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Essay: Displacement and alienation in literature

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  • Displacement and alienation in literature
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Migration and adapting to different cultures have become major global issues in the contemporary world. Diasporic Literature has a sense of alienation and has emerged as an outcome of migration. Dealing with alienation, nostalgia, quest of identity and displacement, Diasporic Literature addresses amalgamation and disorientation. The person, who has migrated from his homeland feels depersonalised or lost his identity and feels to see the self as unreal and this is not just applicable for the first-generation migrants, but, to second generation migrants as well, as they have to follow one culture within their houses and have to follow an entirely opposite culture outside their homes, which seems like an entirely different world altogether. As Salman Rushdie stated, “Exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutilated into pillars of salt.” This difference in cultures inside and outside leads to psychological conflicts, which in turn lead to negative long-term effects. The migrants will start experiencing themselves to be isolated and are soon made to follow multiple cultures. This, in turn, puts these migrants under the immense pressure of multicultural. This paper, titled, Studying the dimensions of defining and redefining the identities through Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies,’ aims at emphasising the feel of alienation, the sense of being lost and the nostalgia of homeland, psychological conflicts and the overlapping cultures through the characters of the anthology, ‘Interpreter of Maladies.’


Alienation, Psychological conflict, Diaspora, Multicultural, Geographical Demarcation


