The Cost of a Narritive: Jhumpa Lahiri’s An Interpreter of Maladies

InterpreterofmaladiescoverNote: trigger warning for Sexual Assault/Rape

Now, let’s be clear before I start: I like An Interpreter of Maladies. It gives me quite a lot of #diasporafeels, and I am constantly finding nuances of this collection of stories. However, in one of the short stories, “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” my enjoyment of the collection dies and I tend to curl up in a ball of rage. Let me briefly summarize:

Bibi has a mental illness, with no real symptoms or causation, all the reader knows is that she is mentally ill, of which her family doesn’t know how to deal with specifically. Bibi is treated with little dignity and respect and is kept far away from her caretakers in an effort not to contaminate them with her illness. One night, Bibi is left alone, and is sexually assaulted. No one knows who assaulted her, and she doesn’t tell, however she is left pregnant. Once she gives birth, Bibi’s mental illness dissipates and she is perceived as normal.

If you’re banging your head against a wall repeatedly at this point, good, because I was as well. Besides the obvious statement that rape, or even consensual sex, magically cures mental illness, it is necessary to examine Lahiri’s piece in a way it is part of an overall narrative of what South Asia. Literature and film can paint a picture, accurate or not, of what a country is, giving the viewer a picture of what the culture is without having to be an anthropologist.

There are two types of writers in this front: the outsider looking in and the insider. The outsider looking in is a creator not from the culture, who has taken the time and effort to research and develop a story that tries to portray cultural authenticity. The insider is someone who is of that culture, and therefore has hopefully a better understanding of custom and norms. The outsider looking in creates a narrative on how things seem, the insider shows a glimpse at how things are. This distinction is what bothers me about “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.”

Lahiri is an insider. She is Indian American who, while growing up away from the country, grew within the culture and as a result can portray a story about India with more accuracy than the outsider looking in who may not have the same insights. This is where my problem lies because of this distinction. As an insider, Lahiri is the one with the fine paintbrush, painting in the details whereas outsiders looking in have the big paintbrushes and broad strokes.

By making a statement in her literature where it is just accepted that rape/sexual assault magically cures mental illness, what Lahiri is saying is that India as a whole believes this. Even though she isn’t stating that specifically, by creating a story where this is the basic narrative, the reader is then left with an impression of how Indian people act and are. As writers, the community has the ability to shape and define the cultural perception of a country. India doesn’t have a wonderful background in treating and helping those with mental illnesses, but, by painting the picture in this direction, it becomes part of a cultural narrative. And it really pisses me off that this particular gem of literature is part of that narrative.

If you’ve read An Interpreter of Maladies, let me know in the comments what your thoughts are, I’d love to hear what others think about Lahiri’s writing. I personally have only read An Interpreter of Maladies, and while I enjoyed it, this was a sore bit that I felt we needed to start a dialogue on.

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