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Alienation, Isolation and Displacement in Interpreter of Maladies

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Alienation, Isolation and Displacement in Interpreter of Maladies essay
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Jhumpa Lahiri herself is the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ in her poignant short-story collection, laying bare universal features of loneliness and isolation. Enlightening experiences in Calcutta empowered the Indian-American author to write from the perspectives of ostensibly dissimilar characters, most of whom are afflicted with the emotional confusion of an outsider, stemming from geographic displacement, migration, familial neglect or lack of communication. These range from a displaced stair sweeper and grief-stricken couple to an eleven-year-old boy in the care of a home-sick Indian wife. Imbued with explicit details of both Indian and American cultures, the tales speak with universal articulateness and empathy to everyone who has ever felt alienated.

The ‘migrant experience’ responsible for evoking feelings of isolation worldwide, personally or indirectly affects all of Lahiri’s characters. Holistically, the anthology voices grave repercussions of India’s diaspora. By focusing in on Boori Ma, a seemingly insignificant stairwell sweeper, Lahiri contends that feelings of seclusion are universal, irrespective of social status, ethnicity or age. Her “deportation to Calcutta after Partition” shapes Boori Ma’s forlorn destiny. She is consequently “separated from a husband, 4 daughters, a 2-story brick house” and a community of people that make her feel home. Despite her initial reception of appreciation from residents in the lower class building that she unofficially guards and voluntarily sweeps, she is still treated like an outsider. “Knowing not to sit on the furniture, she crouche[s], instead in doorways and hallways, and observe[s] gestures and manners is the same way a person tends to watch traffic in a foreign city.” This despondent state exacerbates when Boori Ma is censured for the theft of the building’s new water basin and “tossed” out, homeless and alone on the streets. Although Calcutta becomes Boori Ma’s new home politically, she is yet again banished, this time for allegedly neglecting her duties as ‘A Real Durwan’. By proving that geographical displacement is not the only condition for an exile, Lahiri ultimately enunciates the universal nature of isolation.

‘Mrs. Sen’s’ addresses isolated immigrants worldwide through the distressing depiction of a woman expected to assimilate to a new culture. Mrs. Sen is unable to part with her Indian customs and accept that although “everything is there,” India is no longer her geographical “home”. Mrs. Sen’s lonesome life in America intensifies her craving for face-to-face communication with her family, which is deduced from the solace she seeks in “aerograms” from them and a tape of their voices. The imminent danger of Mrs. Sen’s stubborn attachment to India is symbolised by the knife that she possessively withholds from everyone. This danger emerges when Mrs. Sen’s frustration at being unable to assimilate – symbolised by her inability to drive—culminates into her losing “control of the wheel” and crashing the car. Lahiri, however, contends that Mrs. Sen chooses a secluded life and that there is a possibility of her assimilation to America. The violent “wind, so strong that [she has] to walk back,” signifies the hardship that comes with adapting into America, but Mrs. Sen eventually “shout[s]” in joy, “laughing”, indicating that a different attitude would allow her to enjoy her new surroundings. This hopeful message offered by Lahiri indicates that she acknowledges a wider audience of people who are also struggling to assimilate into a ‘new world’ like Mrs. Sen, emphasising her worldwide implication of ‘isolation’.

Despite stark distinctions between Eliot and Mrs. Sen, neither is devoid of feelings of isolation. Mrs. Sen is perceived through the eyes of the white American 1­1-year-old boy she babysits, who is fascinated by the striking differences between the domestic life of these Indians and his own. Eliot notices that “neither Mr or Mrs Sen [wear] shoes” indoors, while he and his mother “wore flip-flops”. Further, the modesty of the Indians is emphasised to the extent that even their furniture is “so carefully covered” to clearly juxtapose with Eliot’s mother who appears “too exposed”. Save for cultural differences, Eliot and and Mrs. Sen have mirror images in the story; Mrs. Sen’s solitude and failure to entangle with her surroundings spurs Eliot to reflect on his own lonely life. He is utterly bereft of parental affection with a mother who segregates herself “with a glass of wine” or retreats to “the deck to smoke a cigarette” and a father who lives “two thousand miles west”. Eliot’s longing for companionship is confirmed when he stares out at the empty sea, which represents his inner loneliness. His parting from Mrs. Sen is represented by the “grey waves receding from the shore”. This can be likened to Mrs. Sen’s quest for “fresh fish” from the sea, perceived as a search for the company she misses from India. In addition, Eliot and his mother are “not invited” to parties held by their neighbours and likewise, Mrs. Sen feels alienated from the American society, with nowhere to wear her countless number of “saris of every imaginable texture and shade, brocaded with gold and silver threads”. By comparing the unlikely pair, Lahiri contends that isolation does not betide one based on ethnicity, race, gender or age, but that anyone can be a foreigner in their own home.

Lahiri establishes that the universal matter of isolation as a ramification of miscommunication in relationships. The birth of a still-born baby dramatically impacts a once contented married couple, Shoba and Shukumar. The latter recalls that Shoba “kept [his] long fingers linked with hers […] at the party” she had surprised him with, symbolising their former unity. The couple grieves the loss of their baby in silence and consequently grow apart and adopt different personas. Shoba becomes “the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble”. They become “experts at avoiding each other”, and both retreat to their work, Shoba sitting “for hours on the sofa with her coloured pencils and her files” and for months Shukumar detaches himself from the advancing world, occasionally “not even leaving to get the mail”. Failure to confide in each other has detrimental effects on their marriage until they merely sleep under the same roof, but spend “as much time on separate floors as possible”, highlighting their physical and emotional separation. The tragedy that triggers their remoteness is not common to second generation Indian-migrants like Shoba and Shukumar, but Lahiri confirms that “these things [can] happen” to anyone, strengthening her depiction of the universal subject of isolation.

All of Lahiri’s characters suffer from ‘maladies’, either of circumstance or of the heart. Her characters are largely Indian or Indian-American and grapple with predicaments associated with the migrant experience relating to India’s diaspora since the 1947 Partition. While Lahiri correlates a deep sense of isolation and alienation with geographical displacement, she is able to extend these elements to a universal audience through narrating her stories her from diverse angles.

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Alienation, Isolation and Displacement in Interpreter of Maladies. (2018, April 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
“Alienation, Isolation and Displacement in Interpreter of Maladies.” GradesFixer, 25 Apr. 2018,
Alienation, Isolation and Displacement in Interpreter of Maladies. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Aug. 2022].
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