Interpreter of Maladies Summary and Analysis
Since the beginning of his school year, Eliot has been going to Mrs. Sen’s house after school. Though he is 11 and can take care of himself, Eliot’s mother wants an adult around to supervise. However, Mrs. Sen doesn’t know how to drive. At their first meeting, Eliot is taken aback by the pile of shoes by the door and the carefully covered furniture. His mother is the one who looks odd, Eliot thinks. Mr. Sen, a mathematics professor, assures Eliot’s mother that she will be able to drive by December. Mrs. Sen responds that she is a slow learner and that she had a chauffeur at home. Eliot’s mother asks if she means India and the word alone releases emotions in Mrs. Sen. She says, “Everything is there.”
Eliot would often watch Mrs. Sen prepare meals. He is taken with a curved blade brought from India that Mrs. Sen would use to expertly carve vegetables in seconds. She doesn’t allow Eliot to go near her in the kitchen, afraid for his safety. She tells Eliot that there is a knife in every household and a retinue of women would gather to prepare feasts for weddings. No one could sleep over the din. Here, Mrs. Sen says, is too quiet. Eliot also dislikes his home. He and his mother live alone in a beach house. Now that the weather has turned cold, the beach is desolate and forbidding.
Mrs. Sen asks Eliot whether, if she started screaming, anyone would come. At home, people would come running at the slightest commotion to share joy or grief. Eliot remembers a party that was thrown by a neighbor; he and his mother were not invited. Eliot decides that someone might call to complain. He understands that “home” to Mrs. Sen means India and not the house they’re presently in. He asks Mrs. Sen about the vermillion powder used to create a red part in her hair. She says it is like a wedding ring, but one that won’t get lost in the dishwasher.
When Eliot’s mother arrives, Mrs. Sen offers her a snack. Eliot’s mother knows she doesn’t like the tastes and also that she has not taken a late lunch – her excuse for taking only one or two bites. At home, Eliot’s mother pours glasses of wine and eats bread and cheese, sometimes so much that she is not hungry for the pizza they order for dinner most nights.
Mrs. Sen waits for Eliot at the bus stop each day and each day they go directly to her car so she may practice her driving. He knows that Mrs Sen takes Eliot driving because she is afraid. She asks if everything will improve when she gets her license, as Mr. Sen says. Eliot responds that she can go places. Mrs. Sen then asks how long it would take to get to Calcutta – 10,000 miles at 50 miles per hour. Mrs. Sen is easily distracted behind the wheel, getting nervous by the main road. Everything is too much for her.
Two things make Mrs. Sen happy – a letter from her family and fish from the seaside. When a letter arrives, Mrs. Sen calls her husband and reads the contents word for word. The letters make her restless, and she takes Eliot for a walk around the campus. She laments the birth of her sister’s child as the girl will not know her aunt for at least three years. Mrs. Sen asks if Eliot misses his mother these afternoons. The thought hadn’t occurred to him. She says he is wise – he already tastes the way things must be.
Mrs. Sen calls the local fishmarket each day to request a whole, fresh fish that her husband will pick up. She is a regular, known by the market. Again, she compares the fish available here to those in Calcutta and declares them inferior. One day the market puts a fish on hold but Mr. Sen refuses to pick it up. Mrs. Sen begins to weep and then takes Eliot into her room. She flings her beautiful saris on the bed. She has nowhere to wear them, no pictures of her life she wants to send to her family back home. Mr. Sen begrudgingly arrives to take her to the fish market. Mrs. Sen refuses to drive. At the market, Eliot watches her chat with the workers.
Mrs. Sen becomes despondent. She refuses again to drive, she doesn’t prepare any lavish meals, she switches on the television but doesn’t watch, and she lets tea grow cold on the counter. She plays a sad raga for Eliot and then a tape of her family cataloguing the events of the day she left India. She identifies each family member and then translates the mundane events. The next day, she repeats the tape but stops when her grandfather speaks. Eliot learns the man has just died.
A week later, Mr. Sen takes Eliot and his wife back to the fish market where they purchase a large quantity of fish. It is getting cold and the blustering winds make Mrs. Sen shiver with delight. This is a good day. She laughs at everything Mr. Sen says and even allows for a photograph to be taken. Mr. Sen tells her to drive home and it is a disaster. She goes too slowly, becomes distracted by the radio, and finally pulls over to the side of the road. She hates driving and refuses to drive again.
Mrs. Sen learns the bus route and begins to take Eliot to the shore herself. But the passengers complain about the smell of the fish, and Mrs. Sen is confronted and embarrassed by the bus driver. A few days later, when the next fish arrives, Mrs. Sen tells Eliot to put on his shoes. They pile into the car and Mrs. Sen attempts to merge onto the main road.
