Literature Study GuidesInterpreter Of MaladiesThe Treatment Of Bibi Haldar Summary

Interpreter of Maladies | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | The Treatment of Bibi Haldar | Summary

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Summary

Bibi Haldar, an Indian woman who is 29 years old, has suffered for the greater part of her life from a mysterious, epilepsy-like ailment that no doctor or priest has been able to alleviate or cure. She is given petty employment by her cousin Haldar, who runs a cosmetics shop. In return for her services, she receives food, provisions, a sleeping space, and fabric for clothing.

Finally, according to the diagnosis of some palmists, it is decided that Bibi Haldar needs a man. This diagnosis unleashes a slew of energetic cosmetic and sartorial preparations on Bibi's part: "To get her to quiet down, Haldar placed a one-line advertisement in the town newspaper." The ad, however, produces no results.

That November, Haldar's wife is pregnant. She delivers a baby girl the following June. The Haldars carefully insulate their child from any contact with Bibi, who they are convinced has been possessed by the devil. When the Haldar baby falls ill with a fever, Haldar's wife denounces Bibi as a witch who has infected the baby.

Then a curious turn of events occurs. The neighbors, upset at the Haldars' treatment of Bibi, drive the family out of business. They donate objects for Bibi's welfare. After some months, during which Bibi remains isolated, the neighbors discover that she is four months pregnant. She delivers a son. The father is never identified. As for Bibi, she is now considered cured.

Analysis

Like Boori Ma in "A Real Durwan," Bibi Haldar is a marginal character in her society. Her mystifying physical ailment exposes her to ridicule, even ostracism. Her relatives, Haldar and his wife, consider her a millstone around their necks and subject her to malicious insults. Even marrying her off does not appeal to them, for they would have to waste their profits on wedding expenses.

In the end, however, the neighbors do not take the Haldars' side. The narrator and the point of view of the story are lodged in a vaguely defined "we"—presumably the group of neighbors or friends who observe Bibi's comings and goings and to whom she may confide her feelings and hopes. In sympathy with Bibi, and in indignation at the way she is treated by her cousins, the neighbors stop purchasing articles at Haldar's shop, in effect driving him out of business. The point of view Lahiri adopts in the story is calculated to attract the reader's sympathy for Bibi.

The title of the story plays on two senses of the word "treatment." Most obviously, the noun refers to a course of medical treatment. It also denotes, however, the behavior encountered by Bibi Haldar in society. The title tinges the story with ambiguity. Society, as revealed by these events, is capable of cruelly treating the less fortunate; on the other hand, the story's perspective shows society as genuinely relieved when Bibi makes her comeback.

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