A Delicate, Foreign Touch

Ministhy Dileep | July 30,2010 02:28 pm IST

Writing short stories is almost like a hundred meters race. And not many of the writers have an Usain Bolt simmering within them.

Remember the master pieces of Ernest Hemingway and Conan Doyle? The endings of “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the “Speckled Band?” The breath that was held back for a moment, the thrill of discovery of a whole new world created by a master craftsman- just felt good to be alive and reading a book!


Jhumpa Lahiri , the winner of the prestigious Frank O’Connor award for her second book of short stories “Unaccustomed Earth” has the embers of genius smoldering in her. She had received the Pulitzer for her debut collection ‘The Interpreter of Maladies”. Her novel “Namesake”, filmed by Mira Nair, starring Tabu and Kal Penn, showed a rare sensitivity to the predicament of “ All those who came out of Gogol’s overcoat”!


The theme of isolation of expatriates, is one that has been handled often. Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, another Bengali living in USA leads the list. Her novel ‘Mistress of Spices “ was filmed too-starring Aishwarya Rai as the mysterious healer Tilottama who runs a spice shop in USA.


Kiran Desai ‘s Booker winning novel “ The Inheritance of Loss”, is a stunner , with prose dripping like honey over jaded senses. (She however, writes about India but lives in New York.) Lavanya Sankaran, much acclaimed for her debut story collection about Bangalore, ‘Red Carpet”, graduated from Bryn Mawyr and worked in New York. A few of her stories carry the dilemma of the foreign returned, within their folds.


However, it is Lahiri’s stories that I want to write about today. For there is something absolutely mesmerizing in her eye for detail, her understanding of the human heart, her rare and genuine empathy with the protagonist.
Who can forget the pain and confusion of the newly arrived old woman, who drapes her washed cotton sarees over the family’s white fence in the American neighbourhood-only to be humiliated and drained by her family? The desperation and panic will fill the reader’s heart too, for a scalding moment or two.


Mrs. Sen, if I remember right, has a lot in common with Tabu’s character in Namesake. Yearning for the land of birth, where, inspite of all the daily tribulations, lay acceptance and freedom.


Some of the themes come back in the new collection. The foreign woman who was pining for her married Indian lover in the first collection becomes a foreign man trying to grapple with his feelings for the exotic Indian girl in “Nobody’s Business”.


The shocking end of “Interpreter of Maladies”is unparalleled. If one analyses for the surprise ending this time round, it comes in “Hell-Heaven”. The realization that one’s mother could be a woman in love too-and not necessarily with your father…


“ I did not know, back then, that Pranab Kaku’s visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance. That she lived for the moment she heard him call out ‘Boudi’ from the porch and that she was in a foul humour on the days he didn’t materialize..” (Hell-Heaven)



Ministhy S. is PG (PM&IR) from XLRI-Jamshedpur, and currently, an IAS officer working in the UP cadre. She has written five books - 'Unequal Equations', 'Learning with Tippy Tortoise: Tales for Kids', 'Happy Birthday: Poems for Kids' and a novel published by Dronequill Publishers, Bangalore....