The accident happens quickly. Startled by another driver, Mrs. Sen drives the car into a telephone pole. Both she and Eliot have minor scrapes and pains. Mr. Sen is called and he reasons with the police officer, explaining that she doesn’t have a license. He takes them back to the Sens. Mrs. Sen prepares a snack for Eliot and then retreats to her bedroom. Eliot can hear her crying. When his mother arrives, Mr. Sen explains what happened and offers to reimburse her for the month.
From that day on, Eliot wears a string around his neck with his house key. He was no longer to be watched by a babysitter. When his mother calls and asks if he is okay, he stares out at the choppy grey waves and declares he is fine.
The process of assimilation if very difficult for Mrs. Sen. Unlike the narrator of The Third and Final Continent or even Lilia’s parents, Mrs. Sen finds it impossible to integrate into her new country. Her refusal to learn how to drive is the culmination of her distress. Her frustration is voiced loudly only to Eliot, who is dealing with his own distress. There is a childish, tantrum-like angle to Mrs. Sen’s complaints. She even remarks to Eliot that he is much wise than she was at that age; she never thought for a moment that she would be separated from her family. While the reader sympathizes with her plight, her stubbornness seems greater than it need be. Her husband tries to accommodate her, the policeman does not arrest or fine her for the accident, and the workers at the fishmarket put product on hold for her. In the end, it is Mrs. Sen’s responsibility to make an effort. Unlike Mala in The Third and Final Continent – who was equally distraught about leaving her family – Mrs. Sen does not try to adjust. She is trapped in a cage of her own making.
As in Sexy, the main characters have mirror images within the story. Here, Eliot and Mrs. Sen are quite similar. He is trapped in his life as well. The loneliness and distress that Mrs. Sen expresses are familiar emotions. He has front row seats for his mother’s sadness. Unlike Mrs. Sen, Eliot is unable to tell anyone about his plight because, again unlike Mrs. Sen, he is truly powerless. The sympathy one has for Eliot reflects harshly on Mrs. Sen as one realizes that she could try. The symmetry is evoked in anecdotes, like the parties that Mrs. Sen and Eliot experience. Mrs. Sen’s lively party in Calcutta is contrasted with Eliot’s story as Eliot is only a witness and not a participant.
Lack of communication is employed once again in Mrs. Sen’s to create a sense of tragedy. Though it is unclear how much Mr. Sen knows of his wife’s displeasure, Eliot seems to bear the brunt of her tantrums. In the very least, Mr. Sen does not broadcast his wife’s problems. After the accident, he tells Eliot’s mother that his wife is sleeping although Eliot hears her crying. Eliot is witness to both Mrs. Sen’s and his mother’s despondence. Eliot’s mother tells Mrs. Sen that she ate a big lunch when refusing her Indian snacks. Eliot knows it’s an excuse because she doesn’t like the flavors and that she eschews lunch to feast on wine, bread, and cheese when she gets home from work; her white lie is twofold. At the end of the story, Eliot assures his mother that he is okay though he is clearly troubled. In Mrs. Sen’s, honesty is not the policy.
Nature has a voice in Mrs. Sen’s. The grey waves outside Eliot’s window as he tells his mother he’s fine represent the truth of his inner turmoil. The Sens' trip to the shore at the beginning of winter is marked by a violent and exciting wind. Though it would seem that Mrs. Sen would react negatively to the wind and cold, she delights in it. There is a possibility of her assimilation to America if she allows herself to enjoy the world around her.
As Mrs. Sen places so much weight on artifacts from her life in Calcutta, Lahiri quite deftly expresses meaning through objects throughout Mrs. Sen’s. Her kitchen blade, the tape of her family’s voice, the aerograms, and her saris exist in stark contrast to her American world. The knife has a history and triggers many happy tales for Mrs. Sen. Eliot marvels at both the blade and her skill, but Mrs. Sen will not let him come near. The knife is a representation of her adherence to her old ways and also the looming danger of her attachment. Mrs. Sen seeks solace in both the aerograms and the tape, but they are poor facsimiles of what she truly craves – face-to-face communication with her family. By the time the letter is read (and reread), the events that are detailed in them have already happened. This echoes Lilia’s sentiment about life happening on the other side of the world and in a different time. After the death of her grandfather, the tape with his voice no longer soothes her. It becomes a representation of all she is missing. Within this period of grief, Eliot notices the lampshades wrapped in plastic, casting a temporary and deathly pall over the home. Even the fish is a symbol of Mrs. Sen’s unwillingness to assimilate. The fish caught in the Atlantic Ocean can never compare to the fish caught in Calcutta. With a different attitude, these objects can all be transformed as part of her new life in America.
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