladies sucked. It’s just a matter of personal reference.
It can also be said that there is a taste of India in the stories. Yes there is, but I guess I deliberately ignored the culture embedded in the stories. I was more drawn to the prose itself, which was disquieting. The stories can hold on to your skin and linger there for as long as you allow it.
A friend said that his favorite author does not like writing short stories because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. This author said that the form of the short story cramps the message that he wishes to deliver.
I also like that author, but with all respect, here is Jhumpa Lahiri. I now have an impulse to reread those three stories.