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Interpreter of Maladies | Context

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India: A Rich Mosaic of Cultures

In Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction, many of the characters are either Indian or Indian American. These figures share a distinctive cultural heritage in which diversity is a leading element.

India is one of the world's largest democracies. Independent from Britain since 1947, India is a republic about one-third the geographical size of the United States but consisting of 1.3 billion people, about one-sixth of the world's population. Major religions in India are Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism (Indian religion established by Guru Nanak), Zoroastrianism (pre-Islamic religion of Iran founded by Zarathustra), and Christianity. There are 16 officially recognized languages, as well as hundreds of dialects. Regional cuisine, clothing, marriage customs, and musical and dance styles vary considerably throughout the country.

Lahiri conveys a substantial amount of this cultural diversity in her stories. For example, food plays a major role in "A Temporary Matter," "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," and "Mrs. Sen's." Religion is prominent in "Interpreter of Maladies" and "This Blessed House." Language is prominent in "Interpreter of Maladies."

Partition and the Diaspora

England first colonized India in the 1600s. By 1857 the British had political control over the entire Indian subcontinent (southern region of Asia). Agitation for independence became widespread in the mid-1800s and simmered for decades after Britain put down a violent uprising in 1858.

India's modern history began with independence from Britain in 1947. That pivotal event coincided with a tragic split. As part of the settlement to end colonialism, or the control by one country over another region, on the subcontinent, both Pakistan and India emerged as independent nations. The border division was almost exclusively on grounds of religion and assigned areas that were predominantly Muslim to Pakistan and those with a Hindu majority to India. This settlement, referred to as "Partition," dislocated millions of Hindus and Muslims, along with Sikhs, whose leaders opted for India. Long-lasting consequences of Partition included the fissure or split of East Pakistan in 1971 and the subsequent founding of the nation of Bangladesh. The consequences have also involved periodic armed conflict between India and Pakistan, especially over disputed territory in the northern region of Kashmir.

Beginning in the 1960s Indian emigration to the West, as well as to other parts of the world, markedly increased. These migrants are often referred to as a diaspora, or "scattering." For several generations beforehand, Indians who could afford the journey had traveled abroad to further their educations—most often in the United Kingdom. Later on, modified American immigration rules of the mid-1960s encouraged Indian resettlement in the United States. Like many other immigrants, Indians saw great opportunities for education and prosperity in America. The number of immigrants from South Asia to the United States has increased exponentially in the past 50 years. Indians have become one of the most important and most economically successful immigrant groups in America, although their stories vary dramatically, as the characters in Interpreter of Maladies demonstrate.

Of the nine stories in Lahiri's collection, six are set in the United States, all of them involving Indians who have emigrated to America. In addition, one of the stories set in India—the tale entitled "Interpreter of Maladies"—features important characters who are Indian immigrants to America and have returned to visit the country of their ancestral origins.

English as a Common Language for Indian Authors

Largely because of England's centuries-long colonial occupation of India, the English language became an unofficial common tongue for the subcontinent—the huge area that includes the nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Since the late 1800s many Indian authors have chosen to write in English. These writers have included R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Some of these authors have lived in India, while others have written from abroad.

Although English has been an acquired language in the cases of most of these authors, they have nonetheless managed to set new standards of literary style in their works by introducing Indian words and mythological elements into the modern literary canon. Regardless, debate over the authenticity of writing in the language of the imperialists continues. Some writers think that by harnessing the language of colonialism they are able to express the Indian condition within an imperial context. Others question whether English imposes themes on the Indian experience that are not there in texts composed in native languages.

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