From The Interpreter of Maladies
“It was a wife’s worst nightmare.”
The opening sentence of Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “Sexy” is an example of how to hook a reader with a bold, declarative statement. What, the reader wonders, does this nightmare comprise? The death of a spouse or a child? The sudden revelation that the husband is a covert neo-Nazi or serial killer? The truth, it turns out, is at once more quotidian and deeply fraught. Laxmi’s cousin’s husband has fallen in love with another woman, whom he met on a transcontinental flight from Delhi to Montreal. The revelation of the new relationship – “An English girl, half his age” – drives Laxmi’s cousin to her bed, where she remains, neglecting her young son, Rohin.
“If I were her I’d fly straight to London and shoot them both,” is Laxmi’s considered solution, uttered in complete obliviousness of Miranda’s attempts to change the subject. Laxmi’s co-worker has good reason to feel guilty – “the way she once felt in college, when she and her boyfriend at the time had walked away from a crowded house of pancakes without paying for their food, just to see if they could get away with it.” This is because Miranda is harbouring a secret of her own: she is conducting an affair with a married man named Dev.
Dev, like the cousin’s wayward husband, is Bengali, the only Indian person Boston resident Miranda has ever known, other than Laxmi and a family of childhood neighbours called the Dixits. Miranda is taken aback when Dev points out Bengal on a map; she had thought Bengali was a religion. There is more than a whiff of exoticism in the way Miranda, a white woman with “skin as pale as paper,” approaches Dev, who is “tanned, with black hair that was visible on his knuckles.” When she first encounters him at a department store cosmetics counter during her lunch break, Miranda suspects the man is Spanish or Lebanese. He is certainly wealthy: he wears a camel-skin overcoat and pigskin gloves, though he does not sport a wedding ring.
Miranda is particularly intrigued when Dev tells her that the first half of her given name – Mira – is Indian. “I have an aunt named Mira,” he says. Dev’s background is at once a source of excitement and danger for Miranda, whose previous exposure to Indian culture involved her being confronted, as a nine-year-old girl, with a painting of Kali at the Dixits‘ place during a birthday party. “For months afterward she’d been too frightened even to walk on the same side of the street as the Dixits’ house,” Lahiri writes.
Her childish response to the portrait of the Indian goddess is a source of shame to the adult Miranda; it is, perhaps, also a subconscious source for what drives her toward Dev and allows her to continue the affair even once she realizes he is married.
Dev’s wife is a constant source of anxiety for Miranda, who finds it easy to dismiss her lover’s marital status while his spouse is out of the country and she is free to embrace the status of mistress openly, purchasing slinky dresses and sheer stockings to entice her paramour. Once Dev’s wife returns and they must become more surreptitious in their assignations, Dev’s fancy clothes are supplanted by sweat pants and she greets him at her door in blue jeans.
Lahiri divides her story roughly into two parts. The first details the relationship between Miranda and Dev. This includes the former’s othering of Dev in a kind of Edward Said inspired Orientalism and the latter’s suave manipulation of his mistress to keep her on the hook even once his wife is back in the picture. The second half takes place over a much shorter period of time, mostly comprising an afternoon during which Miranda agrees to babysit Rohin while his mother and Laxmi recuperate at a local spa.
Rohin, described as a “genius” by Laxmi, provides Miranda with a kind of clarification as to the nature of her relationship with Dev, in particular through one surprisingly perceptive remark. After goading her to put on the dress she purchased to wear for Dev, nine-year-old Rohin calls Miranda sexy. It is the same word Dev had used one night early in their liaison. When Miranda asks Rohin what he believes the word “sexy” to mean, the child responds, “It means loving someone you don’t know.”
Here we have a conventional literary device: the supposedly naive youngster who offers his elders a greater degree of wisdom than they are capable of accessing themselves. Rohin, significantly, is not subject to exoticism on the part of Miranda; she engages with his full humanity and is brought up short by his innocent understanding of his own father’s amorous history. “He sat next to someone he didn’t know, someone sexy,” Rohin tells Miranda, ”and now he loves her instead of my mother.”
The comment seems to cut to the heart of Miranda’s own experience with Dev, someone she shares a bed with yet knows only superficially. When he tells her his wife resembles the Indian film star Madhuri Dixit, Miranda copies the name down as “Mottery Dixit” and her deflating revelation when consulting the covers of Bollywood videos in a local store is that Dev’s wife must be very beautiful. For his part, Dev is entirely uninterested in learning anything substantial about Miranda, coming over to her house in sweat pants on the pretext of going out for a jog, having sex, sleeping for precisely twelve minutes, then departing.
When Rohin falls asleep in Miranda’s apartment he does not wake up “after twelve minutes like Dev, or even twenty.” By contrast, he sleeps soundly, even as Miranda contemplates his definition of the word sexy and breaks down in tears. “Miranda cried harder, unable to stop,” Lahiri writes. “But still Rohin slept. She guessed that he was used to it now, the sound of a woman crying.”