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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 turn provides 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.

            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.

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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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