Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies Themes

The Immigrant Experience/Assimilation

The immigrant experience takes several forms in Interpreter of Maladies. For some characters, like the narrator of The Third and Final Continent, the transition to a new life is challenging but smooth. The narrator looks forward to the opportunity that the new country can afford. For Lilia's parents, the move to America also affords them a wealth of opportunity not open to them in India, but the price is paid by Lilia in terms of connection to her culture. Mrs. Sen flat-out refuses to assimilate. For her, "everything" is in India and there is no reason to attempt to make a life in her new home. There is an emotional trade-off when moving to a new land. Each character in this collection wrestles with identity, whether newly displaced or descended from immigrants. There is a longing felt for the place of one's birth, a fear of losing one's culture and fear of not being accepted.


Love and marriage are complicated in Interpreter of Maladies. A marriage is the beginning of a new joint life for two people. In these stories, a marriage is an occasion of joy but also of secrets, silences, and mysteries. Twinkle and Sanjeev's relationship crystalizes the disparate attitudes and attributes of marriage in Lahiri's collection. Although they are both born in America and their marriage is not arranged, Twinkle and Sanjeev are nearly strangers to one another. No matter what romantic feelings transpire within couples, each husband and wife in the stories remain individuals, each with their own secrets and desires. Sanjeev doubts his love for his wife because of this disconnect. But, as is proved by the narrator of The Third and Final Continent, that distance can be closed by shared experience. Marriage is not a solid institution but a fluid invention. Shukumar and Shoba are radically altered by the death of their child, and the toll is taken on their marriage. They are no longer the same people as when they met. Love is found in unexpected places and can shift in the wake of experience. By reading Sexy from the point of view of a mistress, the reader also understands that each romantic connection is a unique and personal affair. There are no absolutes or strict moralities.


Lahiri has stated that much of her writing is concerned with communication and its absence. Miscommunication or unexpressed feelings weigh on several characters, destroying their well-being. A Temporary Matter is the best example of secrecy taking its toll on a marriage. Shukumar and Shoba, lost in their own grief, cease communicating with one another. Blackouts allow them the freedom to share secrets they have never shared. They are unfailingly honest and can no longer maintain the illusion that their marriage is still viable. Mrs. Das tries to unburden herself by telling Mr. Kapasi the secret of Bobby's conception. But only Mr. Das can absolve her of her guilt. At the end of the story, nothing has changed in their marriage because she is not able to communicate her lack of love for her family to anyone other than a stranger. Twinkle and Sanjeev have different outlooks on life which cause initial discord between the newlyweds. Communication is necessary to healthy relationships.

Parent/Child Relationships

As children grow older, the relationship between them and their parents shift, becoming either adversarial or enriched with understanding. During the bulk of When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine the narrator Lilia is 10 years old. She brings a childlike innocence to her relationship with Mr. Pirzada, who she thinks is no different from her parents despite being a Pakistani. Lilia's parents are frustrated by her ignorance of current events in their homeland - the byproduct of her schooling in America. There is a disconnect between parents and children, both across generational and cultural lines. There is an unspoken truth between Eliot and his mother. Eliot is keenly aware of his mother's sadness and also of his powerlessness to help. Conversely, the narrator of The Third and Final Continent takes care of his mother when she is ill. He is forced to assume the role of the adult in their relationship. Rohin is also keenly aware of his mother's pain and the situation that has caused the pain. Lilia, Rohin, and Eliot all understand the grownups' sorrows and offer high-level observations on the nature of love and loss.

Religion and Tradition

Maintaining old traditions and customs while learning new ones is part of the assimilation process for immigrants. Mr. Pirzada is puzzled by Halloween - the pumpkins, the costumes and the candy all mystify him. In part, Mr. Pirzada worries enough over his daughters and the thought of Lilia freely inviting danger is too much for him. Twinkle reassures Sanjeev that they are "good little Hindus" despite her affection for discovered Christian iconography. Just because she is charmed by the statuettes does not mean that she has forsaken the customs of her ancestors. Mrs. Sen, unwilling to settle in America, obstinately upholds the patterns and routines of her life in Calcutta. Adopting new customs is the mark of a successful transition into a new country. Mala's effortless absorption of the American customs preferred by her husband indicates that her assimilation will not be as painful as Mrs. Sen's.


Partition as a historical event and as a metaphor is employed by Lahiri. Characters are divided against others and also divided within themselves. Mr. Pirzada and Boori Ma are victims of Partition. Boori Ma is a refugee who may or may not have lost her family and luxurious home in the forced exile of Hindus and Muslims from each other's territories. Her new life is in shambles and she lives on the fringes of society. Boori Ma represents the disastrous effects of the events of 1947. Lilia's reaction to Mr. Pirzada is Lahiri's critique of the skirmish between the two religions. She is unable to see any real difference between Mr. Pirzada and her parents. Her naivete taps into an overarching humanism that Partition erodes. Someone like Miranda, who is neither Indian nor Indian-American, is not immune to such a divide. Though she feels guilty about her tryst with Dev, her desire for him lingers. In Lahiri's fiction, each person is their own continent.


The environment often reflects the inner turmoil of its characters. The rubble-filled Sun Temple that sits atop a dry river is indicative of the ruin of the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Das as well as the well of disappointment that Mr. Kapasi carries with him. The gray waves outside Eliot's window belie a sadness that he is unable to express. The snow that thaws only after Shukumar and Shoba return to honesty directly relates to the thaw between the characters. In The Treatment of Bibi Haldar, the changing seasons chart the life of the troubled main character. In the fall, she is shunned and in the winter she is isolated. In the spring, she is pregnant and emerges from her misery. There is a rhythm of life reflected in the changing seasons.