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Issues Of Transnationalism In Interpreter of Maladies

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Today transnationalism seems to be everywhere and across numerous disciplines. This expansion of interest is evident in a rapidly increasing number of publications, conferences and projects within the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, law, economics and history, as well as in interdisciplinary fields such as international relations, development studies, business studies, ethnic and racial studies, gender studies, religious studies, media and cultural studies. {Vertovec, 1} The meaning of transnationalism that has been gaining most attention recently is called transnational migration, which is defined as “a process of movement and settlement across international borders in which individuals maintain or build multiple networks of connection to their country of origin to while at the same time settling in a new country”. {Cordero-Guzmán, Smith, Grosfoguel, 60}

This state of living away from the country of origin bears the negative connotation of being in exile and this feeling of exile creates some sort of dual or multiple identifications in the Transnational or diasporic consciousness of the individual. This awareness of “multi-locality” stimulates the desire to connect oneself with others from the country of origin who share the same “routes” and “roots”. {Vertovec, 6}

For Stuart Hall “the condition of diaspora or transnationalism comprises ever-changing representations that provide an imaginary coherence for a set of malleable identities.” Robin Cohen develops Hall’s point with the observation that “a diaspora can, to some degree, be held together or re-created through the mind, through cultural artifacts and through a shared imagination.” Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge also tackled this subject of diaspora or transnationalism and suggested that “whatever their form or trajectory, diasporas always leave a trail of collective memory about another place and time and create new maps of desire and of attachment, Yet these are often collective memories whose archaeology is fractured”. {Vertovec, 6}

This issue of Diaspora or transnationalism is very prominent in the domain of literature and this category of transnational literature or writing has come to form and integral part of literature and a way of self-expression. As a literature that reflects the displaced state of the author, diasporic or transnational writing is influenced by the condition of exile and it is also informed by a nostalgic desire and longing to reunite with the lost homeland that has been left during the migration.

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of prominent figures in this field of Diasporic writing. She was born in London to Bengali parents who had migrated from Calcutta. However, Jhumpa Lahiri was not really brought up in England. She was raised primarily in the America where her parents migrated to when she was a child. More recently, Lahiri has moved again and now she resides in Italy. Her move to Italy has only stressed the sense of her being a marginal entity who does not fully belong to any one particular culture and who cannot firmly identify one particular place as home. This history of moving and travelling from one place to another and being without settling and having a fixed home made Jhumpa Lahiri develop some sort of transnational identity, which created for her a unique location in the “gaps” or spaces of different cultures. She writes from a position of “marginality where limits of different cultures meet” and from within which she can look at these different cultures, combine various elements, and write about them. {Chattopadhyay,}

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of maladies that won the Pulitzer price is one of her most important works, which tackles the issue of transnationalism and Diaspora. It is a series of short stories that talk about Indian people who have migrated and left their homeland for one reason or another and are now living in the United States. One of these short stories is

Mrs. Sin which is narrated by an American boy named Eliot and it tells of the time that Eliot spent with his first generation Bengali baby sitter whom he only knows as Mrs. Sin.

From the very beginning, we notice that we do not know the full name of Mrs. Sin. She is known in the novel only as the wife or Mr. Sin; A Bengali who migrated to the United States to take up a job of teaching mathematics at the university. Therefore, Mrs. Sen identity in America refers back not to her individual identity or self but refers back to her husband who has a job in an American university and this tells us that there is some sort of lack or loss in Mrs. Sen’s identity which can be seen as a result from her movement from her country of origin. After all, this migration from Calcutta to America has meant for Mrs. Sen a painful “uprooting” from her familiar Bengali social culture, environment and most importantly from her family. we see that she feels distressed and unsettled at this new place {America} also she feels a deep nostalgia and longing to her homeland {Calcutta}, which she still considers her true home not the place where she is now: {Chattopadhyay,}

“Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?”

“Mrs. Sen, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I am only asking if someone would come.” Eliot shrugged. “Maybe.”

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“At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements.”

