In college, one of the books that repeatedly appeared on English course syllabi was Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. A collection of near-perfect short stories, Lahiri’s writing was a revelation for me. Never before had I encountered prose so beautiful in its simplicity within stories that so clearly illuminated the difficulties of defining home and self as an immigrant to this country.
When I received my offer to teach English at my current school and learned I would be teaching an elective course in Contemporary Literature that lacked a firm curriculum, I decided I had to use Lahiri’s stories somehow. I experimented with a few different selections, but always included the final story in the collection, “The Third and Final Continent.” It depicts the experiences of its male narrator as he moves from India to London to Cambridge, MA to take a job working in one of MIT’s libraries. In the midst of these transitions, he stops back in India to attend his own wedding, arranged for him by his brother. Thus, when his wife, Mala, joins him in Cambridge, they are strangers to one another. Yet there is a moment the narrator recalls as the one where the distance between them begins to shrink. It is a moment in which he awakens to his wife’s vulnerability as a very fresh immigrant and feels a genuine connection and kinship to her given this experience they hold in common. From that small moment, love and respect are born.
On the surface, the story may seem like a tough sell to 18 year-old kids who are primarily white and native to this country. However, at the end of the story, the narrator reflects on the thirty years he has spent with Mala in America, raising a family and growing old together:
“I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
Can I tell you something? These last sentences, this is why I love this story and why I have my students read it, despite their preoccupation with the “strangeness” of arranged marriages. I try to push them past that foreign bit to the universal core contained in the above lines. Because even though my experiences are so vastly different from this narrator, I feel the truth of what he says. While it’s true my life has not taken me to live for any length of time on three continents, and my achievements may seem ordinary, I still find myself bewildered at times by what I have done, the places I have been, and the people I have met. Partially, I think this sense of awe is currently influenced by the reality of our quickly approaching move into our new home and the possibility of a new job for me next fall. But it is perhaps also just one of many common human experiences, this sense of looking back in amazement at all the space and time one covers over a lifetime. I think this is a valuable idea to share with graduating seniors, because my suspicion is they might see the truth of it one day, too.