Cultural Hybridity in Interpreter of Maladies
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story A Temporary Matter, from Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri narrates the story of Shoba and Shukumar, an Indian couple living in the United States, as they struggle to balance their traditional values with their contemporary lifestyle — the old world with the new — while recovering from the birth of a stillborn child. Lahiri argues that an Indian-American lifestyle makes it impossible for expatriates to entirely retain their former lifestyle or fully adopt a new one, but compels them instead to establish a new hybrid culture they can truly consider their own, often relying heavily on ideas they previously considered foreign.
“…the pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil, depending on whether they were cooking Italian or Indian..
.endless boxes of pasta in all shapes and colors, zippered sacks of basmati rice…” (p.
6) Lahiri incorporates contrast into her description of the couple’s lifestyle to illustrate the hybridity they have established between their cultures. While they adopted Italian cuisine from America, they retained Indian cuisine from their homeland — alternating between “olive” oil and “pasta in all shapes and colors,” to “corn” oil and “zippered sacks of [plain white] basmati rice.” “…
whole sides of lambs and goats from the Muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags.” (p. 6) As Lahiri describes “Muslim” butchers at “Haymarket,” she develops a fusion of East and West within the same phrase, placing them together “chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags.” “‘It’s good of them to warn us [about the electricity repairs],’ Shoba said.” (p.
1) “‘It’s like India…Sometimes the current disappears for hours at a stretch.'” (p. 11) Lahiri demonstrates that it is impossible for Shoba not to compare a power outage in her present to those she once faced in her homeland, inevitably fusing the experiences of her two lives together for eternity.
It is inevitable that she will base her present judgment of the power outage — as well as any other issue in life — on her past in India, where she was likely not forewarned about it. “As a teenager he preferred sailing camp or scooping ice cream during the summers to going to Calcutta. It wasn’t until after his father died, in his last year of college, that the country began to interest him, and he studied its history from course books as if it were any other subject. He wished now that he had his own childhood story of India.” (p.
12) Lahiri demonstrates how it was not initially possible for Shukumar to appreciate and interest himself in the Indian culture which he was foreign to, yet how he later found himself incapable of ignore the country he had descended from. Since he could not be only one — either Indian or American — he longed to be both, pining for some memory of his native land. At one point, Shoba confessed to Shukumar that she had gone to the bar for a drink with a friend when his mother was visiting them, rather than working late as she had told him. Shoba’s lie makes it crystal clear that she understood her responsibility and felt obligated to serve her mother-in-law as a result of her traditional values, yet harbored a desire to live for herself, free from the duties bestowed upon her by her culture. Evidently, the freedom and independence that America has presented to her plays into her choices and justifies her decision to take a reprieve from her obligations.
While she is no longer able to remain a submissive Indian wife and daughter-in-law, she cannot wave goodbye to her mother-in-law — instead, she is forced to respect both her values and her self-dignity, adopting a new lifestyle that allows her a bit of both worlds. Clearly, Lahiri intended for A Temporary Matter to demonstrate the necessity of cultural hybridity in life as an expatriate, emphasizing the impossibility of entirely retaining or adopting a single culture.