One of the brightest new stars in the American literary firmament is Jhumpa Lahiri, author of a recently published collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies. The US-born Lahiri has been marketed by her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, as another young South Asian writer, but the label, in her case, belies the content.
The characters and settings in Lahiri’s best stories are American, and they resonate as richly textured domestic portraits of alienation and loss. She includes details about Indian food, clothes and cultural taboos, but uses them only where they are relevant to a reader’s understanding of the characters. In ” A Temporary Matter”, for example, a young Indian-American couple struggle under the strain of losing a child and have nearly lost the ability to communicate with each other. One day, the husband uses his wife’s Indian cookbook to make her a special meal of rogan josh during a power cut. But instead of conjuring the exotic magic of a mistress of spices, the meal sets the stage for an excavation of emotional secrets.
The title story, which won two major American short story prizes this year, captures the encounter between an Indian-American family and their tour guide on a trip to Konarak in Orissa. This scenario — crass, bored NRIs meeting fawning local —is usually played for laughs, but Lahiri uses it to expose the lonely core at the hearts of both the guide, a frustrated scholar, and the woman, a frustrated housewife. But not all of the stories are so perceptive. “A Real Durwan”, the story of a sweeper woman in a middle-class housing colony in India, fails to reach very far beneath the surface of a wise old woman with a colourful past.
It may be too early to tell whether Lahiri, who is working on her first novel, will make a permanent mark. But with this first collection, she has at least found a way for her clear, strong voice to be heard in the cacophony of American literary fiction, not to mention the cacophony of South Asian fiction.