Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies


I have often wondered who I am. Am I a type or am I an exception? I like to think of myself as the modern global citizen. But what does that even mean? Does the global citizen have a cuisine to call her own? Do we have a dinner table ritual like every other culture? Do we let our children drink with us? Do we have fairy tales? Which language do we speak? Where is our native?

My first acquaintance with the author Jhumpa Lahiri was an association. I can’t remember how or why, but I associated her with my father’s longing for home. Every time that man would say he wanted to go back home to his ancestral house in Dhaka- one that he had never seen in his life- his next thought was to go back and read Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake.’

As a Bengali born in Hyderabad, in a nursing home where I did not have any other relation save my mother and father, I was already very different from my cousins. They were all born at home, delivered by mid wives and surrounded by relatives. After their births, the house would be blessed by the company of eunuchs whose blessings resounded throughout the neighborhood.

As an oddity, I learnt Telegu before I learnt Bengali. My first word was ‘Chinnapapa’ and not ‘ma’. After twenty three years, five languages and four cities, I am left struggling for words when people ask me where I am from.

After reading Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, I can finally begin to answer that question. A book of nine short stories, Lahiri writes about people like me- the ones searching for roots, searching for their place in the new world as well as the old.

Shobha and Shukumar, a Bengali couple born and brought up in Boston, are a modern pair to the onlooker. But after having lost a child, they too find it necessary to go back to the stories and rituals of Kolkata- a place they have never been to, but only heard stories of.

Mr. Pirzada is luckier than the above mentioned couple. He is from Bangladesh and he knows his country. Although a visitor of the states, he remembers his origins. He remembers that no child should ever say thank you to an adult for a gift given and that shoes need to be removed outside the house before entering. He remembers that children are innocent and that the only thing they should be concerned with is chocolates and dolls. Despite his worry of his family back in the Dhaka of the mukti judho (Liberation movement), he keeps his cool in front of the young Jhumpa.

Mr. Kapasi is a first handed witness of what the modern world does to young love. He hears the story of Mrs. Das’s infidelity from her and wonders how the American concept of love is so very different from the Indian’s concept of the same. Mr. Kapasi is a translator who soon realizes that betrayal, love, passion and ailments are universal. However, the way of dealing with these differ from culture to culture. When Mrs. Das romanticizes his profession as a translator, Mr. Kapasi realizes that he can transgress cultural boundaries and language barriers to understand and assess different cultures. Post this realization, Mr. Kapasi becomes the objective observer on the other side of the camera watching different cultures intermingle and co-exist.

Boori ma of ‘A real durwaan’ is a character I know. She had the same sentiments and regrets but her name was different in my world. She was called Kanchan maashi (aunty). She was the lady who was the care taker of our house in Kolkata. Just like Boori ma, she too had just two saris and always roamed around bare feet. She rubbed coconut oil on her hair and body before bath every day and always told me stories of the ancestral home and zamindari they were stripped of during the partition. I was always assured that she would have been a very rich woman with a lot of jewels and a horde of servants, had it not been for the Liberation movement.

Mrs. Sen, is like Nazneen of Brick Lane. She is forced to move out of Kolkata and live in the states for the sake of a husband who is trying to make it big in the new world. She cannot and will not learn driving, she tells her husband, a man fervently trying to modernize her. Her association with her home town is more a cultural one. She is the type of woman who will make sure that anyone passing through her house gets food and a glass of water. She will not have no for an answer. Mrs. Sen is Ashima from ‘The Namesake.’ She is every house wife ever who has been told that getting married to a Bengali settled in the States will be the best decision of their life.

Twinkle and Sanjeev are another failed relationship. They fail not because they lost a child, but because Twinkle found Christianity and shoved it down Sanjeev’s throat. Twinkle’s introduction to Christianity came in the form of Christ figurines and mantel pieces hidden all over their new house. Twinkle held on to her new found, glamorous faith and Sanjeev resisted.

Bibi Haldar is my heroine. Hers is a story of breaking away from the clutches of tradition and gender roles and taking control of one’s own life. Bibi Haldar wants a husband, but is denied so by her cruel brother and sister-in-law. They see her as a mad woman with overflowing sexual desire, but she does not relent. At the end of the story, she puts on her red lipstick, shows a middle finger to society and her family and makes a life for herself and her son (whose parental origin is unknown), keeping her dream of finding a husband alive.

