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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | Symbols



In many of these stories, food symbolizes comfort, solace, hospitality, and solidarity. In "A Temporary Matter," for example, Shukumar and Shoba share dinner during the power outages, recovering an intimacy they have not enjoyed in many months since the death of their baby. The evening meal is the centerpiece of Mr. Pirzada's visits to Lilia's house in the story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine." Twinkle concocts a stew her husband Sanjeev finds unexpectedly delicious in "This Blessed House."

The story in which food looms largest is probably "Mrs. Sen's." For the title character, food and food preparation are cultural lifelines that link her to her Bengali roots in Calcutta, India. Young Eliot watches Mrs. Sen chop her vegetables with a special steel blade. Mrs. Sen sits cross-legged, "surrounded by an array of colanders." Her work is "a confetti of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins." When Eliot's mother arrives each evening to pick him up, Mrs. Sen presents her with a concoction. Mrs. Sen reserves her greatest admiration for fresh fish, and several important episodes in the story focus on her excursions to the beachside fish market where she makes her purchases.


In the story collection, there are three important child characters: Lilia in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dime," Rohin in "Sexy," and Eliot in "Mrs. Sen's." Predictably, children symbolize innocence, naiveté, and impressionability. But each of Lahiri's child characters also plays a more complex symbolic role in his or her respective story.

For example, as the narrator in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Lilia serves as the moral center of the tale. Although she is only 10 years old, she discerns poignant aspects of Mr. Pirzada's situation that seem to elude the other characters, including her parents. For instance, she is instinctively skeptical of her father's explanation that Mr. Pirzada is "not Indian": after all, he speaks the same language as her parents, laughs at the same jokes, and looks the same. Lilia is also portrayed as innately compassionate, empathizing with Mr. Pirzada's intense longing for news of his family in far-away Dacca.

In "Sexy," Rohin is the seven-year-old son of Laxmi's cousin. The child's father has inflicted grave damage on his wife and son by carrying on an extramarital affair. The second half the story focuses on Rohin's visit with Miranda, a naive young woman who is participating in a similar affair with a married man. In this encounter, Rohin symbolizes truth and recognition. He defines "sexy" as "loving someone you don't know," and Miranda has a start of revelation. Following her encounter with Rohin, she breaks off the affair with Dev.

In "Mrs. Sen's," Eliot symbolizes patience and understanding. Mrs. Sen receives neither of these gifts from her husband. It is up to the child she babysits to comfort her, largely by acting as a sympathetic sounding board.


In Lahiri's stories, education symbolizes enlightenment, growth, and progress. A number of the short stories in the collection take place in and around Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The latter is the site of Harvard and MIT, two of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States. Several characters—for example Shukumar in "A Temporary Matter" and Twinkle in "This Blessed House"—work on graduate theses or dissertations. In "A Temporary Matter," Shoba works at a textbook company. The narrator in "The Third and Final Continent" works in a library at MIT, and his son attends Harvard. In "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Lilia's father laments that his daughter is not learning more about South Asia in school. Mrs. Sen's husband is a professor of mathematics at a local university. Not all these characters are models of open-mindedness or scholarship. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that education boasts a generally positive image in Lahiri's fiction.

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