Illuminating Self-Images in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Short Stories

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In Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri provides a collection of short stories about Indian people going through various life experiences. Lahiri is a master of deconstructing the diaspora genre. Specifically, Lahiri offers two short stories, “A Temporary Matter” and “This Blessed House,” that show the reader Indian people experiencing insecurities about their own identities, which are highlighted not just in comparison to each other, but also in comparison to their wives--as different as these two women are. Lahiri’s male protagonists, Shukumar and Sanjeev, are alike in that they are each grappling with issues surrounding their own unique identities in juxtaposition to their liberal-minded wives. The husbands in these stories are very interesting to explore. Shukumar and When we hold the stories up to one another, we see an over-arching theme in Lahiri’s collection that perhaps suggests as much about tradition versus progression as it does about reality versus expectations in marriage. Similarly, when we compare Shukumar and Sanjeev, they are two dynamic and unique characters, however, it seems they are struggling with very similar issues of insecurity that stem from their dated ideas of the importance of marriage and of what women should be like. By having such similar issues of self-perception on the part of the male characters in her stories, it seems that Lahiri is remarking on a shared complexity of identity that comes with cultural clashes such as being a modern, Indian-American man.

One feature Shukumar possesses his insecurity. This lies in the fact that he is a 35-year-old student without much ambition. Although we are led to believe that he did once love his wife back in their courtship, their loss of their child has created a rift too big to mend. Shukumar remembers when his wife used to be neater and care more about appearances; now he is fixated on the lipstick in the corners of her mouth and her lack of concern for tidying the house and preparing for an electricity outage. He walks around as if on eggshells fearing his wife might catch on to his laziness or talk about something real and thus uncomfortable, like the death of their child. Shukumar can not forgive himself for missing the birth of their stillborn child or the fact that he was able to gain closure by holding their baby boy while his wife had no knowledge of it, and hence no closure to her grief.

The fact that Shukumar is afraid of his reflection is significant because it is not just literally in the mirror but in the eyes of his wife who he can only really talk to in the dark when they lose power and eat by dim candlelight. What would typically seem like a burdensome event in their lives, the loss of electricity for an extended period of time, becomes a time of confession for both of these characters. It is not until the end, though, that we see it was Shukumar who could not stand to evaluate his life and himself in the harsh light, while all that time he thought it was his wife who could not accept the grief of losing their child. When Shukumar realizes that his wife is making the bold move to leave him behind along with the grief that he carries around, Shukumar can no longer deny his feelings or his self-image. His petty criticisms of his aging wife seem ridiculous in comparison to what he himself has become--an avoider of truth and of reality.

Sanjeev is embarrassed by his wife while his friends and colleagues are enamored with her. While both men are critical of their wives, it seems what they are really concerned with is the image they have of themselves, which is the biggest disappointment of all. This can most clearly be seen in the story when the couple hosts a dinner party for Sanjeev’s friends and colleagues and Sanjeev is embarrassed by his wife and concerned about what they will think about her eccentricity. This moment shows the reader that what Sanjeev is really self-conscious about it himself and how he looks to other people. Sanjeev is embarrassed by his wife Twinkle and the house filled with Christian relics that she collects. Both his wife and his home become sore spots for Sanjeev--they are objects he is supposed to have but does not have the confidence to handle. Sanjeev picked his beautiful wife and his impressive home not because he truly wanted them, but because he was supposed to want them, and now, ironically, he laments his single life.

Lahiri’s craft in both of these stories comes out in such subtle and yet heartbreaking ways when we realize what these stories are actually about-- the lack of love for one’s partner because of the lack of self-love on part of the male characters. Shukumar can not forgive himself for missing the birth of their stillborn child or the fact that he was able to gain closure by holding their baby boy while his wife had no knowledge of it, and hence no closure to her grief. Sanjeev cannot stand the image of himself in conjunction with or in comparison to his luminous wife, Twinkle. The story opens with his feeling inadequate as he examines his face in the mirror, one which he fears lacks distinction. The same story ends with him holding a sparkling bust of the face of Christ that is notably both distinguished and defined--two characteristics he sought by marrying Twinkle but did not achieve. The silver Christ reminds him of all the things he can not accept about himself, particularly his self-image; this does not simply consist of his reflection in the mirror, but his appearance in front of his friends and colleagues, and his hasty decision to marry a woman much less traditional than him. He resents Twinkle for no other reason than the fact that she highlights his insecurity.

It is interesting that Lahiri decided to make Shukumar and Sanjeev so similar. Much of what ails both Shukumar and Sanjeev is their concept of what it means to be a man, particularly an Indian man in modern America. Old world ideas of tradition and conservatism have been abandoned by the female characters in these stories, while it is the men who can’t seem to catch up. Everything in their lives seems to be built on expectation instead of reality and it is the prototypes of both marriage and manhood that blind these characters from enjoying married life and respecting their partners. The painful truth is that neither of these men respects themselves, as self-centered as they are.

By having such similar issues of self-perception on the part of the male characters in her stories, it seems that Lahiri is commenting on a common complexity of identity inherent in being a modern, Indian-American man. While so many writers often focus on how tradition stunts the growth of female characters, the gender reversal in these stories actually illuminates the challenges for both sexes. When we compare Shukumar to Sanjeev, it is difficult not to evaluate the women they are married to as well. While Twinkle is the more overly progressive female character, both wives seem to have left their husbands in the dust--both literally and metaphorically. These women have abandoned old world ideas and embraced their identities as modern, Indian-American women who do not feel the need to apologize for who they are. Instead of resisting cultural integration, they leverage it and even relish in it. By comparing the struggling and failed marriages in “A Temporary Matter” and “This Blessed House” Lahiri shows us much more about individual identity than the surface level issues of marriage upon which the stories are based. In turn, we learn how cultural disparity for Indian-American man can be just as challenging as it is for some women. In this way, Lahiri challenges stereotypes and opens up our eyes to the plight of all characters, regardless of gender.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “A Temporary Matter.” The Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Harcourt, 1999.Print.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “This Blessed House.” The Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Harcourt, 1999.Print.