The ‘I’ of the last story is a nameless man searching for his place in the new world. He struggles with the new culture, but after thirty years of living in the states, realizes that: “while the astronaut, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know my achievement is quite ordinary….As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination. (Page 198, Harper Collins)”

Lahiri also explores the relationship an outsider has with the Bengali culture. What do they think of when they see a Bengali in the States? Miranda of the short story ‘Sexy’ answers this for us. She is in love with a married man- Dev and knows that she is the quintessential ‘other woman’. But is the role of the ‘other woman’ same in the case of a conservative Bengali family structure as it is for an American family? Roshin, a Bengali boy of nine, educates her by his innocence.

All the heroes and the heroines of the book remind me of my father and his longing for a home he had never seen and his feeling of sticking out in the by lanes of North and South India. He, like most of the characters, wanted to go back. But I don’t think I ever will go back, wherever ‘back’ might be.

I like the approach of the “I” in the last story. Maybe the question we should be asking is not when we will go back or where. Maybe it is- where will I go from here? Maybe we are not meant to belong to one place or one culture only. Could it be, that our mission in our lifetime is to imbibe all cultures that come our way and be from wherever we are at a particular moment?



A forgotten room filled with unwanted things

*I haven’t read the whole book yet. These are just some thoughts I cannot seem to shrug after reading the first 100 pages of Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence.”

“My whole life depends on you now.”

This is a line in a book that achieves more than its function, for me. Upon reading this line to myself, I imagined a dusty room filled with forgotten things in a forgotten apartment in Istanbul.

Although a stranger to the country and its traditions, I come to gain its acquaintance through the first hundred pages of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. In my mind, I see the posh suburbs with wide enough roads and fashion boutiques imitating their Parisian counterparts. If I go towards the poorer parts, I see narrow streets where God fearing people live.

When I get back to the room, I see a couple- a man of 30 and a girl who has just turned 18 lying out of breath on a rusty bed, seemingly overwhelmed by their love making. They are naked. Sweat glistens on their bodies and they are taking labored breaths, trying to get their heart rates to a normal.

The girl looks up at the man with her childish eyes and says with as much innocence and purity as she can muster, the above mentioned lines.

It is that moment that I cannot read ahead off. The reality of their situations is so in contrary to the reality of the apartment where they conduct their clandestine meetings. The man is engaged to be married to another, a very ‘suitable girl’ and rational thought deems that the marriage be followed through with.

But my heart is a different question.

I know he is in the wrong. I know that this eighteen year old woman child is to be blamed also. But I can’t. I just can’t. This story challenges my morality. It challenges all my learnt notions of love. It is beyond the rational mind to comprehend.

Just as the writer searches for answers on why he fell in love with this woman child; if at all it was love or something more; I too am in a fix.

Why is it that natural law takes precedence over societal norms and why is it that we find such a scenario so bizarre. Who should we listen to when it comes to the subject of conjugal love- society or our bodies?

I cannot go beyond this point in the story- one filled with purity and devoid of the pollutions of civilized thoughts. It is in this fact that I surprise myself.

Shakespeare- the common man’s hero


The persona of the man we know as William Shakespeare is tough to comprehend. The figure that is Shakespeare is tainted by history, fiction, fame, and politics. Some consider him the father of English literature, some the world’s foremost playwright. But whichever may be an individual’s pick, it is very difficult to understand William, the man.

The film ‘Shakespeare in love’ has attempted to step off a literary pedestal and look at him as a common man- one who had a wife he did not love; one who had to produce lines for a living; one that desired the female company to the extent that he had to visit local brothels; one that drowned his sorrows under the influence of ale; and one who was jealous of his contemporary.

The film traces the creation of Romeo and Juliet and the rise of Shakespeare into the limelight. As is common knowledge, Elizabethan England frowned upon plays. The clergy endorsed only morality plays, performed in the church yards and disregarded any theatre company as the playground of the devil.

Furthermore England had just been hit by another wave of the plague owing to which theatres like the Rose were ordered to shut down. In such a sticky situation, if a young playwright had to leave his mark on society, he had to achieve something extraordinary.

The young Will, not only struggled with writer’s block (which he went to a therapist to resolve), he had to face daily threats of being fired from the owner of the theatre. This man starts out as a village boy trying to make it big in the filth and glamour of London. He fears that he will have to get back to the country to his unloving wife, the marriage to whom was a mere financial contract.

This is a man who is bursting passion. He has a sonnet on his lips for beautiful women and is in search of his muse. The renaissance symbolized rebirth; rebirth of ideas and forming new opinions. It was a world away from the conservative society of the past.

England had a female ruler who drove the country to greatness. She had just won a religious battle against the Vatican and had managed to keep peace between the Catholics and the Protestants in the nation. Furthermore, the common man could finally find means of expression.

