Vulnerability and Narrative: The Hazards of Exposure in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fiction

Barbara A. Schapiro

Rhode Island College

The Latin root of the word “vulnerable” means wound. The term involves an opening or exposure and the susceptibility to pain. In a psychoanalytic context, we think of vulnerability in terms of the undoing of ego defenses, a collapsing of those barriers that protect us from emotional pain. Most often that pain involves our dependency on others, a dependency that exposes us to rejection, loss, and shame. Without vulnerability to the pain of dependency, however, the experience of genuine intimacy or love is not possible.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri (1999, 2008, 2015) is perhaps one of our finest contemporary chroniclers of the complications involved with such emotional vulnerability. Her work reveals a contradictory dynamic at play: on the one hand, the wish to open ourselves fully, to be exposed and vulnerable in order to be understood, known, and therefore loved; and on the other, an equally compelling need to remain private and protected, to secure a secret self that is invulnerable to the outside world. Her characters often harbor secrets—secrets invariably involving loss and shame‑—and her plots revolve around the revelation of those secrets and the often unexpected consequences. The hazards of self-exposure and intimacy, along with a recurrent alternation between closeness and distance, not only characterize the central themes of her fiction, but inform her imagery and narrative perspective as well.

The paradoxical dynamics of vulnerability that distinguish Lahiri’s work can be illuminated by Donald Winnicott’s (1963) ideas in his paper “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” In it he writes of discovering in himself a need to assert “the right not to communicate . . . a protest from the core of me to the frightening fantasy of being infinitely exploited” (p. 179). He also refers to this fantasy as “the fantasy of being found” (p. 179).  He goes on to explain, “Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound” (p. 187). This view can help us to understand the contradictory fantasies involved in the communication or exposure of secrets in two Lahiri stories from her collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999).

The opening story in the volume, “A Temporary Matter,” concerns a young, married Indian American couple, Shoba and Shukumar, who are each lost in their own private grief over the death six months earlier of their baby, who was stillborn. “They had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house,” we are told, “spending as much time on separate floors as possible” (p. 4). Both have become sealed and isolated. Shoba has thrown herself into her work, while Shukumar has become lethargic, unable to leave the house. The story begins with their receiving a notice that for the next five days their electricity will be cut off for one hour each evening due to power line repairs, the “temporary matter” of the title. The first night the power goes out Shoba recalls that during power outages in India as a child, family members were all made to share something in the dark. This leads her to propose to Shukumar that they do the same, that they “tell each other something we’ve never told before” (p. 13).

And so for this temporary period, each night in the dark they reveal to the other a private, shameful secret, the “little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves” (p. 18). At first the confessions are fairly harmless: Shoba admits that the first time she came to Shuk’s apartment, she peeked in his address book to see if she was in it; while he relates how he was so distracted by his feelings for her on their first date that he forgot to tip the waiter, returning to the restaurant the next morning to do so. As the evenings progress, however, the secrets become more shameful. Shoba reveals that she lied to him about working late when his mother was visiting; that she didn’t like a poem he had published; and that she failed to alert him to a dab of pate on his chin at an event while he was speaking to the chairman of his department. Shuk admits that he cheated on a college exam, that he exchanged a sweater-vest she had bought him as a gift, and that while she was pregnant, he ripped out a photo of a woman from a fashion magazine and carried it with him for a week. As the reader expects, these confessions in the dark effectively serve to bring them closer together, and on the fourth night, we are told that they “made love with a desperation they had forgotten” (p. 19).

The narrative point of view of this story is third person, limited to Shukumar. We hear what Shoba says, but we are never privy to her inner thoughts and feelings as we are with Shuk. Thus we are as shocked as he when on the fifth evening, after a candlelit dinner in the dark, even though the power has been restored, Shoba turns on the lights to reveal her final secret: she has been looking for an apartment, has found one, and is moving out. We are told that Shukumar is “sickened” yet also “relieved” (p. 21). He then divulges his ultimate secret: their baby was a boy and he had held him in his arms in the hospital while Shoba slept, before he was taken away. Shoba had wanted the baby’s sex to be a surprise, and Shuk had promised himself never to tell her. Shoba’s face contorts with sorrow; she turns the lights off, the two sit at the table in the dark, and the story concludes, “They wept together, for the things they now knew” (p. 22).