By then Eliot understood that when Mrs. Sen said home, she meant India, not the apartment where she sat. {Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies, 63}

To fill this sense of lack that the loss of her homeland creates, Mrs. Sen tries to cling to the memory of the smallest details that gave substance to her life in Calcutta and to achieve that she resorts to different means. One of those means is her repeatedly re-reading the letters that she occasionally receives from her people back home in an attempt to escape her reality and feel as if she is back home:

Two things, Eliot learned, made Mrs. Sen happy. One was the arrival of a letter from her family. It was her custom to check the mailbox after driving practice…. She seized the letter from his hands. As soon as they were inside the apartment, she kicked off her slippers this way and that, drew a wire pin from her hair, and slit the top and sides of the aerogram in three strokes. Her eyes darted back and forth as she read. As soon as she was finished, she cast aside the embroidery that covered the telephone, dialed, and asked, “Yes, is Mr. Sen there, please? It is Mrs. Sen and it is very important.” Subsequently she spoke in her own language, rapid and riotous to Eliot’s ears; it was clear that she was reading the contents of the letter, word by word. As she read, her voice was louder and seemed to shift in key. Though she stood plainly before him, Eliot had the sensation that Mrs. Sen was no longer present in the room with the pear colored carpet. {Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies, 65-66}

Another way of escaping the reality of her current situation is her listening to the familiar sounds of Indian classical music and her relatives talking in native tongue on cassette tapes:

One day she played a tape of something, she called a raga; it sounded a little bit like someone plucking very slowly and then very quickly on a violin, and Mrs. Sen said it was supposed to be heard only in the late afternoon, as the sun was setting. As the music played, for nearly an hour, she sat on the sofa with her eyes closed. Afterward she said, “It is more sad even than your Beethoven, isn’t it?” Another day she played a cassette of people talking in her language—a farewell present, she told Eliot, that her family had made for her. As the succession of voices laughed and said their bit, Mrs. Sen identified each speaker. “My third uncle, my cousin, my father, my grandfather.” One speaker sang a song. Another recited a poem. The final voice on the tape belonged to Mrs. Sen’s mother. It was quieter and sounded more serious than the others. There was a pause between each sentence, and during this pause, Mrs. Sen translated for Eliot: “The price of goat rose two rupees. The mangoes at the market are not very sweet. College Street is flooded.” She turned off the tape. “These are things that happened the day I left India.” The next day she played the same cassette all over again. {Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies, 68-69}

The sari, which is a traditional Indian dress, is also one of the things, which reminded Mrs. Sen of her homeland. However she cannot wear it in America and so, the saris she have in her closet are destined to linger there “hidden, unworn and therefor invisible”. The closet in particular “vividly represent the displacement and migration from the homeland with their contents {the saris} synonymous with memories of a past life; when in cupboards, saris are far removed from the ordinariness and tedium of present life”: {Mehta, 141}

She flung open the drawers of the bureau and the door of the closet, filled with saris of every imaginable texture and shade, brocaded with gold and silver threads. Some were transparent, tissue thin, others as thick as drapes, with tassels knotted along the edges. In the closet they were on hangers; in the drawers they were folded flat, or wound tightly like thick scrolls. She sifted through the drawers, letting saris spill over the edges. “When have I ever worn this one? And this? And this?” She tossed the saris one by one from the drawers, then pried several from their hangers. {Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies, 67}

Most importantly, she tries to recreate her lost homeland through her cooking of Bengali dishes, particularly fish. “The aura of solemnity surrounding the preparation of the fish seems to comply with Bhatia’s idea of routine and ritual as ingredients with which to recreate Indian culture abroad”: {Pazo, 75}

in the apartment, she pulled the blade out of the cupboard, spread newspapers across the carpet, and inspected her treasures. One by one she drew them from the paper wrapping, wrinkled and tinged with blood. She stroked the tails, prodded the bellies, pried apart the gutted flesh. With a pair of scissors she clipped the fins. She tucked a finger under the gills, a red so bright they made her vermilion seem pale. She grasped the body, lined with inky streaks, at either end, and notched it at intervals against the blade. {Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies, 68}

Now these very attempts to live the memories of Calcutta in America and to transform the American space into a Bengali home creates for Mrs. Sen a high tension and a “cocoon of isolation” that cut her from the immediate reality outside. This tension between the outside reality of America and the inside Bengali reality that Mrs. Sen creates within her apartment reach a breaking point when one day Mrs. Sen decides to drive herself with Eliot being with her in the car in an attempt to buy some fish from the market. Now this very attempt by Mrs. Sen to get this fish from the outside American space ends in a minor accident in which neither Eliot nor Mrs. Sen is very hurt. Nonetheless, Eliot’s mother stops sending Eliot to Mrs. Sen and the last thing that Eliot remembers about Mrs. Sen is the sound of crying coming out of the bedroom of her apartment within which Mrs. Sen had locked herself. In a way, Mrs. Sen with her powerlessness to break free from the cocoon of memory of a remembered homeland and her inability to connect with the outside space resulted ultimately in her psychological breakdown. {Chattopadhyay,}

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