Books were being published in the common tongue. Primary education was on the rise. For instance Shakespeare’s generation was perhaps the most literate population England had ever seen.

The classics, that were previously only accessible to the Latin speaking elite, were now available to the masses in English. Theatre was endorsed by the queen herself which is why theatre houses like Rose had survived and people like Shakespeare were employed.

Not only does Shakespeare do things differently in his plays, his complete disregard for the classical rules of drama (like Aristotelian Unity) showed that he was open to experimentation. Due to the lack of props, he had to make do with words and that he did well. Shakespeare was a master of his words. Every sentence he produced did something to the audience.

It was popular belief that all the audience wanted was some comedy (often slapstick), and some fighting as their theatre diet. William changed it. He gave the world a romantic tragedy. He gave the world- Romeo and Juliet.

The story is not just about the relationship between a man and a woman, it is a struggle to find a safe spot in the new world. Although the new thoughts had entered England, the old traditions and believes still existed. Both Romeo and Juliet, face a political divide and yet struggle to find love and hold on to that love despite the protests of their respective families. They end up dying. But the beauty of the story lies in the fact that at the end, they made their own decisions and that Juliet, a woman, had the courage to face the society.

Viola, who was the inspiration for Juliet and also William’s lover, was a very different kind of muse. Unlike previous muses who were overshadowed by the artists, Viola held her own. She, a lady who came from wealth, had the courage to dress like a boy and follow her dreams. She lead a duel life- in one she was Lady Viola full of poise and grace ready to do her father’s bidding, and in the other, she dressed like a boy and played Romeo in front of the audience.

It is the courage and determination of Viola that epitomizes the renaissance. Romeo and Juliet made the audience weep. The queen herself applauded the performance as the first work that got the concept of love right.

Shakespeare’s story is an everyman’s story. It is the attempt to break out of the situation one is born into and make something out of one’s life. Rajnikanth reminds me of William Shakespeare. If the former’s popularity is viewed in context of his background, it is plausible to come to the conclusion that the phenomenon mirrors that of the latter’s.

Shakespeare’s was an all too familiar struggle of the rural against the urban, of the common man against the lords and the mob’s against the regimes. His story resonates with the common man’s and he will always remain their hero.

Mother- a Darren Aronofsky film


Darren Aronofsky’s Mother is bizarre to say the least. If you watch the film as a psychologist, you will find evidence of various mental disorders. The setting of the film is a large house in the middle of nowhere. All you are allowed to see is grass surrounding the house. The horizon is made only of trees and light. C’est tout!

At no time is the camera taken outside the house. Metaphorically, we are meant only to dwell in the inner domain- a place occupied by Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband, Him ( Javier Bardem).

Mother is a young girl who seems to be devoted to Him and the house she is trying to rebuild. Despite the cracks and the unending labour, she give the house her all. Never once, does she crib. She aspires to make the house ‘paradise’- not because it is her house, but because it is ‘His’ house.

While Mother is spending her days and nights toiling away, doing laundry, cooking and feeding Him, he is locked up in his study trying to write. She is not allowed in his study alone, because, “He doesn’t like anyone going in there without Him.”

She is the muse, and He, the artist. Their peaceful existence is disturbed when strangers descent upon their house. First comes the Man (Ed Harris) who brings with him his bad lungs infected with terminal cancer. Following him is his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is loud and inquisitive to say the least. She is the nosy neighbour we are all weary of. She needs to know why Mother and Him do not have children yet.

Woman uses sex as a weapon and her lace lingerie as the ammo. She tells Mother that she should have kids asap because she will not be young anymore.

Not only is she inquisitive, she is condescending too and only ends up feeding His humongous male ego.

After the unexpected guests arrive, the film becomes more bizarre. There is blood seeping in from all sorts of unexpected places. The wooden floor melts to give way to a metal door, the incinerator fires up all by itself. The sound effects and the cinematography all points towards the genre of horror.

Yet, nothing happens.

Half way through the film, Mother gets pregnant and He starts writing again. His book is a success and one fine day, history repeats itself. Horde of strangers descend upon the house.

“The poet asks us to share”, they say. “This is everyone’s house, the poet says.”

The chaos that follows reminds me of Dante’s inferno. There is violence, fornicatation, theft, etc. and in the midst of all this there is Mother, who is trying to save her baby in the confusion.

Everything becomes surreal and Jennifer Lawrence’s confusion mirror that of the audience. “I have given you everything. Why am I not enough?” is a question asked by the viewers along with Mother to Him.

All he has to say is that they (the horde) need him as much as Mother does.