To me this story is heartbreaking. It shatters the fantasy that if one’s most vulnerable, shameful self is exposed to the beloved other, it will be understood, accepted, indeed loved. We think the story is going in that direction, only to have the rug pulled out from under us. Lahiri understands the limitations of ever fully knowing the private inner world of another human being. This view is continually enforced by the narrative perspective of her stories, which is almost always limited to a single character, and most often, as with this story, in third person rather than first. The intimacy and identification that the reader would experience with a first-person narrator is eschewed in favor of the more distant third.

Yet as distant and sad as this story is, it is not completely bleak or despairing of the possibility of closeness, love, or genuine intimacy. Towards the beginning of the story, in the midst of the blackout, Shuk and Shoba observe an elderly neighbor couple, the Bradfords, walking their dog together down the street. Shuk sees them once again at the very end of the story, (before that mournful final sentence), “walking arm in arm” in the “still warm” evening (p. 22). One could interpret the warmth and closeness that the Bradfords represent as serving, by contrast, only to make the lack in Shuk and Shoba’s relationship all the more sharp and painful. Still, the very presence of this couple suggests hope in the possibility of lasting intimacy. Shuk and Shoba also seem to me better off at the end of the story than at the beginning: they have confronted and shared their secret shame and grief, and they are weeping “together” even as their permanent separation is acknowledged. Some of my students have in fact read the story more optimistically, believing that the couple’s last moment of shared sorrow and truth suggests the possibility of mending the marriage. Though that is not my experience of the ending, one of the strengths of Lahiri’s fiction is that it can allow for competing interpretations as it inhabits paradox without needing to resolve it. At the end of the story, Shuk and Shoba are at once together and separate, open and closed, and this paradoxical state again calls to mind the contradictory motions in Winnicott’s view of human communication at the deepest level.

“Interpreter of Maladies,” the title story of the collection, deals similarly with the exposure of secrets and the fantasy that if our most secret, vulnerable self is revealed, it will be understood and embraced. The story is set in India where the Indian American Das family is sightseeing, led by their guide, Mr. Kapasi. It soon becomes apparent that the Das marriage is strained. As Mr. Das takes photographs at some of the sights, Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi converse in the car. She learns that when not serving as a tour guide, Mr. Kapasi works as an interpreter for a local doctor, translating patients’ symptoms and maladies. Mrs. Das finds his occupation impressive and “romantic”—he has the responsibility of communicating and making meaning out of other peoples’ pain and suffering. “So these patients are totally dependent on you,” she tells him, “In a way, more dependent on you than the doctor” (p. 51).

Mr. Kapasi, however, views his job as “a sign of his failings. . . . In his youth . . . he had dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides” (p. 52). He also associates the job with the death of his son at age seven from typhoid. The doctor he works for was his son’s physician. Mr. Kapasi had originally taken the position to help pay the medical bills. His wife, unlike Mrs. Das, “had little regard for his career as an interpreter” (p. 53) as it only reminded her of their lost son and, we are told, she resented his ability to help save other lives. Here, as in “A Temporary Matter,” a dead child lies at the source of a shattered marriage. From a psychoanalytic perspective, perhaps it is the terrible vulnerability of a helpless, dependent child that always unconsciously threatens intimacy in Lahiri’s world.

Mrs. Das’s romanticizing of Mr. Kapasi’s occupation spurs some equally romantic fantasizing about her within him. Mrs. Das hands him a scrap of paper and asks him to write down his address so that she can send him copies of the photographs her husband is taking. This leads Mr. Kapasi to imagine them carrying on a secret correspondence: “In time she would reveal the disappointments of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish” (p. 55). He dreams of an idealized communication between them in which “He would explain things to her, things about India, and she would explain things to him about America. In its own way this correspondence would fulfill his dream, of serving as an interpreter between nations” (p. 59).

