What makes an object startling and strange is its lack of presence in everyday life. The unfamiliar evokes in people a sense of beauty and a need to understand that which they do not know. The foreign is both frightening -- for we do not know what may come of it -- and appealing -- for we wish to delve into its background and know its secrets. Jhumpa Lahiri is no slouch when it comes to understanding the intimate relationship humans have with the foreign, and many of her short stories in Interpreter of Maladies are centered on how the characters feel about and react to the foreign. Most notable among these tales is “Sexy”, where the unknown seems to be what brings people together as well as the very thing that tears them apart. Lahiri uses the foreign to allow the reader to more thoroughly identify with her characters. Their inability to grasp new concepts and/or change and adapt with their surroundings gives readers a more intimate portrait of their own lives. Perhaps the unknown is the sibling of excitement, and where one goes, the other follows. Lahiri seeks to regale her readers with the mysteriousness of her characters’ backgrounds. Like getting a thrill from a roller-coaster ride in the dark, Lahiri’s characters are both twisted and exciting.
Those who seek beauty in the foreign are clearly represented in “Sexy”, “Interpreter of Maladies” and “This Blessed House”. “Sexy” features the mistress Miranda who has for reasons she cannot comprehend, fallen in love with an Indian man, Dev. This story in particular features the beauty and power of the unknown. Sexiness itself is defined by 7-year-old Rohin as “loving someone you don’t know”(107). According to this child, sexiness and foreignness are wrapped up and knotted around each other, sexiness does not exist without the foreign. “Interpreter of Maladies” also agrees with the child’s idea. Mr. Kapasi is drawn to the oblivious Mrs. Das because she is so unlike anyone he has ever met before. She is self-centered and Americanized and he finds himself falling in love with her over the course of a single day. “This Blessed House” is slightly different in that instead of conveying sexiness, the foreign is simply intriguing. Twinkle, who is Hindu, adores the strange Christian paraphernalia she finds throughout her home. Despite her frequent arguments with her husband, Sanjeev, she becomes more and more wrapped up in the game of finding these odd ornaments, and eventually falls so in love with them that she ignores her husband’s pleas for a return to normalcy, choosing instead to continue to collect the objects obsessively.
In each of the stories, the foreign is pleasing and the characters become immersed in the world of the foreign in their attempts to satiate their needs. The differences between these stories, however is far more interesting. While “sexy” Miranda struggles with writing her name in Bengali to get more of Dev in her life, she also recognizes Dev’s wife as part of the foreign and feels threatened by it. Possibly, Lahiri uses this duality of feelings to represent the two-sided aspects of foreign – the thrill and the threat. Dev’s wife is as threatening in her unknown beauty as Dev is thrilling for his elegant manners and knowledge of the world. This dichotomy is represented differently in “This Blessed House” because Twinkle sees nothing but the positive aspects of the objects she hordes. It is Sanjeev who sees danger in each object’s existence. In this case, it is not one character seeing the foreign in two ways, but two characters who, through their combined understanding of the objects, complete each other more thoroughly. Like a coin with two sides, the understanding of “foreign” must go both ways to be of any value. This is a lesson also seen in “Interpreter of Maladies”. While Mr. Kapasi worships Mrs. Das in his mind because of her foreign nature, he also sees the cruel side of her, which seems strange to him. Jhumpa Lahiri’s distinctions between the light and the dark side of the foreign are clearly represented in these three stories by the characters who struggle to see the distinctions for themselves.
Beauty is not the only aspect of the foreign, and Lahiri acknowledges another side of the foreign in “A Temporary Matter” and “Sexy”. The factor that is shared by these two stories is the view of the foreign as safe. In “Temporary Matter”, Lahiri tells of a couple who has lived together for so long that they no longer feel any thrill at being together. They are rarely in the same room together and avoid each other when walking through the house. When the electric company forces the lights out at dinner-time, the husband and wife seek solace in the unknown dark and speak to each other. They feel safer together in the dark because they are unsure of their partners’ reactions and this makes it easier to discuss things they never would never otherwise discuss. In “Sexy”, Miranda feels safety in Dev’s foreignness perhaps because he is so aware of the world around him. He is constantly teaching her about his own country and about the geography of the earth. Miranda seeks safety in Dev’s worldliness in light of her own lack of knowledge. And yet, this safety too is different in each example. In “Temporary Matter”, Lahiri stresses the fact that what is most unknown to the characters are the facts about each other. They live in a world so blinded by their own needs that it takes the darkness that they are unaccustomed to in order to feel safe admitting their deepest secrets. Lahiri shows Miranda becoming lost in the shuffle when Dev’s wife (the representation of foreignness) is introduced to the equation. Here too are the flip sides of foreignness: a side that opens people up and brings them together, and another side which shuts relationships down, forcing people apart.
Finally, Lahiri uses the foreign as a sign of something different. Of course, this is exactly what the foreign is, but it is a way towards segregation and misrepresentation. The reader struggles along with Lilia in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” to recognize Mr. Pirzada’s differences. Lilia, as a young child, sees Mr. Pirzada as someone very similar to her own parents. In the eyes of a young child, the foreign does not seem foreign. To both Lilia and the reader, Mr. Pirzada seems to be very much like her own parents. It is not until Lilia’s father tells her that Mr. Pirzada is different that she starts to look for ways that he is unlike her own family. It is this innocence that draws readers in because they can recognize the discreet references to segregation. How strange it seems when Lilia decides in her innocence that what makes Pirzada different is his pocket watch! Although Pirzada is not different from her parents, Lilia is convinced that he must be different from her own family. In this case, at least, the foreign is not so truly foreign. In “Sexy”, Miranda is in the new situation of being a mistress. Because of the novelty of this role, she does not contemplate what she is doing. But when Rohin describes his father’s affair, it becomes painfully apparent to the reader that Miranda is not in a foreign situation after all. She realizes her ability to hurt people when she recognizes that she is mirroring the events of Rohin’s father’s affair. Her actions, once excusable, now have weighty consequences, and as a result, she begins to change her understanding and her view of the foreign. In both “Sexy” and “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, it is the malleability and the personal understanding of the foreign that brings insight to the readers.
The dichotomy of the foreign leads the reader on some interesting pathways. When regarding Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, it is easy to see that “foreign” may have many different definitions. Foreignness, or at least the perception of it, acts in many different roles, as an attractant, as a repellant, as a source of discomfort and/or a provider of safety. Throughout the collection of short stories, the reader makes the connections, delves into his or her own personal definitions of the foreign, and processes how other people might view those definitions. Certainly, the foreign is an indistinct issue, one that fades in and out in meaning with the light shined on it. Through Lahiri’s cleverly written tales, the reader is allowed to view the issue of foreignness from multiple angles and is perhaps expected to have a more thorough comprehension through the many perceptions of the unknown. Just as the couple in “This Blessed House” complements each other through their different perceptions of the foreign, the multiple angles and definitions of foreignness aggregate to give the reader a comprehensive view of what constitutes foreignness.