Finally, Mother sets the house on fire and everything is burnt to ashes but Him.

“Nothing is ever enough and that is how I create,” answers Him- he who has one last favour to ask of the dying Mother. He needs her love and it is that love that keeps him going.

Now, for a lot of us Bollywood lovers, this film is anything less than weird. But keeping aside the obvious,  let us try to understand the metaphor.

Mother is a representation of the everyday woman. She is shown as a muse, who gives and gives till she has nothing left to give. She loves endlessly and that is what drains the life out of her in the end.

He is the male ego, the creator, the loved one. He takes inspiration from her, drains the life force out of her and expects her to keep functioning according to societal norms, despite his selfishness. He is the creator, the selfish one.

One can ask whether Aronofsky is questioning the ways of God. We do refer to the entity as Him. Even within the world of the film, Mother is overlooked and the only time she is acknowledged is when she gives birth in a closed room. Mother is away from the public eye and yet she is the giver of life. But Him, the artist, the God to the horde is well worshiped.

They come from far and wide and just need one touch from Him. Yet they turn against him when the time comes. They take more than they give. Could the horde be the human race? Could it be our disregard for nature, the Mother of all?

I found this film apocalyptic. It showed me how the world as we know it will come to an end. We (the horde) will take from Mother Nature, not acknowledge her presence and will lead to our own doom, all the time searching for the Him, the creator.

I cannot begin to understand what Aronofsky wanted to portray through the film. But I do know why this is a horror film. The horror lies in the fact that life was taken by the horde without a second thought.

It lay in the fact that murder is so ritualised in us and deeply engrained in the audience, that we do not feel as strongly about it as we should.

The Darkness

The flower vase was shattered. Water ran down the Persian rug and there were feathers everywhere in the flat. The source of the feathers remains a mystery till this date. Now reader, this story happened about a few decades ago but as a biased writer, I still feel it has relevance.

Imagine the setting to be a dark winter evening. Just the right amount of sunlight streaming into the room and the dust particles glittering in the light. The dead objects in that house were silently moving like the water from the broken vase.

A letter stood proudly on the wooden desk. You could see the pressure marks from where the hands had held too tight.

“Roses are red, violets are blue, your life is mine and I’m watching you.”

The above mentioned line was inked on the parchment. It smelled old and comforting like it had come from a rundown library in kajakistan.   

The letter had come in via the morning post. She had known something was wrong when the delivery guy had not waited for her to sign on the register. He smelled of tobacco and vodka at 9 am in the morning. There was another smell she couldn’t quite place. A whiff of lavender and ethanol.

He looked haggard; a man tired of breathing. He never once looked at her. Just placed the envelope in her hand all the while looking at the floor and left before she could say any more.

(tring tring, tring tring)


“El, what is it? You know I’ve been busy. What is it with 10 missed calls?”

“I need you. It’s happening again. It’s back.”

“Who do you mean?”

“April 25, 1884.”

“Oh God! Not again. Snap out of it El. I know you can. Don’t let it affect you. The darkness is in your head.”

“But it already has. I shall see you in the after. Bye.”

The line disconnected and she stepped out of her window; out in the open; out in the light.



The END.    

Black beauty

Coffee was not always my beau. My relationship with the beverage started out as a disastrous one. I was eleven and it was a Sunday morning. As in most Bengali households, the morning ritual consisted of reading the Telegraph or Statesman and simultaneously sipping on coffee.

My father, a man loyal to his habits, was doing just that. I had woken up and like any eleven year old charged with adrenaline, wanted to engage him in one of my games. I pestered him for a good ten minutes and finally, when he couldn’t stand my goat like voice calling ‘baba, babaaaaa’, he admonished me and asked me to leave the room. In my anger, I flung the coffee mug on the floor and as the glass shattered and the black stained the floor, I fled the scene of crime.

My father is an angry man, by nature. He doesn’t forgive easily and has a memory of an elephant. No, he is not quick to forgive and forget. As a result of this feature, he refused to talk to me for the next few days. “Boro der shathe ayerom byabohar…it’s unheard of,” (such kind of behavior with elders…it’s unheard of) he would remark whenever he saw me. Those times, I would cower like a puppy with my tail between my legs.

As days went by, he forgave me and resumed his normal interactions with me. But that black liquid continued to repel me and reminded me of that incident. My father had placed his morning coffee higher than his elder daughter on the priority list.

His habit didn’t change and the ever present cup with the bitter smelling liquid resembling tar continued to be his faithful companion every morning.