Diaspora involves migration of people. In “Interpreter of Maladies,” author Jhumpa Lahiri delves deeper into Indian (Bengali) immigrants’ hearts and pictures the psychological conflict. Also, it pictures the will to survive marginalisation and its impact. This drastic variation causes psychological conflicts and has devastating effects on migrants and they feel alienated. “Interpreter of Maladies” focuses on Indo-Americanised culture wherein we see people caught between two cultures. Many of the characters within Lahiri’s work “reflect the agony of shattered minds.” The anthology reveals her admirable grasp of biculturalism and reliable style. Lahiri’s stories describe universal sympathy the breakup of identities, the alienation and sense of loneliness experienced by all immigrants, giving voice to their pain and interested in their complex psychoses. The titular story revolves around Mr Kapasi, the driver-guide, Mr and Mrs Das, who live in America and have come to visit India. The author talks from the viewpoint of Mr Kapasi, who’s deceived by Mr Das’ family which’s apparently Indian, yet, foreign. Mr Das even seems to take pride in his status as a stranger, telling Mr Kapasi about his American roots with an “air of sudden confidence. “The members of the Das family embody a different cultural identity in the way they dress, speak and in the way they behave. Mr Das takes pictures of things with his camera that are normal in the Indian context. Mr Das is positioned as a tourist despite his ethnic background. The episode of extra-marital relation and keeping it secret has psychologically affected Mrs Das, who prefers Mr Kapasi to her husband to talk about her past, sometimes resulted in her mental alienation and imbalance as she expresses her burden as the text depicts; ‘Don’t you see? For eight years I haven’t been able to express this to anybody, not to friends, certainly not to Raj. He doesn’t even suspect it. I feel terrible looking at my children and at Raj always terrible. I have terrible urges, Mr Kapasi, to throw things away. One day, I had the urge to throw everything. Don’t you think it is unhealthy?’(Page 65, IoM). The ‘malady’ which is making Mrs Das suffer is a clear instance of cultural and psychological conflict. The story of infidelity, multi-cultures, sense of guilt continues onto the next story, “Sexy” too. This story revolves around Devajit ‘Dev’ Mitra, a married Indian residing in Michigan and Miranda, with whom Dev is having an affair. Miranda is a lady who seeks sexual pleasure to be relieved from boredom and loneliness. Miranda gets to know about her colleague, Laxmi’s cousin’s husband, cheating on his wife with a woman whom he met on his flight to London. The story presents two stories in her story “Sexy” and both are quite similar and linked with each other. In both cases, Indian males are involved and they don’t realise or even have the sense of guilt for their wives, the things are just opposite. Though, Dev’s wife is unaware of his relationship with Miranda., it would be a sin. Laxmi, living an American life, says that she would have killed him if she had been her cousin. But for her cousin, it is impossible. Ultimately it is Rohin, Laxmi’s cousin’s boy, who makes Miranda realise what she’s doing is futile and it is of no importance. The story is a result of boredom, psychological conflict felt by Miranda, who’s not an Indian, yet, feels isolated in her own land. The next story, “The Third and final continent,” supplements the thoughts of alienation through a person who’s adopted to three different cultures. The narrator’s mother was completely devastated by the death of her husband. Physically, she did not commit Sati, as an orthodox patriarchal/feudal ideology would have expected her, back in the nineteenth century when Mrs Croft was born but symbolically, she died with him. She had to be protected and cared for by her sons: she ‘refused to adjust to life without her husband; instead, she sank deeper into a world of darkness from which nothing could save her’ (Page 187, IoM). The death of his mother had brought relief to the narrator but he mourns. Mrs Croft also contrasts with that of the narrator’s wife, Mala, who, as a twenty-seven-year-old bride, missed her parents. When Mala arrives in America, Mrs Croft called her a perfect woman after seeing her in the Indian sari. This compliment from Mr Croft evokes sympathy and love in his mind for Mala, because until then, he had an aversion to the idea of an arranged marriage. Although he has adapted to the British way of life as a student, it is not a true cultural integration as ‘he lives in a house occupied entirely by penniless Bengali bachelors like him’ (Page 173, IoM). He attempts to keep his cultural identity intact by keeping the most trivial of Indian traditions alive, such as eating ‘egg curry’. Mala is completely dependent on her husband in an alienated social and cultural environment. However, the narrator was able to find time to accompany Mala and ‘together’ they ‘explored the city and met other Bengali’s discovered that a man named Bill sold fresh fish took pictures of her so that she could send them to her parents and discovered pleasure and solace in each other’s arms’ (Page 196, IoM). The story talks about his lifestyle and him incorporating both Indian and American values into his life. The narrator thinks that he and his wife became Americans but still attached to Indian food tradition. The narrator wants his son to retain his Indian culture. Eating rice by hand and speaking Bengali are two important symbols in this story, which proves the importance of original nationality. In the next story, “When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine,” cultural hybridity is clearly shown. The story talks about Mr Pirzada, a well-educated, upper-middle-class Muslim, settled in the US. Mr Pirzada is homesick and is suffering from the pain of separation from his wife, seven children and his homeland, Dacca. His homesickness is seen in his dinner with Lilia’s parents as he keeps his pocket watch, as the text describes; ‘set to the local time in Dacca, eleven hours ahead,’(Page 30, IoM), ‘on his folded paper napkin on the coffee table’ (Page 30, IoM). It is deftly demonstrated how Indians and Pakistanis stuck in the US are able to find “acceptance and solace beyond the barriers of nations, cultures, religions and generations. The story brings forth the aspect of departure into a personal world of memories These are the central sensations of diaspora. It explains the equivalent psychological conflict both the characters goes through”. Lahiri beautifully explains the experience of each character as unique when it comes to the dramatisation of the diaspora. “A Real Durwan” talks about a poor woman remaining in India, Boori Ma, a refugee. The story reflects that it is not only in America that the Indian migrants go through humiliation and discrimination, but the diasporas meet this kind of treatment in every dominant culture and nation. Her dilemma is that she can neither go back across the border, which was once her home nor is she given space in this new country, which was politically her home. The story, “A Temporary Matter,” talks about the bond of marriage considered holy in India which is breaking under the sheer pressure of demands faced by second-generation immigrants on an alien land. Shukumar and Shobha, a Bengali couple living in Boston are married for a while now. The “Temporary Matter,” in the story is that the electricity will be cut off an hour for the coming five days. For an instance, they keep on the games like telling one secret about each other in darkness. The darkness becomes the light of life. The darkness brought them nearer. They could share inner feelings during ‘Dark’ hours. Four nights go by and on the fifth day, it’s announced that there’ll be no further one-hour power cut. In spite of no power cut, Shukumar keeps lights off at eight p. m. and keenly waits for the game. Shobha switches on the light after dinner and announces that she’s going to live separately. Shocked, Shukumar then thinks of telling her a grave secret he kept from her, that she had given birth to a dead child. Shukumar told her the secret of their born-dead child. Shobha gets confused, turns off the lights and comes back to the dining table. She’s then joined by Shukumar and the story ends with the words; they wept together, for the things they now knew’ (Page 22, IoM). The story reveals the lack of communication in a marriage of second-generation an expatriate couple which resulted in the state of alienation for both. For Indians, marriage is joining together of two families based on belief, dedication and sacrifice for each other, but, for Americans, individual freedom is much more important than an integrated family. The Americanised Bengali couple displays the tendency of typical Diaspora where the characters carry different geographical identities with them.

