Interpreter of Maladies and the Buddha of Suburbia: Through the Subaltern Lens

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Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, explore how the figure of the subaltern negotiates the postcolonial climate resultant of the convergence between the Western and Indian societies. The subaltern is defined as the lowest and least powerful population, that exists outside the postcolonial hegemonic power structure. The subaltern figures in both narratives occupy a position of liminality in an interstitial space between both cultures. This in turnprovides for an impartial stance between both cultures through which the narratives are focalised. The focalisation of both narratives through the liminal figure of the subaltern highlight the constant flux and conflict between the cultural polarities of East and West, resulting in the subversion of gender roles and the disintegration of the nuclear family unit. However both narratives posit a hopeful re-visioning of a family structure not presupposed by inheritance of the past, through the symbolic acceptance of the illegitimate child, while recognising the subaltern’s disadvantaged position, which in turn allegorises the wider postcolonial situation; thus framing both narratives as idealistic but not naïve of a progressive and impartial postcolonial future.

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The figure of the subaltern in both texts is defined by their position as a liminal character situated in an interstitial space between the cultural binary of the East and West. In Bringing it All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies, Lawrence Grossberg establishes the subaltern as “neither one nor the other…defined by its location in a unique spatial condition that constitutes it as different from either alternative” (Grossberg 359). This suggests that the inability to ascribe liminal characters to either polarities of colonised and coloniser situates them outside the hegemonic power structure, rendering them subalterns. This is evident in Interpreter of Maladies, where Mr. Kapasi’s command of a multitude of native and foreign languages, inspires him to be an interpreter who “[resolves] conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides” (Lahiri 52). Albeit unfulfilled, the ability to communicate in diverse languages positions Mr. Kapasi’s character as a liminal linchpin between nations and cultures. This is further expounded through the nature of his occupation as a tour guide. Mr. Kapasi functions as a cultural broker, bridging the gap between the Das family’s American culture and their genealogical Indian culture; in turn reinforcing his liminal position between cultures. Similarly in The Buddha of Suburbia, Karim describes himself as an “odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not” (Kureishi 3). His interracial biological make-up, resultant from his Indian father and English mother, frames him as a character that straddles nations, cultures and races, unable to exclusively associate with one. Moreover, being raised in the suburbs locates him in a symbolic ‘in-between’ space, as a suburb is the middle ground between the urban city and the rural countryside, further delineating his role as a liminal character in the novel. Thus, the inability to essentially categorise both protagonists within the East-West binary results in their marginalisation as a subaltern. Both texts in turn utilise the unique position of the subaltern as a medium through which the narrative is focalised.

The focalisation of narratives through the liminal subaltern figure allows for an impartial negotiation and examination of conflicts between differing cultural belief systems; illustrated through the subversions of gender expectations and resultant disintegration of the nuclear family in both texts. Gender expectations between Western and Indian cultures differ in their attitudes towards stereotypical gender roles of femininity and masculinity in society. In Interpreter of Maladies, Mrs. Das’s indifference towards her children is evident from the onset of the narrative, and eventually culminates when she confides in Mr. Kapasi “I have terrible urges…to throw everything I own out the window, the television, the children, everything” (Lahiri 65). Her desires of abandonment illustrate her apathetic attitude towards her children, emphasising her disassociation from the feminine notion of domesticity and motherhood. On the contrary, Mr. Das is portrayed as the maternal figure within the family as he “looked forward to coming home from teaching…and bouncing Ronny on his knee” (Lahiri 64). This suggests that Mr. Das is inclined towards the domestic sphere and the nurturing of his child, characteristic of motherhood, which in turn indicates a subversion of stereotypical gender roles between him and Mrs. Das. Similarly, in The Buddha of Suburbia, Changez is relegated to the domestic sphere of the house, evident when he laments to Karim, “I’m on bloody dole…how can I work and look after Leila Kollontai” (Kureishi 272). Changez’s fundamental role is to take care of the baby, along with preparing breakfast and doing the laundry for Jamila as opposed to being employed. Also, he relies on ‘dole’ provided by Jamila, which further delineates a subversion of gender roles where Changez adopts the maternal role and is confined to the domestic while Jamila adopts a masculine role, earning a living for her family. With access to both cultures resultant of a position of liminality, the focalisation through the subaltern’s liminal lens, highlight these subversions within westernised familial units as detrimental because it is incongruent with their indigenous patriarchal Indian culture. Thus delineating the disintegration of the nuclear family unit. However, both narratives provide a hopeful resolution in the form of the figure of the illegitimate child.