As my limbs grew in length, I was made to shift to a hostel in college. The only thing in their kitchen that could be consumed without giving you a bad stomach was coffee. ‘Coffee kills hunger…try drinking it in the morning,” my friend had said to me.

The first time I had a sip, I almost threw up. It made my body warm and I had to take off my layers one by one. “It is an acquired taste…give it time to work its magic on you,” baba told me over the phone when I asked him how he drank it.

Initially, I had to plug my nose and gulp it down without breathing as if taking a bad medicine. But as days went be, I caught myself relishing the bitter and sweet after taste of it. The smell didn’t repel me anymore and the light brown froth pleased the eyes.

I drank coffee wherever I went- the bookshop down in Park Street where my love affair with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca began; at night when I had to stay up to mug up pages and pages of text; and at 2 am when I had to write. It became a constant companion which accompanied me to the interiors of my mind palace and helped me make sense of my tangled emotions.

When I went home after my first year, I had my first cup of coffee with my father at 1 am. We were watching the papal elections live and it was freezing cold. We both took our coffee black and unsweetened. The discussion that followed made me feel like my father had finally started taking me seriously.

“You have grown up. I am glad,” baba told me before going to his room with his friend in his hand.

Abosheshey, a film review

Kolkata shudhu shohor noye. Kolkata holo jibon bodh. (Kolkata is not just a city. It is a lifestyle.) It grows on you like a being.”

This is the dialogue by Suchishmita Roy, played by Roopa Ganguly that summarizes Aditi Roy’s directorial debut Abosheshey. The Bengali word Abosheshey literally translates to ‘finally’ in English. This film explores a mother’s wait for her child, the eternal bond between the life giver and the progeny, the matir-taan (the pull of one’s roots) and Kolkata as a city with its own heartbeat.

Partha and Suchishmita both have the same surname- Roy and share a child- Shomya. But their thought processes are vastly different. Partha, who exists only as a ghost figure never to be seen by the audience, is ready to leave his father and his city to earn riches in the States. Suchishmita, on the other hand, refuses to uproot herself from her city, friends and family to settle in a foreign land. As a result, Shomya grows up in the company of his father and step-mother never to know his mother. For him, San Francisco is home and Kolkata, only a name on his passport. After Suchishmita’s death, Shomya is forced to come to Kolkata to settle his birth mother’s affairs and finds himself in a city familiarly foreign to him.

This is the story of a son’s quest to know his mother and his city. Shomya discovers his mother from her letter to him, from the testimony of her neighbor and all those people who were dear to her. Suchishmita is the personification of Kolkata.

She is the quintessential mother figure who gives life and holds on to the memory of her boy for twenty years despite not having heard from him. She believes in the nabhir-taan (pull of the womb) and knows for a fact that her son will be back some day. Abosheshey (finally) he comes home only to discover his mother through other people.

Kolkata is an ailing city. It is often called the city of old people; a place where people come to retire. Roy has managed to make this sentiment of Bengalis towards Kolkata clear through the testimony of a random guy in the bar where Shomya drinks. This nameless character is a frustrated Bengali who knows that the city and the race have gone to the dogs. This man, a Bengali himself, claims to be from Bombay and condemns the Bengali race as a lazy group of people who only talk big and do nothing.

Suchishmita, much like Kolkata, survives on memory alone and a hope that her child will come back to her someday. She is a woman who is adept in the arts- she paints and sings Rabindra sangeet- and is stubborn to the point of insolence. In all her splendor, she is free thinking and a peculiar kind of modern. She embraces modernity at a surface level but remains traditional in her thought process.

Such is Kolkata. Any Bengali who sees this film will relate to it. When I finished watching it, I was left with a taste of nostalgia on my tongue. The familiar sight of Howrah Bridge, Princep Ghat, College Street and Gariahat filled me with longing. In the same breath, I felt suffocated. I knew I would never go back. I would only love my city from a distance.

The film is extremely slow. There were places I found myself yawning and wondering why the narrative was so lazy and haphazard. The answer is probably in understanding the essence of the movie. It talks about a city where everything is so slow and confused that even the rooster takes an afternoon nap. What better way to put that point across but to slow down the pace of the film.

There are some places in the film which are surreal in nature. The film reminded me of the work of Paulo Coelho called The Witch of Portobello. This has the same structure. Suchishmita is seen from the eyes of different characters. She is never given a chance to tell her own story. Such a narrative can be confusing for someone who is trying to make sense of her. But maybe that is the point of the story.

We never try to know people beyond the relationship they share with us. This story challenges that. After all, what can be more intriguing than a son getting to know his mother through the eyes of her cook?