First-time author Jhumpa Lahiri nabs a Pulitzer

By Gillian Flynn
Updated April 28, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

When she heard, Jhumpa Lahiri wasn’t doing anything appropriately exotic. She was, in fact, heating soup, peeling an orange, and screening her phone calls. One made the cut: a Houghton Mifflin exec with news that Lahiri had just won the Pulitzer Prize for her short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. ”You remember these weird, minute details,” Lahiri says. ”I remember that half-peeled orange sitting there for the next four hours. I got this amazing headache, like someone had tried to stuff a house in my head. So I had some bourbon, and it helped a bit.”

Lahiri’s shock is understandable. She’s won a slew of smaller honors, from the O. Henry to the PEN/Hemingway award — but the Pulitzer is a loftier accolade. What makes it all the sweeter: Interpreter is the 32-year-old’s first published collection, a slim paperback she wrote during six years at Boston University, where she earned a master’s degree in creative writing, topped by a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies.

The stories in Interpreter revolve around India: stair sweepers in Calcutta and emigres in New England, the gilded silk of saris and pungent scents of paprika and prunes. They read like lucid daydreams. The title tale — about a doctor’s assistant who translates patients’ ailments from one Indian dialect to another — was included in last year’s Best American Short Stories. The expression ”interpreter of maladies” came to her years before, when she ran into a friend who acted as a Russian liaison in a Boston doctor’s office. ”On the way home I heard the phrase in my head. It was the closest I’ve ever come to poetry,” Lahiri says. She penciled the wording into her Filofax. ”Over the years it was fading, and every so often I’d come across it and think, Am I ever going to do something with it? Then one day I did.”

The resulting book is very much a reflection of the writer’s background. Lahiri, the first child of an arranged marriage, was born in London but lived in Rhode Island from the age of 3. Every few years, she’d travel to her parents’ birthplace, Calcutta, and remain for six weeks to nearly half a year. ”I remember being just lifted out of the third grade,” Lahiri says. ”I’d go and escape my life. It was very strange.”

In India, Lahiri and her parents jumped from house to house, packing into rooms of extended family. While others napped through hot afternoons, Lahiri wrote descriptions of her days. ”It was vital to my existence there,” she says. ”I was lost in a lot of ways. It was a place that was familiar to me, but I didn’t belong there.” Little wonder, then, that Interpreter‘s tales revolve around communication: misinterpreted gestures, unexpressed longings, and the occasional shocking connection. While many characters carry shades of Lahiri’s mother and younger sister, one — in the final story — is based on Lahiri’s father, a university librarian. ”I was filled with anxiety about it,” Lahiri says. ”He’s not a very effusive person, but he said, ‘My whole life is in that story.’ That’s all I could ask for.” A modest request from a Pulitzer Prize winner.