The story “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” also deals with the displacement and alienation in the native milieu. Bibi Haldar was an orphan since childhood and was diagnosed with epilepsy. She was staying with her relative in Calcutta, given a storage room on the roof that proves her pathetic condition as the text writes, ‘A space in which one could sit but not comfortably stand, featuring an adjoining latrine, curtain, one window without a grille, and shelves made from the panels of the old door’ (Page 159, IoM). The line, ‘When Mrs Sen said home, she meant India, not the apartment where she sat to chop the vegetables’(Page 116, IoM), tells it all. For Mrs Sen, India is the home. Also, her urge to get back to her homeland is clearly evident when she asks Eliot, ‘Could I drive all the way to Calcutta? How long would that take, Eliot?’ (Page 119, IoM). Mrs Sen clearly is homesick. She keeps on telling the stories of Indian marriage ceremonies to mentally relive those moments and feel home at the same time, tries to regain her cultural part in a foreign land. Mrs Sen is traumatised due to the crisis of identity. Her intention behind learning to drive a car isn’t to move around but to escape. Displaced from home and dazed, she finds American life very irritating. These are her means of claiming her cultural identity in an alien land. The other story, “This Blessed House,” talks about a young Indian immigrant trying to adjust to foreign land and culture. It records the emotional and cultural clash between a Hindu husband and his Christmas-artefact-fascinated wife. The cultural gap between the eastern and the western world is clearly penned through the understanding between Sanjeev and Twinkle. Sanjeev has a lot of Hindu values whereas his wife has her brain embedded with Christian values. The description of food and paintings give the native feel. Sanjeev, a recent immigrant has deep touch with his roots unlike Twinkle. Sanjeev’s stance is clearly seen as he keeps on reminding his wife, ‘We’re not Christians’ (Page 137, 146, IoM). He’s an immigrant, yet, trying to keep his culture etched deep within him. Twinkle, in her habits, is more American than Indian. The cultural alienation and differences are clearly pictured through these close living beings. Sanjeev’s character evidences that an immigrant’s experience in a foreign land is often painful. Twinkle’s affinity towards western accessories disturbs Sanjeev to the core. Sanjeev rethinks the circumstances of his marriage and understands that he’d have preferred a more traditional wife. He has a negative definition of love, i.e. he knows only what love is not supposed to be. The story deals with the early phase of marriage when the partners are emotionally attached to each other.
Turning inclusive is often seen as a natural process wherein a human being will make an effort to adapt and learn from ongoing situations and circumstances. One can inarguably tell that Jhumpa Lahiri has successfully brought out the ‘maladies’ of the immigrants, who find one culture in their households and the other, completely opposite, once they cross their front doors. The characters of “Interpreter of Maladies,” represent two different worlds, connected with multiple cultures and are struggling to keep their identity as a self in a completely alien land. The stories included in this collection talk about the cultural hybridity and show the struggle of immigrant Indians. The characters seem to be torn from within and lack viable means of articulation of their alienation. Their loneliness in a foreign land is also brought out. It’s clearly evident through the characters that the cultural differences make immigrants feel isolated and marginalised. Cultural hybridity is shown as a way to win over the maladies faced by immigrants. It’s more of a psychological strategy. Ample examples of cultural translations are given through these stories.

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