Fiction Fix: “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Have you consulted the Flavorpill food pyramid lately? You’ll notice that we recommend a weekly dose of Fiction Fix as an essential part of your healthy cultural diet. You may not have time for novels, but short stories are like Flintstones vitamins: quick, fun, and good for you! Read this one, and don’t forget to grab a lollipop on your way out.

This week, Fiction Fix ventures not exactly into oldie-but-goodie territory, but somewhere close by, because we’re featuring Jhumpa Lahiri, America’s unofficial short short laureate. Lahiri’s story, “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” is currently Narrative‘s story of the week. The story comes from Lahiri’s already-classic debut book of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (which she followed up with last year’s Unaccustomed Earth, now out in paperback).

The story concerns Bibi Haldar, a single woman and semi-invalid living with her cousins in India. Bibi’s ailments stump doctors, until Lahiri throws a very Austenian curve ball into the plot: “It was there, after performing a series of blood tests, that the doctor in charge of Bibi’s case, exasperated, concluded that a marriage would cure her.”

From there, the wives who narrate the story, Greek chorus-style, recount Bibi’s quest for a husband along with her family’s doubts, all of which read as amusingly ironic to a 21st-century American. Her cousins, for example, wonder, “Besides, who would marry her? The girl knows nothing about anything, speaks backwards, is practically thirty, can’t light a stove, can’t boil rice, can’t tell the difference between fennel and a cumin seed. Imagine her attempting a feed a man!” When’s the last time you needed to distinguish between fennel and cumin!? They go on to place what strikes us as a very charming classified ad: “GIRL, UNSTABLE, HEIGHT 152 CENTIMETERS, SEEKS HUSBAND.”

Does Bibi find a husband? The story takes a mysterious turn, but we recommend reading it, and as much as Lahiri’s work as you can get your hands on. You have to register at Narrative to read the whole story, but it’s free, very quick, and we endorse it, so register away.