Interpreter of Maladies | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | A Real Durwan | Summary

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Summary

In an apartment building in Calcutta, the aging Boori Ma ekes out a livelihood as the durwan, or live-in doorkeeper/custodian of the premises. The residents find her rambling, nostalgic rants about prior wealth and better times entertaining, and they allow her to come and go freely in their apartments. They are thankful that she keeps watch on the alley, can summon rickshaws promptly, and shoos away suspicious characters.

In her monologues, Boori Ma focuses particularly on the losses she has suffered since she was deported to Calcutta after Partition in 1947. She was separated from her family and from her home, which she describes as little short of opulent. She laces her narrative periodically with a formulaic utterance: "Believe me, don't believe me." No one doubts that Boori Ma was a refugee, but no one knows for sure if there is any truth to her recitals. She occasionally garbles her facts and contradicts herself.

One of the building residents, Mrs. Dalal, has a particular affection for Boori Ma. She takes an interest in the aging woman's health and decides that Boori Ma needs a new bed. That afternoon, Boori Ma meets Mr. Dalal, who asks her to help him carry two washbasins up to the third floor. Mr. Dalal has been promoted to the post of branch manager in his plumbing supply company. Mr. and Mrs. Dalal quarrel about the new acquisition, as she complains of his unfulfilled promises to provide her with a fridge and a phone.

The following day, a team of workmen install the basins: one in the Dalals' sitting room, and the other in the building's stairwell on the first-floor landing. That evening, Mr. Dalal demonstrates the public basin's functions. Unexpectedly, however, petty resentments and jealousies break out among the wives when they discuss the new amenity. They dislike having to stand in line, for instance, and also not being able to leave their own soap and toothpaste on the basin. Malicious rumors spread about the Dalals, just as they are departing for a 10-day holiday trip to Simla.

After the Dalals' departure, the residents begin renovations of their own, and the building becomes crowded with workers. Boori Ma moves her center of operations to the rooftop. The monsoon rains continue. Restless, Boori Ma wanders through the neighborhood, buying small treats for herself. One day at the market, a petty thief steals the rest of her life savings and her keys.

Back at her building, the basin on the stairwell has been stolen. Up in arms, the residents accuse Boori Ma of collusion with the robbers. When Mr. Chatterjee opines that a building like theirs needs "a real durwan," the angry residents expel Boori Ma from their building, tossing her belongings into the alley.

Analysis

This story displays striking contrasts in tone that Lahiri skillfully holds in a dramatic tension. At first, Boori Ma's personality endears her to the residents, who regard her nostalgia for days of yore as entertaining—no matter how obviously she inflates her former social and economic status. The residents even allow her to drift to and fro in and out of their apartments, where she is careful not to abuse her special privileges. Although she is elderly (64 years old), she performs her job as the building's doorkeeper (durwan) efficiently and effectively. Some of the residents, notably Mr. and Mrs. Dalal, have even grown quite fond of her. Boori Ma is an eccentric blend of complaints and vaunts—with a zany speaking style to match. Her voice, in Lahiri's description, is especially distinctive. It is "brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut." Boori Ma is, in short, a real "character."

The story, however, shows how superficial and short-lived the residents' tolerance of Boori Ma really is. The pivotal event is Mr. Dalal's acquisition of two washbasins from his plumbing supply company. The psychological interest of Lahiri's story can be phrased this way: Just how and why do the washbasins produce such a negative effect on the residents' attitudes and on their treatment of Boori Ma?

Although the basins may seem to Western readers like trivial amenities, they are a significant addition to this Calcutta apartment building. Only one resident in the whole building, Mrs. Misra, has a telephone. Mrs. Dalal complains to her husband that she still cooks on kerosene and has no refrigerator or phone. In such an environment, the washbasins represent a real advance in comfort and convenience.

The Dalals' decision about how to install the fixtures, however, provokes dissension and resentment. Understandably, they keep one basin for themselves, installing it in their own apartment. They then generously provide the second basin for public use. Almost immediately, though, "the last word in elegance" (Mr. Dalal's phrase) breeds a welling up of resentment. At first, the targets are the Dalals, the couple who have played the role of benefactors. Situational irony is defined by a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. Instead of being grateful to the Dalals, the apartment dwellers grumble. "The Dalals had their own sink; why did the rest of them have to share?" Over and above envy, the residents are preoccupied with petty inconveniences and frustrations: having to wait in line to brush their teeth, for instance. They soon start spreading malicious rumors about the Dalals. Far from being perceived as benefactors, the Dalals have suddenly become targets of disapproval. No one besides Boori Ma bothers to pay them the courtesy of seeing them off when they depart for Simla.

In a second phase of their reaction to the washbasins, the residents now commission a series of building-wide renovations and improvements. The frantic pace and crowded conditions caused by these changes have an effect on Boori Ma, who starts to wander through the neighborhood for diversion and exercise. During one of these excursions, however, calamity strikes twice: Boori Ma is robbed at the market, and the public washbasin is ripped from its landing and stolen.

In another stroke of situational irony, Boori Ma, who had been pronounced a "real durwan" earlier in the story, is now demonized as a vagrant and a traitor. The residents seek the opinion of the elderly, pompous Mr. Chatterjee, who seems to countenance her removal from the building. With no one to defend her, Boori Ma is summarily expelled by the very people who had earlier agreed that she was a "superb entertainer." Forces beyond her control have hijacked this marginal, fragile woman and consigned her to the ash heap.

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