Essay: JhumpaLahiri

JhumpaLahiri is the second generation diasporic writer living in the United States. She has to her credit two short story collections and two novels.Lahiri has published many short stories in The New Yorker including “Cooking Lessons: The Long Way Home” in 2004; “Improvisations: Rice” in 2009, and “Reflections: Notes from a Literary Apprenticeship” in 2011. Her writings explore the tribulations of the immigrants in the new world and reveal their craving for wealth and liberty on the one hand and the other hand emptiness and unhappiness and their never-ending quest for identity. The diverse experiences of the displaced Indian women in the process of cross-cultural initiations are poignantly recorded. The first short story collection Interpreter of Maladies consists of nine short stories with India in the background, Boston and beyond. The stories bring to light the on-going struggles of the women prominently in their effort to assert themselves. The longing for identity by all the women characters with all their divided intentions in assimilating in the new world are portrayed deftly by the writer. The present paper examines the struggle and success emanating from the feeling of homelessness of the protagonist of Indian origin in ‘The Treatment of BibiHaldar.’ BibiHaldar’s story is one of the two stories in the collection, set in India. The feeling of ‘Otherness’ and quest for identity in BibiHaldar because of the unknown disease that turns her out to be a complete woman with ‘home’ by giving birth to a child and that turns a new leaf in her life as she is ‘cured’ from the past and takes a fresh breath into her life.

‘The Treatment of BibiHaldar’ is the penultimate story JhumpaLahiri’scollection of stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies. This is one of the three short stories in the collection set India as backdrop. The story is narrated from the third person perspective ‘ the community and the neighbors of the protagonist,BibiHaldar. Bibiis a 29 year-old poor Indian girl living in Calcutta. The lady has been suffering from an unknown ailment and is found to be a victim of ‘alienation’ from her own family in her homeland unlike the other female protagonists of Lahiri. Her recurring perception of ‘becoming woman’ and the identity crisis of ‘being woman’ are poignantly narrated by the author. It is her process of gaining womanhood and fighting against ‘homelessness’ in her own house is the theme which is strikingly narrated in the story. The story colours the various shades of an ‘Indian Woman’ in terms of appearance, practices, expectations and responsibilities of serving a man in a typical Indian environment.

The story revolves around the character BibiHaldar, her strife with her own family members, her constant desire to overcome her unknown illness, her attempts to look good and her yearning to find a husband and become a ‘woman’. The tryst and tyranny of BibiHaldar in unveiling herself from ‘Girl, unstable’ to a ‘cured mother’ and self-sustained woman handling business of her own is depicted in realistically from the Indian perspective by JhumpaLahiri.The feeling of estrangement is the initial feeling which is expressed throughout the story. The story stands out among all the others in the collection as the eight other stories portray the problems and the struggles after marriage and the crisis in marital relationships and this particular story speaks about all her ordeals and efforts in getting into marital relationship and thus become a ‘woman’ in Indian context.

BibiHaldar’s attempts and desires to lead a life of a normal woman is often explicit in the narrative. ‘[‘] wanted a man. [‘] wanted to be spoken for, protected, placed on her path in her life.’ (116)Bibi, who has attained age of marriage, has had a condition since her childhood with an undiagnosed ailment. She has tried every method and visited many doctors and healers but all remain bane in her life. In spite of these endless remedies and suggestions, her disease is never cured. The treatment she is given is found ruthless and hard to endure.

‘In efforts to cure [‘] brought [‘] holy water from seven holy rivers.
Her wrists were bound with ropes [‘]
Auspicious stones adorned her fingers.
Allopaths, homeopaths, ayurvedics ‘ overtime, [‘] had been consulted. Their advice was endless. (158)

With all the pathetic experiences, she lives with heartless couple, her cousin Haldar and his wife, who never cared or loved Bibi. Bibi is always treated as an outsider and her condition was pitiable as she is treated as a bad omen. Her continuous attempts of looking like a woman is understood in her displaying the female consciousness and her yearning for experiencing and exploring ‘female’ in self. She always dreams of getting married with a protective man, blessed with a family of her own. However, Lahiri describing protagonist’s physical appearance writes about the gloomy shade of Indian traditions and beliefs. The belief is strongly rooted in the Indian community especially about a girl to look beautiful for getting married unlike Bibi who ‘[‘] was not pretty.’ (160)Her desire of getting married is constantly said out through her mouth to all her neighbours. The plight of BibiHaldar is made a little easier because of the caring and good-hearted community around; the neighbours are the only solace that is usually expected by many immigrant women in Lahiri’s stories. Her struggle in overcoming her screaming fits and faint is expected to be cured only with ‘marriage’, a mystic notion found in Indian system of dealing with such illness of a woman. ‘They say it’s the only hope. ‘A case of over-excitement’ [‘] ‘relations will calm her blood.’ (162)

JhumpaLahiri is implicit in her description about the Indian version of female identity through BibiHaldar in the story. A girl is to be brought up in a typical way i.e. to be ready-to-serve man after marriage. However, this particular value system is noticed in all her short stories, a persistent Indian style of living for the immigrants away from home. Bibi, in this way is considered a na??ve, impractical in most of the daily routines as she ‘had never been taught to be a woman.’ (163) The brutal treatment of brother and brother’s wife towards her by keeping her away from little comforts and enjoyments in life make her feel that she is an exile to her ‘home’, and her own people. Lahiri circumspectly describes the social system prevailing in India, where a girl is made to feel content and blessed only when she is married and has her real ‘home’ and family in terms of husband, children and in-laws in her life. The constant desire of an Indian- brought-up girl for marriage in spite of her illness and inability to meet the expectations of an eligible bride is a real time set up of the importance of marriage in a woman’s life. Especially, in a value studded country like India, girls are treated as ‘amaanat’ the property of ‘others’- here it is the family into which she enters after marriage. The obsession of becoming one such worthy ‘amaanat’, Bibi often gets panicky and beaten up with the vicious ordeals in getting married. The story of BibiHaldar, typically reminds the readers about the way the women in world need to be respected as mentioned in theManusmriti 3.55:

pujyabhushayitavyashcabahukalyanamipsubhih ||

‘”Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law, who desire (their own) welfare. “

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