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Interpreter of Maladies | Mrs. Sen's | Summary

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Summary

Eliot is an 11-year-old boy whose mother must commute to a distant office to work. His mother therefore hires Mrs. Sen, a professor's wife, to babysit him each day after school for several hours.

The Sens are Indian Americans living in the Boston area. Mrs. Sen is about 30 years old and lives in an apartment on the fringe of the university campus, where her husband teaches mathematics.

Eliot enjoys the visits to Mrs. Sen's apartment after school, especially considering that the tiny beach house where he and his mother live year-round is already getting cold in the fall. The boy takes an active interest in watching his babysitter's culinary preparations, as she chops ingredients for the evening meal. From Mrs. Sen's chats with Eliot about Indian customs, it is plain that she is nostalgic for her native country. When Eliot's mother arrives to pick him up in the early evening, Mrs. Sen regularly showers her with hospitality and snacks.

When Mrs. Sen practices her driving, she seems ill at ease. The roar of the ignition and the awkwardness of the gear shift make her nervous. She is constantly distracted and very unsure how to deal with merging traffic.

Eliot learns that two things make Mrs. Sen happy. One is a letter from her family in India, and the other is fresh fish from the seashore. One day a letter informs her that her sister has given birth to a baby girl. Mrs. Sen is thrilled by this news, but sad that the girl will be three years old by the time she first sees her—if Mr. Sen gets his tenure at the university.

On the matter of fish, Mrs. Sen is extremely selective. She insists on freshness. No fish at the supermarket will satisfy her. Fortunately, she finds the fish at a small beachside market acceptable. Mrs. Sen explains to Eliot's mother that in Calcutta people grow up eating fish twice a day. The importance of fresh fish to Mrs. Sen becomes clear to Eliot one day when elaborate preparations are made to go to the market, only to be canceled when Mr. Sen is suddenly required to attend a meeting at the university. Mrs. Sen bursts into tears. Her unhappiness in America becomes even clearer when she leads Eliot into her bedroom to display to him her large collection of saris, none of which she now wears. Mrs. Sen emphasizes her alienation when she tells Eliot that her friends and relatives back home urge her to write them about her new life—imagining she now lives the life of a queen.

Together with Eliot, the Sens make another expedition to the fish market. Mr. Sen curtly urges his wife not to waste time—he has a meeting in 20 minutes. Once back in the apartment, Mrs. Sen expertly prepares the fish she has purchased.

In November, Mrs. Sen's mood suddenly turns melancholy. She paces the apartment and plays a series of audiotapes. She tells Eliot she has learned by letter that her grandfather is dead. A week later, Mr. Sen arranges an expedition to the beach, and the group buys lots of fish at the market. After they visit the market, they enjoy baskets of clam cakes at a take-out restaurant and walk for a while along the beach. They take some photos.

Mr. Sen appoints his wife as the driver on the home journey, a task she assumes reluctantly. When he back-seat drives, issuing directions, she stops and pulls over to the side of the road, refusing to continue.

On her next visit to the fish store, Mrs. Sen takes the bus. On the way home, an unfriendly woman complains about the smell of the fish that Mrs. Sen carries in a bag. A few days later, when she is told that some very tasty halibut has arrived, she decides to drive to the shop with Eliot. On the way, however, she suffers a minor accident. Although the damage is insignificant, Mrs. Sen is very upset and retires to her bedroom. When Eliot's mother returns that evening, Mr. Sen apologizes for his wife and returns the past month's babysitting money. From that point on, Eliot is not cared for by a babysitter but spends his afternoons alone after school.

Analysis

The primary theme of this story is Mrs. Sen's difficulty in assimilating to American life. Her most obvious challenge is learning to drive. Back in India, she had the services of a chauffeur, but here in America being truly self-sufficient means that she must learn to drive a car. And this she finds very difficult to do. At several points in the story, Lahiri dramatizes Mrs. Sen's anxiety and puzzlement as a novice driver.

Driving a car, however, is not the only emotional roadblock faced by Mrs. Sen. There are periodic hints, for example, that her relationship with her husband is not especially warm or affectionate. Early in the story, she introduces her husband to Eliot's mother in a fashion that suggests "they were only distantly acquainted." On one of their excursions to the fish market, Mr. Sen curtly informs his wife that he needs to hold office hours at the university; another excursion is aborted because of a suddenly arranged faculty meeting. At the beginning of one automobile trip, as Mr. Sen backs out of the parking lot, he puts his arm across the top of the back seat as if he is wrapping his arm around Mrs. Sen, but husband and wife do not make contact. Even after a pleasant shopping trip and an enjoyable lunch at the seashore, the couple does not draw together when Eliot takes their photograph: they do not hold hands or put their arms around each other's waists. When Mr. Sen orders his wife to drive, he issues a series of brusque directives that confuse and dispirit her, reducing her to panic and despair.

Several other episodes contribute to the overall portrait of Mrs. Sen as a relatively melancholy outsider on the American scene. For example, she is emotionally wrapped up in her family in Calcutta and loves to receive letters from them. Yet her cultural link with family members is quite different from American practices and norms. She tells Eliot, for example, that being without his mother for so much of the day must be very hard for him. She can't stand to think that her newly born niece will be three years old when she will first have a glimpse of her. The idea that the entire neighborhood would not necessarily appear to help her if she should scream at the top of her lungs seems unnatural and foreign to Mrs. Sen.

In one of the most moving episodes on this theme, Mrs. Sen shows Eliot the dozens of saris she keeps in her bedroom. She asks rhetorically when she would ever have the occasion to wear them. She then tells Eliot that her Indian family and friends keep asking her to send them pictures of her new life in America. They seem to misunderstand her circumstances, though, suggesting that she is a queen pressing buttons to clean the house. They think, Mrs. Sen says, that she lives in a palace.

Mrs. Sen's fervent devotion to, and intense involvement with, her family reach an apex during a week in November when she observes a period of mourning for the death of her grandfather. She refuses to practice driving; she reads old aerograms from a shoebox; she does not chop vegetables, thaw chicken, or call the fish store; she paces the apartment; she plays sad, tape-recorded Indian music; and she plays a cassette with the voices of her family on the day she left India. A week passes until she begins to cook again.

In contrast to Lilia in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" and Rohin in "Sexy," the child character Eliot plays a relatively minor role in "Mrs. Sen's." He is largely a sounding board for the protagonist. Yet his genuinely sympathetic outlook toward Mrs. Sen is evident at several points in the story. He helps calm her nerves when she practices driving, for example. He assures her that learning to drive will increase her mobility and horizons. He listens to her emotional monologue about her saris and the assumptions of her Indian friends and family. And he watches with interest as she prepares her native foods, one of her principal pleasures.

The final scene in the story focuses on Eliot, rather than Mrs. Sen. It is a brief and somewhat melancholy vignette. Eliot's mother calls him from her office as he reaches their beach house after school. The boy looks out the window at gray waves receding from the shore and tells her he is fine. It is hard to resist the inference that he misses Mrs. Sen: her colorful personality, her connectedness to family, her immersion in cookery. "A big boy now" in his mother's words, Eliot has marked the end of an era in his childhood at Mrs. Sen's.

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