Fiction — audiobook. Read by Matilda Novak. HighBridge, 2005. Originally published 1999. 6 hours, 15 minutes. Library copy.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, Lahiri’s collection of nine short stories address the conflict between one’s identity as an Indian and the America in which the individual now lives. This common theme connects all nine of the stories irregardless of the exact identity of the central character (male or female, Indian or Indian-American or white American) or the location (Boston, New England, India).
In “Mrs. Sen’s”, the title character’s husband insists she learn how to drive following their move from Calcutta to Boston, but she is resistant to the idea insisting her husband can drive her where she needs to go. Her fear leaves her unable to travel to the fish market, which is the one place in the city where she feels connected to her past life in India.
In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, the young, female American-born narrator struggles to understand why her parents no longer consider Mr. Pirzada as an Indian after the geopolitical boundaries of Pakistan, East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), and India shift. To her, Mr. Pirzada still behaves in the same un-American ways of her parents — he takes off his shoes, he eats with his hands, he speaks the same language — and his identity is not tied to these changing borders.
In “This Blessed House”, a newly married couple named Sanjeev and Twinkle find Biblical statutes hidden throughout the house they just purchased in Hartford, Connecticut. Twinkle wants to display the Virgin Mary in their front yard just as many of their neighbors have done, but Sanjeev is uncomfortable with the idea and repeatedly reminds his wife that they are Hindus not Christians.
And in “The Third and Final Continent”, which was my favorite story in the collection, a young man moves from India to London then finally to Boston where he rents a room from a 103-year-old woman. The pair end up forging a friendship because both of them are unaccustomed to life in America today. The quiet and subtle way this friendship is established is rather remarkable given the shortness of the story, but it speaks to how deceptively straightforward Lahiri’s writing style is. She rarely employs overly descriptive adjectives or bothers with complex sentences yet her stories manage to carry such heavy and difficult questions of belong and identity and grief with ease. You can’t skim or tune out the audiobook, which was so nicely narrated by Matilda Novak, least you miss a short yet important sentence.
The final story in the collection also echoes the stylistic choices of the very first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter”. In that particular story, a married couple by the names of Shukumar and Shoba begin to pull apart from one another following the birth of their stillborn baby. Shoba comes up with a “game” for them to pass the time together in which they take turns confessing a secret to one another. If the game is meant to draw them together, it only highlights their distance and how entrapped in their own grief each of them is.
The distance between the characters is amplified for the reader by the way Lahiri choose to tell their story. While the story is told by a third person narrator, the story is titled towards Shukumar’s point of view. His wife’s story and her grief are expressed through his eyes, which removes the reader for what should be palpable grief and keeps Shoba just as much of a mystery for the reader and is she for Shukumar. This stylistic choice is often repeated in the other eight stories helping to develop the same longing to belong and understand for the reader that Lahiri’s characters experience.