Eventually, as Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi converse, Mrs. Das reveals a secret: one of her children, her son Bobby, is not her husband’s. She explains that no one knows and that she has kept it to herself for eight years. She tells Mr. Kapasi that she felt overwhelmed by motherhood and so isolated and lonely in her marriage that she made love one afternoon to a temporary houseguest, a friend of her husband’s. She describes how terrible this secret has made her feel and of the terrible urges she has experienced since, including, she says, “the urge to throw everything I own out the window, the television, the children, everything” (p. 65). After this revelation, she presses Mr. Kapasi to speak and interpret her suffering. She expects that this exposure of her pain will elicit his empathy and understanding. “I’ve been in pain eight years,” she cries, “I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy” (p. 65).

Mrs. Das’s confession, however, only serves to shatter Mr. Kapasi’s illusions about her. He is “depressed” by her revelation and feels “insulted that Mrs. Das should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret” (p. 66). He asks, “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?” (p. 66). The story ends as a group of monkeys attack Bobby. Once again, a vulnerable child is at risk. Mrs. Das’s carelessness is partially responsible as she has spilled some puffed rice that attracted the animals. Mr. Kapasi chases the monkeys away. The story’s final image is of the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address falling out of Mrs. Das’s purse and fluttering away in the wind.

As with “A Temporary Matter,” the narrative perspective of this story is third person, limited to the male character, in this case Mr. Kapasi. We understand Mrs. Das only through her dialogue and Mr. Kapasi’s descriptions of her. We are granted access into his consciousness alone, and thus our sympathy and identification are primarily with him. It is curious that Lahiri, as a female writer, should choose so often to narrate her stories through the perspective of her male characters. The central female character remains, to varying degrees, an object of mystery, of the male’s fantasies, and ultimately of rejection or betrayal. Thinking psychoanalytically, it is perhaps the untrustworthiness of the female in Lahiri’s fiction, associated as well with the maternal, that makes the exposure of secrets and vulnerability so particularly risky. This may shed some light on the prevalence of those dead or threatened children in her work as well.

The symbolic imagery in “Intepreter of Maladies” plays with an alternating dynamic between intimacy and distance. Mr. Kapasi and the Das family visit the sun temple in Konarak where they view the sculpted wheels of a chariot, representing the wheel of life, and carved with “countless friezes of entwined naked bodies, making love in various positions, women clinging to the necks of men, their knees wrapped eternally around their lovers’ thighs” (p. 57). This reminds Mr. Kapasi that he has never even seen his own wife naked. He then fantasizes about Mrs. Das:

He looked at her straw bag, delighted that his address lay nestled among its contents. When he pictured her so many thousands of miles away he plummeted, so much so that he had an overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around her, to freeze with her, even for an instant, in an embrace witnessed by his favorite Surya. But Mrs. Das had already started walking. (p. 59)

The description of the address “nestled” in the bag is indeed almost womblike. The fantasy of an idealized intimacy and erotic embrace is countered by the reality in the above passage of the woman walking away. Similarly, the scrap of paper on which Mr. Kapasi writes his address, having been ripped from Mrs. Das’s magazine, contains on it “a tiny picture of a hero and heroine embracing under a eucalyptus tree” (p. 55), further enforcing the idealized fantasy that is lost in the wind at the end. Finally, Mr. Kapasi takes the family to visit a sight “where a number of monastic dwellings were hewn out of the ground, facing one another across a defile” (p. 60). A defile or chasm repeatedly separates Lahiri’s characters, opposing the yearning for closeness and union that equally defines them.

While Lahiri’s characters often seek to expose their secrets and exhibit their wounds in a bid for love or understanding, the stories as a whole seem to recognize that the individual is ultimately and inviolably isolate. From Winnicott’s perspective, this is not necessarily something to mourn or lament. “At the center of each person,” he argues, “is an incommunicado element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation” (p. 187). The personal core of the self needs to remain invulnerable to exploitation from the outside world. The question Winnicott poses so perceptively is: “How to be isolated without having to be insulated” (p. 187), a question that Lahiri explores as well.

