I tend to read with my head more than my heart. I like to see how ideas develop through story and how writers put words together in interesting ways. It’s a rare book that moves me to tears. It’s not that I’m impervious to melancholy moods. I just usually experience the sadness more intellectually than emotionally. So, when I read the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s interpreter of maladies and found myself teary-eyed in the end, I had to wonder at this. As I read, I continued to feel a more emotional connection to the stories than I am accustomed to. Sure, this in part has to do with the subject matter, but what I’d like to explore here is how the author’s use of varying sentence structures contribute to this affect, how they are akin to a kind of background music, playing on feeling in that way that songs do.
Lahiri’s prose often follows one of two kinds of rhythms. Beginning with a concise statement and unraveling details and commas from there, as in this paragraph beginning from “Sexy”: “It shamed her now. now, when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon” (96). Or, starting with rolling sentences and then ending with a concise statement, as in this paragraph from the same story: “By February, Laxmi’s cousin’s husband still hadn’t some to his senses. He had returned to Montreal, argued bitterly with his wife for two weeks, packed two suitcases, and flown back to London. He wanted a divorce” (99). This luring and delivering rhythm suits the fact that Lahiri is deeply concerned with the inner emotional lives of her characters and how that impacts them and the people around them. The way she delivers dialogue compliments this rhythm.
If you look at the way she delivers dialogue in “Temporary Matters”, you can see this clearly. There are never more than a few lines of dialogue at a time. In between comes the mise en scene, described so sparingly, but so specifically to suggest that those details are symbolic to what is happening with and between the characters, as in this passage where Shoba and Shukumar are finally talking, sharing things that they’ve never told each other after barely interacting for what appears to be at least several months, perhaps years:
“Your turn,” she said, stopping his thoughts.
At the end of their street Shukumar heard sounds of a drill and the electricians shouting over it. He looked at the darkened facades of the houses lining the street. Candles glowed in the windows of one. In spite of the warmth, smoke rose from the chimney. (17)
The reminder here of the light/dark imagery that throughout the story symbolizes how the character conceal and then reveal their inner lives to each other, added to the chaos of the drills and the shouting foreshadow what is to come for these characters in finally divulging their secrets. They will ultimately have to admit the biggest secret of all: they have fallen out of love with each other.
The entire collection taken as a whole has a similar kind of rhythm. One could consider each story before the last as being a rolling sentence. They all have open endings. The final story in the collection, however, is so clean, so wrapped up:
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. (198)
And in these last few lines, the reader cannot help but feel the connection between all the stories, that they are individual songs connected by their interests in singing the inner lives of ordinary men and women.