The acceptance of the illegitimate child, a symbol of failed filiation, allows for the re-visioning of a new familial structure beyond the system of inheritance and in turn function as a reflection of the macro postcolonial situation. In Family Stories: Narrating the Nation in Recent Postcolonial Novels, Erin Haddad-Null suggests that the family and home can be viewed as “sites where hegemonic power relations are challenged and new types of family arrangements might be conceived” (Haddad-Null 120). This illustrates how extrinsic hegemonic powers can influence the family structure, where the outcome reflects and allegorises the wider postcolonial society. In Interpreter of Maladies, Mr. Kapasi is “tempted to whisper a secret into the boys ear” (Lahiri 68) but eventually refrains from doing so. His exercise of restraint, as opposed to jeopardising family relations, denotes his acceptance of the illegitimate child’s position within the familial structure as viable. This idea is further depicted when the entire Das family eventually gathers round Bobby to offer him comfort and care, symbolic of their acceptance of the illegitimate child. Similarly, in The Buddha of Suburbia, Changez accepts Jamila’s illegitimate child, Leila, as “belonging to the entire family of friends” (Kureishi 231). Despite being born out of wedlock and being a taboo in his native Indian culture, Changez accepts an illegitimate child as part of a workable familial structure. Furthermore, the baby’s name of Kollontai is adopted from and an allusion to Russian revolutionist Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai was an advocate of Communist ideology that supports the breaking down of traditional familial structure to make way for better forms of the family unit. The acceptance of an illegitimate child suggests a symbolic break in lineage and the re-imagining of a family unit that deviates and evolves from traditional stereotypes of family and home. In turn, when mapped out onto a larger postcolonial setting, both narratives posit a hopeful shift away from the lineage of hegemonic postcolonial power relations, towards the birth and acceptance of a new postcolonial situation of impartiality. However, despite the hopeful outlook, both narratives are aware of the deprived position of the subaltern to speak.

The conscious recognition of the position of the subaltern frames both narratives as idealistic but not ignorant, allowing an attempt for the creation of a space for the subaltern to speak. In her cornerstone essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, Gayatri Spivak ends off the essay claiming that “the subaltern cannot speak”. For Spivak, the term ‘speak’ is not entirely literal. She questions whether the subaltern can articulate their concerns and enter into dialogue with those in power and whether there is the infrastructure for them to be heard and ultimately complete the act of speaking. Both narratives establish an acknowledgment of this shortcoming in their respective endings. In Interpreter of Maladies, the narrative closes with “the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it [fluttering] away in the wind” (Lahiri 69). This scene is significant as it symbolically represents the disintegration of the possibility of correspondence between Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das. Mr. Kapasi’s figuration as a subaltern and Mrs. Das as representative of the West, expounds the paralytic position of the subaltern with respect to his ability to speak or be heard by hegemonic powers in postcolonial society. Similarly in The Buddha of Suburbia, Karim is left both “happy and miserable at the same time” (Kureishi 284). This conflicted position that Karim occupies highlight an inconclusive end to his search for a concrete identity and voice, to “locate [himself]” (Kureishi 284) within society. This is symptomatic of his position as a subaltern, unable to define himself as an individual within the larger system of society. Therefore, the recognition of the subaltern’s stifling position frames both narratives as well informed, as opposed to naïve and idealistic postcolonial discourses.

In conclusion, Lahiri and Kureishi’s situation of the subaltern figure in a liminal position is pertinent as it allows for an unbiased focalisation of both narratives. In turn, conflicts due to a convergence between the East and West results in the implosion of the nuclear family unit, evident through the subversion of gender roles. Despite this, both narratives suggest a possible resolution in the symbolic figure of the illegitimate child. The acceptance of the illegitimate child functions to allegorise the acceptance of a postcolonial future not marred by legacies of the past. This coupled with the awareness of the subaltern’s limits and constraints, frame both Interpreter of Maladies and The Buddha of Suburbia as optimistic but not ignorant of the current socio-political postcolonial climate, attempting to provide the subaltern a platform, to speak.

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