In a series of three linked stories in her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), Lahiri presents the character Kaushik, an aloof and emotionally remote photojournalist, who has never fully grieved the death of his mother when he was a child. He is drawn to war zones and refugee camps, but confesses to feeling “untouched” and “unmoved” when behind the camera. Towards the end of the final story, he finds himself on a beach in Thailand. He had once almost drowned off the coast of Venezuela, we are told, and “since then he had not swum in the ocean, no longer trusting it” (p. 325). He recalls that his mother had loved the water. A fellow vacationer convinces him to take a small boat out to a reef. Once on the water, he “felt the sun strike his skin. He wanted to swim to the cove . . . to show his mother he was not afraid. . . . He held on to the edge of the boat, swinging his legs over the side, lowering himself. The sea was as warm and welcoming as a bath. His feet touched the bottom, and so he let go” (p. 331). The story breaks and switches point of view after that, and we learn a few pages later that Kaushik had been in Thailand at the onset of the 2004 tsunami, and that he has drowned.

Here that most maternal of images, the sea, proves once again to be treacherous in Lahiri’s world. Yet that is clearly not the whole story. Though it results in his death, Kaushik’s immersion in the sea also represents, as Lahiri writes it, a moment of profound release and a blissful letting go. I am reminded of Winnicott’s remark, reflecting his usual penchant for paradox, “May I be alive when I die” (C. Winnicott, 1989, p. 4). One’s death cannot be shared—no escaping the self’s ultimate isolation there—but the key is not to be insulated from emotional aliveness even, or perhaps especially, at the moment of death.

Winnicott believes that the “hard fact” of the individual’s permanent isolation is “softened by the sharing that belongs to the whole range of cultural experience” (p. 187). The dilemma he describes of “the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found” (p. 185) is most evident, he claims, in the artist. Such contradiction might best be expressed in metaphor and might also, according to Winnicott, “account for the fact that we cannot conceive of an artist’s coming to the end of the task that occupies his whole nature” (p. 185). This in turn can help us to appreciate the repeated contradictions involving communication and self-exposure in Lahiri’s fiction. As Winnicott understood, one purpose of art and literature is to bare our wounds and thus to help us feel less alone in our aloneness.

Addendum:  After this paper was written and delivered at the 2015 IFPE conference, Lahiri published a fascinating article in The New Yorker (2015, Dec. 7) about teaching herself Italian. The piece traces her obsession with learning the language and reveals that she is now writing exclusively in Italian. (The article was translated from Italian into English.) Her reflections on this process highlight the same paradoxical dynamics as discussed in my paper: secrecy and exposure; the desire to be known and to hide; to transgress and to protect the self. The article also touches on the uneasy relationship with the maternal that I observed in her fiction. She refers to Bengali, her mother’s language, as her “mother tongue” but with which she feels a “disjunction,” a “distance,” an “absence” (p. 30). English is her “stepmother,” but she needs to reject both mothers in a bid to discover a separate, independent expression of self.

As Lahiri writes in her secret Italian diary, she takes pleasure in the fact that “No one suspects, no one knows. I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me” (p. 34).  She continues, “I rediscover the reason that I write, the joy as well as the need. I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read” (p. 34). Yet she claims that her “sole intention” is “to be understood, and to understand myself” (p. 34). She wants to be visible, understood, and known, but not too visible or known. “All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible” (p. 35). Her success as a writer, however, has made her feel too visible and recognized. She concludes that she feels “more protected when I write in Italian, even though I’m also more exposed,” and though she feels that “a new language covers me,” it is “a permeable covering—I’m almost without a skin” (p. 36).

References

Lahiri, J. (1999). Interpreter of maladies. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Lahiri, J. (2008). Unaccustomed earth. New York, NY: Knopf.

Lahiri, J. (2015, Dec. 7). Teach yourself Italian. Trans., Ann Goldstein. The New Yorker,

            30-36.

Winnicott, C. (1989). D. W. Winnicott: A reflection. In C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M.

Davis (Eds.), D. W. Winnicott: Psycho-Analytic explorations (pp. 1-18).

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1963). Communicating and not communicating leading to a study          of certain opposites. In Maturational Processes and the Facilitating

            Environment (1965, pp. 179-192). London, UK: Karnac.

Barbara A. Schapiro may be contacted at: BSchapiro@ric.edu

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